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Torrington’s Tours

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The Great North Road, the A1, bypasses the villages that used to punctuate it and so misses out on the inns where John Byng, Lord Torrington, regularly used to stay on his touring holidays during the 1780s and ’90s. I have driven along it from London to Newark and back again far too often and am grateful to him for helping me relieve the boredom by recalling his experiences at the Sun in Biggleswade, the George at Buckden (good cream there, and a political barber), the Wheatsheaf on Alconbury Hill, or the Haycock on the Nene at Wandsford. They are recorded in the travel journals of this retired Colonel of the Foot Guards – he was only the 5th Viscount Torrington for the last few weeks of his life after his elder brother died in 1812 without an heir.

The Byngs came to prominence as a naval family, the 1st Viscount wisely backing William of Orange in 1688, and his career culminating in his crushing defeat of the Spanish fleet at Cape Passaro in 1718. His third son, another admiral, was less fortunate, ending up before a firing squad on his own quarterdeck after a court martial for his failure against the French at Minorca in 1757. His nephew the diarist (b. 1742) was already being ‘train’d up to glory’, as a page of honour to George II, before becoming a cornet in the Royal Horse Guards in 1760, transferring to the Foot Guards in 1762. He married in 1767 and although this resulted in thirteen children it seems he was cuckolded by his friend William Windham of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk. Another major misfortune was his involvement in his elder brother’s financial collapse in 1777, which led to them both having to flee to the Continent to escape their creditors. Byng left the army in 1780 for a post in the Stamp Office, part of the Inland Revenue located in the newly built Somerset House, where he worked until 1799.

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The Great North Road, the A1, bypasses the villages that used to punctuate it and so misses out on the inns where John Byng, Lord Torrington, regularly used to stay on his touring holidays during the 1780s and ’90s. I have driven along it from London to Newark and back again far too often and am grateful to him for helping me relieve the boredom by recalling his experiences at the Sun in Biggleswade, the George at Buckden (good cream there, and a political barber), the Wheatsheaf on Alconbury Hill, or the Haycock on the Nene at Wandsford. They are recorded in the travel journals of this retired Colonel of the Foot Guards – he was only the 5th Viscount Torrington for the last few weeks of his life after his elder brother died in 1812 without an heir.

The Byngs came to prominence as a naval family, the 1st Viscount wisely backing William of Orange in 1688, and his career culminating in his crushing defeat of the Spanish fleet at Cape Passaro in 1718. His third son, another admiral, was less fortunate, ending up before a firing squad on his own quarterdeck after a court martial for his failure against the French at Minorca in 1757. His nephew the diarist (b. 1742) was already being ‘train’d up to glory’, as a page of honour to George II, before becoming a cornet in the Royal Horse Guards in 1760, transferring to the Foot Guards in 1762. He married in 1767 and although this resulted in thirteen children it seems he was cuckolded by his friend William Windham of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk. Another major misfortune was his involvement in his elder brother’s financial collapse in 1777, which led to them both having to flee to the Continent to escape their creditors. Byng left the army in 1780 for a post in the Stamp Office, part of the Inland Revenue located in the newly built Somerset House, where he worked until 1799.
For a man whose greatest pleasure early in life was hunting, having to live in London with one’s marriage under strain, a house near Manchester Square full to bursting with children, and a tedious job was a trial, and the need to escape obvious: ‘not to be worried every morning by revenue prosecutions and every evening by sights and relations of follies and fashions . . . the eternal raps at my door, with the never-ending admission of milliners (who must be followed up by bills)’. This was why he yearned for ‘the passage through a new country, upon a safe horse, in a charming summer morning . . . to rummage myself forth, to observe and descant upon my own country’. That was the way to restore his strength so he could again face his wife, ‘a complainant who refines upon pleasure until it becomes a pain’. Although they must have allowed him to cover much more ground, Byng disliked the new network of turnpike roads, because ‘they have imported London manners and depopulated the country. I meet milkmaids on the road with the dress and looks of Strand misses.’ What’s more, while their curved surface made them drain well and enabled a post-chaise to travel at speed, they were hard, stony and dusty, making riding much worse than on the old tracks. He also hated the enclosures with their hedges and fences which denied him ‘excellent scampering over downs, heaths and commons’. He nearly always seemed to travel with a manservant and some- times a dog but did not want the former’s company when riding: ‘I detached him forward to prepare for me and my horses, proper accommodations at night. That is the true use of servants on the road’ – and the way to avoid dirty glasses, ill-made beds and horses left in the care of drunken, roguish ostlers. ‘As for my sheets, I always take them with me’, for he knew that those on the inn beds would probably be dirty or damp, or both. The servant took the baggage, except for a cloak bag containing a night cap and great coat, which Byng had behind him on his horse. If the blankets smelt, he sprinkled brandy on them. If wet through, he washed himself in brandy. It probably would have been smuggled – he twice passed well- mounted gangs of smugglers on his travels near the south coast.
For shaving he used a barber if there was one, but he was also complimented on his ability to shave himself. If there was a bookshop nearby he always visited it, and he was always disappointed in what he found; he was an avid reader of newspapers, noting that the London evening papers arrived in Leicester by ten the next morning. Before he set out he must have left a list of places to which letters should be sent for him to collect. Writing answers to them, keeping up his diary and sticking in it the bills from the inns where he had stayed occupied him after supper. The normal time for dinner was four o’clock, and he far preferred to serve himself from a dumb waiter and not to be waited on ‘by a nasty, dirty wench, watching you all the time, picking her nails, blowing her nose upon her apron, and then wiping the knives and glasses with it, or spitting and blowing on the plates’. Before and often after dinner he went for a walk, and if there was an interesting build- ing, then he often did a sketch of it. But he mostly had to find them for himself, because ostlers, waiters and landlords were quite ignorant of such things, as they were of the way to anywhere. He was very keen on an early start: ‘I call for the bill in the night before my departure; rise early; eat a slice of bread and butter and drink some milk that I took upstairs with me; then ride ten miles to breakfast; there shirt and shave; by which means I get a forward day, and my horse baits while I dress.’ His guiding principle on the tour was that ‘we came to see, and not to shrink from idleness, or imagin- ary civility’. Thus he was quite prepared to go to a door, ring the bell and ask to see the house, relying on his obvious gentry status to gain him entry.
A repeated debate he had with himself was on the pros and cons of travelling alone. He disliked having to fall in with his companions’ ways, but the lone tourist ‘requires vigour of mind and of body, else he droops’. If the weather was bad it made the problem worse: ‘What can exceed the dullness of a country town on a Sunday evening in a heavy rain?’ The universal system at inns was to charge only for food and drink. For Byng, ‘The obligation at an inn forces me to eat meats and swallow spirituous liquors of every bad quality.’ But quite often the food was acceptable enough: fresh-caught salmon and good perry at Worcester, an excellent pigeon pie with a pint of port, ‘a fowl kill’d in honour of our arrival, with a large quantity of beef steaks, flank’d by a stack of asparagus, each one foot in height, satisfied me’. The latter part of the eighteenth century saw a new enthusiasm for old buildings, valued for the associations they summoned up, the stimulus they gave to the imagination. This, the Picturesque approach, was very much Byng’s as he sought out ruined abbeys, monastic remains, cathedrals, castles, half-timbered houses and old ‘gentle- man’s seats’, preferably of stone and still with casement, not sash windows, and elaborate chimneypieces. In churches he was always on the lookout for holy water stoups, fonts and stained glass; if he ever saw a glazier’s shop he went in, in hopes of finding some. He wanted ruins ‘clear’d from adjoining buildings and fenced around, with a lodge of entrance, the ivy to be spread around, trees to spring up’. Among his favourite abbeys were Tintern, Fountains and Egglestone by Barnard Castle, the furthest north he got. Southwell Minster delighted him and Lincoln Cathedral he far preferred to St Paul’s, though he was saddened by its sparse congregation. His trip to North Wales allowed him to run the gamut of Edward I’s great castles there, clamber up to a succession of dramatic waterfalls, and hire the local harpists to play. Hardwick Hall he called ‘the foremost old manor I ever saw’. At Warwick Castle he was ‘enwrapt in the chaemeras of chivalry’. These were his loves of which he went in search. But he was a good hater too: of new red brick, of bow windows, of the ‘Adamatic’ fash- ion – Robert Adams’s neoclassical style – of new French furniture; of too ‘sprucified’ parks and those who cut down their avenues of oak and replaced them with mean clumps of Scots pine, larches or Lombardy poplars; of mountain tops, since ‘All wide views are horrors to me – like an embarkment into Eternity.’ A paternalist through and through, he deplored the absentee gentry, removed from the country by what he called ‘this London suction’, because without them where was the ‘justice, example, charity, every help and every succour’ on which poor villagers relied? He blamed enclosures for depopulating the countryside and for depriving the cottagers of their large gardens, pasturage and firewood. ‘On my estate, there shall be no mud cottages, and my comfortable cottagers shall be obliged to have land, and to be happy.’
He pointed out that those in Manchester most vociferous against the slave trade were those who imported bands of orphan children from London to work in the mills. Yet of the new Sunday schools, he said he was ‘point blank against these institutions; the poor should not read, and of writing I never heard, for them, the use’. As for religion, ‘I find it to be lodged in the hands of the Methodists, men most commendable and useful to the nation, as the greater clergy do not attend their duty and the lesser neglect it.’ His wish, most of the time, was that ‘trade was unknown’, since ‘it leads to commerce, commerce leads to war and war brings taxes’. The true concern of ‘this island of interior happiness’ was the landed property, which he contrasted with what he saw, for instance, in Stockport: ‘drunken weavers led home by their soberer comrades, men and children killed by gin, a weaver’s body hanged in chains for murder of his wife’. But on his first visit to Cromford he was impressed by Sir Richard Arkwright’s ‘three magnificent cotton mills’, feeling he had ‘honourably made his great fortune’, and he could write when at Leicester of ‘the prosperous cotton trade which populates and enriches all the neighbouring counties’. In 1794, when he heard the news of the naval victory over the French known as the Glorious First of June, he paid for the Biggleswade bells to be rung in celebration, though a few days before he had been condemning the war as ‘hastily and unthinkingly plunged into’.
Byng may have said his habits and thoughts had become ‘fixed like rusty weathercocks or like matrimony, for better or worse’, but we are still indebted to his wish ‘to lounge about the country in search of Antiquity and the Beauties of Nature’, and his urge to record it all, even when ‘rains and glooms quite despond the tourist’ and he rather wishes himself in a London drawing-room or coffee house. How else to know that, going out to take ‘a peep at the moon’, he ‘was not displeased to hear the skuttling of lovers; most comfortable in the Summer for the poor, who come forth with the butterfly for a little buzz’, or that one cold June the women haymakers were ‘wrap’t up, no loose stays, no fine, easy, sweaty dishevelment’, or that when he went to a performance by some travelling players, there were only thirteen candles to light it, and one fiddle for music? He loved ‘to hear the squeak of a fiddle, and always look about for a cricket match or fives playing [against the walls and buttresses of the parish church], for little recreation have the poor, and but a short summer’. It is this fundamental humanity and his amused, observant eye, so often to be found in his turns of phrase, that make him such a good companion through the English counties and the Welsh mountains.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 69 © Roger Hudson 2021


About the contributor

Roger Hudson reckons he must have driven about 185,000 miles in the last fifty years or so, going from London to Newark and back again on the Great North Road. His An Englishman’s Commonplace Book was published by Slightly Foxed last year.

For those who would like to read more about the diaries, Roger has supplied an appendix which can be found here: www.foxedquarterly.com/roger-hudson-torrington-diaries.

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