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What do historians do?
What do historians do?

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1.3 Travel writing

After the restoration (1660), travel around Britain and Ireland became easier and fashionable for the wealthy, and travel writers such as Daniel Defoe and Celia Fiennes recorded their impressions of provincial change. Defoe was very focused on new buildings, fine houses and the state of towns while Fiennes (riding her pony) recorded everything she could count, fretted about the state of the roads and gave detailed descriptions of all she saw. This type of early travel writing, again designed for armchair readers, created material which historians can use today.

Activity 3

Timing: Allow about 25 minutes

Read this account of Celia Fiennes’ visit to Chesterfield in 1698 and make some notes about the evidence of rural and urban landscapes which it provides.

Tip: Consider how you might read this from an environment history point of view.

Here we Entred Darbyshire and went to Chesterffield 6 mile, and Came by ye Coale mines where they were digging. They make their mines at ye Entrance Like a Well and so till they Come to ye Coale, then they digg all the Ground about where there is Coale and set pillars to support it, and so bring it to ye well where by a basket Like a hand barrow by Cords they pull it up – so they Let down and up the miners with a Cord. Chesterffield Looks Low when you approach it from the Adjacent hill wch you descend, but then you ascend another to it. The Coale pitts and quaraes of stone are all about, Even just at ye town End, and in the town its all built of stone. Ye Church stands in a place of Eminency, the town Looks well, the Streets good, ye Market very Large. It was Satturday wch is their market day and there was a great Market Like some little ffaire, a great deale of Corne and all sorts of ware and ffowles there.

(Fiennes, 1888, pp. 76–7)
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You might have had to read this a few times as written English has changed over the last three centuries. Do try reading the text aloud as this can help with highlighting the meaning. You may find that you can gain a picture of a fine, stone-built, busy market town with a developing quarrying and mining industry. You can ‘see’ the impact of this industrial activity on the town margins and surrounding countryside. You are reading a description of industrial and environmental change in action. You can also learn quite a lot about Chesterfield’s economy from Fiennes’ description. As you can see from this snapshot, travel writing gives historians a real window into the past.

Antiquarians and landscapes

As well as tourists, rural landscapes and townscapes were combed by the so-called ‘antiquarians’ of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These were scholars and hobbyists, mainly gentlemen, who were enthusiastic about ‘antiquities’, the material evidence of the past. Antiquarians studied, recorded, drew, wrote about, and organised to preserve, such diverse things as Roman remains, medieval manuscripts, Norman castles and ancient burial sites. They were also often the butt of satirical sketches in novels and magazines.

This is a black and white cartoon drawing of a man. He has long, curled hair and wears spectacles. He wears a long coat with turned up cuffs, a frilled shirt, and boots with spurs. The man smiles, staring at a coin in his hand. In his other hand is an ornate cane and he wears a sword. The ‘buttons’ on his coat are also coins and his hat has two peaks rising at the front. A small patch of earth is sketched below the man’s feet. There is no other background. At the bottom of the image are the words: ‘The Antiquarian’ printed in block text. Below this are the words: ‘Pub[lishe]d as the Act directs Sep 9 1773 by M Darly 39 Strand.’
Figure 6 A caricature of an antiquarian, published by Matthias Darly, 39 Strand, 1773.