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Celia Fiennes lived at roughly the same time as Daniel Defoe (c. 1660 – 24 April 1731). She was born 7th June 1662 at Newton Toney, Salisbury, the daughter of a Colonel in Cromwell’s army, the younger son of the 1st Viscount Saye-and-Sele. She is remarkable for the journeys she made throughout nearly every county of England during her travels between 1698 and about 1710, and the accounts she wrote about each one. She rode side-saddle, accompanied only by one or sometimes two servants. She travelled to improve her health, but also for personal adventure. As a 17th century English traveller, Celia Fiennes was vulnerable to robbery, getting lost and being swamped, or hedged in on poor English roads. As a woman, Fiennes faced added challenges and prejudices – as reflected in the popular English travel guides of the 16th and 17th centuries which asserted that “women who wandered too far afield were invariably suspicious, dishonest, and unchaste.” Nevertheless, early modern women did travel, and often quite extensively, with no “diminution of their moral fibre”. So we have the autonomous Fiennes, unmarried, travelling without a male companion of her social station, and accompanied only by a small retinue of servants; a woman who would certainly have stood out.

Her account of her travels seems to have been written after her travels had largely ended, in 1702. Being from a noble family - her grandfather was the 1st Viscount Saye-and-Sele, her older half- brother the 2nd Viscount, her nephew the third - she had relatives and social connections to many of the families who owned vast estates and grand country homes. Visiting these homes was becoming more commonplace and it was not unusual for a party of travellers to apply to the housekeeper of a stately home for a tour; however, Celia was often a guest at these houses and enjoyed the hospitality of her noble hosts.She described both the great houses she visited and the developing new industries. She died 10 April 1741.

Stuart Chester in 1698

An enlargement of part of the Buck Brothers' view of Chester from 1728, showing the Exchange building (with coupola) and the Cathedral

1697 saw the death of Roger Whitley and the beginning of a period in which the Grosvenors would dominate the politics of the City. The guilds still controlled trade, restricting business in the city to those who had joined the guilds and purchased "freedom". The Corporation was as corrupt as ever when it came to elections. Cooke writes:

  • "In the year 1698 the citizens were convened, and, by some artful means, persuaded to elect the whole body, and then to vote that they should continue in their offices, according to ancient custom. Thus was entirely destroyed the ancient privilege of annual elections in the corporation."

Nationally, the closing decade of the seventeenth century saw the generally favourable economic conditions that had dominated since the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, come to an end. The 1690s marked the lowest point of the Little Ice Age, of colder and wetter weather. This reduced the altitude at which crops could be grown and shortened the growing season by up to two months in extreme years. There were four years of failed harvests (1695, 1696 and 1698–99). Climatic conditions were so poor that the "seven ill years" was a period of national famine in Scotland which killed 5–15 per cent of the Scottish population. In 1698 the privy council openly admitted that Scotland was in the grip of:

  • "..not only a Scarcity, but a perfeit Famine, which is more sensible than ever was known in this Nation"

The massive eruptions of volcanoes at Hekla in Iceland (1693) and Serua (1693) and Aboina (1694) in Indonesia may have polluted the atmosphere and filtered out significant amounts of sunlight. In addition, the "Maunder Minimum" which occurred between 1645 and 1715, and when very few sunspots were observed, may have had climatic effects.

Said to be an image of Celia Fiennes (1662-1741), although it is more likely the Countess of Winchilsea, Anne Finch

The "seven ill years" were not the only source of trouble for Scotland at this time. The ill-fated Darien Scheme was an unsuccessful attempt at establishing a Scottish colony on the Isthmus of Panama on the Gulf of Darién in the late 1690s. The aim was for the colony to have an overland route that connected the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. From its contemporary time to the present day, claims have been made that the undertaking was beset by poor planning and provisioning, divided leadership, a lack of demand for trade goods particularly caused by an English trade blockade, devastating epidemics of disease, collusion between the English East India Company and the English government to frustrate it, and a failure to anticipate the Spanish Empire's military response. It was finally abandoned in March 1700 after a siege by Spanish forces, which also blockaded the harbour. As the "Company of Scotland" was backed by approximately 20-25% of all the money circulating in Scotland, its failure left the entire Lowlands in substantial financial ruin and was an important factor in weakening their resistance to the Act of Union (completed in 1707). The land where the Darien colony was built, in the modern province of Guna Yala, is virtually uninhabited today. At the same time as the Scot's were investing in the Darien Scheme, the English stock market was emerging with something of a boom, particularly in shares which may have been manipulated such as those in "Estcourt's Lead Mine". With the Nine Year's War (1689-87) in progress, merchants (and the gentry) looking to use their idle capital became supporters of trading in shares. Construction of "The Exchange" may well have been prompted by this time of financial speculation which saw not only the first major stock-market boom but also the creation of the Bank of England (and bank-notes). To complicate matters further, the Great Recoinage of 1696 played havoc with the monetary system.

Chester at this time is also illustrated by Francis Place. Place was a member of the York Virtuosi, a collection of largely independently-wealthy gentlemen, active in York and the north of England during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, with a shared enthusiasm for travel, antiquarianism, natural philosophy, and the visual arts. Place is known to have visited Wales twice. In 1678, he and William Lodge, a fellow artist and member of the Virtuosi, journeyed around South Wales, reportedly covering an impressive 700 miles on foot over a period of seven weeks. Pen-and-ink sketches of this tour, which was combined with leisurely episodes of fishing, are preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the National Museum of Wales. Yet it was not all art and angling: Place and Lodge were, quite literally, ‘strangers’ as they travelled from Yorkshire as far west as Pembroke Castle, and were reportedly arrested at Chester on suspicion of being Jesuit spies, with friends having to vouch for their innocence before they were released. Despite this experience, Place found himself back in Chester, reluctantly or otherwise, in 1699. He was returning to his home in York from a further sketching tour, this time having travelled in Ireland between Drogheda and Waterford. From Holyhead to Chester, he continued to draw vistas and landmarks, including a view of Chester from Boughton.

Plagues and Climate Change

The plague repeatedly returned to haunt Europe and the Mediterranean throughout the 14th to 17th centuries. Plague was present somewhere in Europe in every year between 1346 and 1671. Plague epidemics ravaged London in 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625, 1636, and 1665, reducing its population by 10 to 30% during those years. Some theorists have suggested that the plague was a symptom of the Little Ice Age. Many things have been linked to the Little Ice Age, including the growth of gloomly Puritanism, the persecution of witches (it must be someone's fault) and even the particular sound of the violins of maker Antonio Stradivari, who produced his instruments during the Little Ice Age: the colder climate is proposed to have caused the wood used in his violins to be denser than in warmer periods, contributing to the tone of his instruments. One local efect of this period of climate change may have been the re-routing of the road from London to Chester from the old Roman route vis Aldford, Whitchurch and Malpas to the "A41" route and eventually to take the later "A51" route through Nantwich and Tarvin. The A41 route avoids many potential flooded areas (the only serious one being at Golborne Bridge near Milton Green which played a part in the Civil War), although Fiennes still refers frequently to "causey's" (causways).

A view of Chester in 1699 by the artist Francis Place (1647 – 21 September 1728). The larger building to the center left os St Johns. The building to the center right is the Cathedral. Two churches with spires can be seen, these are likely to be St Peter and Holy Trinity. Chester Castle ia also visible. The Earls Eye is visible in the foreground.


An enlargement of part of view of Chester from 1699, looking from Flint Castle, sketched by Francis Place. has been annotated by the artist to indicate specific landmarks: "West Chester" "The West Side of Flint Castle in 1699" and "& Bestone Beeston Castle". The picture can be viewed in more detail here.

Fiennes worked up her notes into a travel memoir in 1702, which she never published, intending it for family reading. It provides a vivid portrait of a still largely unenclosed countryside with few and primitive roads, although signposts ("posts and hands pointing to each road with the names of the great towns or market towns that it leads to") were appearing. In the 1690's England and Wales had a population of about five million, and when the internal economy was still largely based on agricultural work and production, the British economy was already distinctive in the extent to which the proportion of the employed population primarily dependent on agriculture had declined. By 1700 agriculture was providing only around half of total employment. The Industrial Revolution in this important respect did not mark a rapid and radical shift in the structure of employment; rather it accentuated one which had already come to distinguish Britain from her European rivals.

Robert Southey published extracts from Fiennes in 1812, and the first complete edition appeared in 1888 under the title "Through England on a Side Saddle". A scholarly edition called "The Journeys of Celia Fiennes" was produced by Christopher Morris in 1947, and since then the book has been in print in a variety of editions.

Getting to Chester

In 1680 the Ogilby maps tell us that it was possible to travel from London to Chester in 100 hours (average 2mph). By the eve of the railway age in 1830 the turnpikes had reduced this to 24 hours (average 8.7 mph). Travel was not entirely safe, a highwayman is mentioned by Fiennes during her 1698 journey while passing "No Man's Heath" on the Whitchurch Road. This would have been when she was departing from the north as she approached Chester from Nantwich:

  • There I think I may say was ye only time I had reason to suspect I was Engaged wth some highway men. 2 fellows all on a sudden from ye wood fell into ye Road, they Looked trussed up with great Coates and as it were bundles about them which I believe was pistols, but they dogged me one before ye other behind and would often Look back to Each other, and frequently jostled my horse out of ye way to get between one of my servants horses and mine, and when they first came up to us did disown their knowledge of ye way and would often stay a little behind and talk together, then come up again, but the providence of God so ordered it as there was men at work in ye fields haymaking, and it being market day at Whitchurch as I drew near to it in 3 or 4 miles was continually met with some of ye market people, so they at last called each other off and so left us and turned back; but as they rode with us 3 or 4 miles at last they described the places we should come by, and a high pillar finely painted in ye Road about 3 mile off of Whitchurch (which accordingly we saw as we passed on) which showed them no strangers to ye Road as they at first pretended.

The Celia Fiennes Waymark, which has become known locally as 'The Monument', was unveiled in December 1998. It was commissioned from Jeff Aldridge to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the "Great Journey" undertaken by this remarkable lady. In shows the Fiennes on her horse, the highwaymen and the market-goers whose presence on the road appears to have deterred the thieves.

The Lavaux Map (1745) shows the position of both the Bishop's Palace and the Exchange as mentioned by Fiennes.

In Chester (1698)

  • Here is a great mer or standing water 2 miles Compass- great store of good fish; it belongs to one Mr Egerton: thence I went to Nantwitch 5 long miles. Nantwitch is a pretty large town and well built: here are ye salt springs of wch they make salt and many salterns wch were a boyling ye salt. This is a pretty Rich land; you must travell on a Causey; I went 3 miles on a Causey through much wood Its from Nantwitch to Chester town 14 long miles, ye wayes being deep: its much on Enclosures and I passed by severall large pooles of waters, but what I wonder'd at was yt tho' this shire is remarkable for a greate deale of greate Cheeses and Dairys I did not see more than 20 or 30 Cowes in a troope feeding, but on Enquiry find ye Custome of ye Country to joyn their milking together of a whole village and so make their great Cheeses. West Chester town lies in a bottom and runs a greate length and is pretty big- there are 10 Churches.

This "great mer(e)", from the journey being taken, could be the "Fishpool" at Betley or Betley Mere. Betley Old Hall (listed grade II*) dates to the mid-15thcentury, and was owned at this time by the Egertons of Wrinehill. In the late 15th century William Egerton and his wife Joan moved into the house and he and his son (another William) subsequently extended the estate, acquiring the rights to the Manor of Betley from the Earl of Bath in 1547 for £106. In 1576 his successor Ralph married Frances the daughter of Sir Ralph Egerton of Wrinehill, combining the two estates. It was not until 1716 that Betley Old Hall and its associated lands were sold to George Tollet. While Fiennes mentions "much wood" between Nantwich and Chester Delamere forest was already at that time in a serious decline. The deer were destroyed in the Civil War. Restocking was considered in 1661, and again in 1702 but by this period there was inadequate shelter in the forest, with little timber remaining. In 1651 it had been estimated that there were 2,200 Oaks: by 1788 the forest contained no significant timber. It is also quite difficult from her description to work out exactly which route she took from Nantwich to Chester.

An 1831 view of the Market Square by David Hodgson (the original is in the Grosvenor Museum. The large building is The Exchange, before its destruction by fire. The Rows can be seen extending this far up Northgate Street on both sides.
  • The Cathedrall is Large and Lofty, ye quire well Carv'd, fine tapistry hangings at ye alter, a good organ: The Bishops pallace is on the Right hand of it and the Doctors houses, all built of Stone. There is a new hall building wch is for ye assize and it stands on great Stone pillars wch is to be ye exchange wch will be very Convenient and handsome; the hall is round, its built of Bricke and Stone Coynes, there are Leads all round wth battlements and in the middle is a tower, there are ballconies on ye Side and windows quite round ye Cupillow that shews ye whole town round. There is another town hall-a long Lofty place, and another by the Side wch is Called the Councill Roome both for ye Major and Aldermen to meete for ye buissinesse of ye Corporation.

The cathedral's façade is today (2020) abutted on the north by a Victorian building housing an education centre and largely obscured from view by the building previously used as the King's School, which is now a branch of Barclays Bank. The Barclay's Bank building has at various times included the Cathedral Choir School, the Magistrates Court, and the library of Cathedral. It was built c1875. by Arthur Blomfield, and opened as the Kings School in 1876 by Gladstone - the "poor and friendless" pupils of the Kings School having been housed in the former monks refectory for most of the previous 400 years. Prior to this the site was occupied by the bishops palace constructed by Edmund Keene, Bishop of Chester from 1752–1771 and later Bishop of Ely. The bishop "rather unusually met the cost out of his own pocket" - but he could afford to, in May 1753 he had married Mary, only daughter and heiress of Lancelot Andrews of Edmonton, formerly a linen-draper in Cheapside, and with her received a large fortune.

The Exchange, known at first as the "new common hall", was erected between 1695 and 1698 at the corporation's expense but with contributions from William III, Peter Shakerley (former governor of the castle and a Tory M.P. for Chester from 1698), Francis Gell (projector of a plan to improve the River Dee navigation), and the estate of Thomas Cowper of Overleigh Hall. It stood south of the site of the "shambles" in the wide middle section of Northgate Street almost opposite the Cathedral. The building, of brick with stone quoins and elevated on pillars, was adorned in 1712 with a life-sized statue of Queen Anne (6 February 1665 – 1 August 1714) 'curiously gilt and painted' placed over the main entrance in the south front. The lower storey formed an open piazza with a coffee house, initially in the south-west corner, but later moved to the north-east corner. The main apartments were in the upper storey, which comprised 'a fine magnificent room styled the common hall of pleas', with to the south the portmote court, 'extremely ornamental, wainscotted with oak and adorned with figures of carved work', and to the north the sheriffs' court. Those apartments later functioned as an assembly or banqueting room, a court room, and a council chamber. Celia Fiennes is the only writer to describe how the coupola on the roof of the Exchange had windows which gave a spectacular view of Chester.

  • Ye town is walled all aboute wth battlemts and a walke all round pav'd wth stone, I allmost Encompass'd ye walls. Ye streetes are of a greate breadth, but there is one thing takes much from their appeareing so and from their beauty, for on each side in most places they have made penthouses so broad set on pillars wch persons walk under Covert, and is made up and down steps under which are ware houses. Tho' a penthouse or pallasadoe be convenient for security from ye sun or weather and were it no broader than for two to passe one by ye other it would be well and No dissight to ye grace of ye Streetes, but this does darken ye streetes and hinder ye Light of ye houses in many places to ye streete ward below, indeed in some places were it only before ye Chiefe persons houses it would be Convenient where its flatt and Even wth the streetes.

It is easy to recognise this as a description of the City Walls and The Rows, although Fiennes finds the Rows somewhat over-shadowing. Chester at this time cannot have been much different than it appears in the engraving entitled "The South West Prospect of the City of Chester 1728" by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck which shows a view of the city of Chester in that year.

The South West Prospect of the City of Chester 1728 - for some reason this shows the wall from the Water Tower to the Old Dee Bridge zig-zagging about.
  • The town is mostly timber buildings, the trade and Concourse of people to it is Chiefly from the jntercourse it has with Ireland- most take this passage; and also ye jntercourse wth Wales wch is parted from it and England by ye river Dee wch washes ye Castle Walls in wch they keep their Stores, but nothing fine in it. The walls and towers seemes in good repaire. At the End of ye town just by the Castle you Crosse over a very large and Long Bridge over the River Dee wch has the tyde Comes up much beyond the town; its 7 mile off yt it falls into ye sea, but its very broad below ye town, when at high tyde is like a very broad sea: there they have a little Dock and build shipps of 200 tunn, I saw some on the stocks.
The Roodee from Alexander de Lavaux's map of 1745 - the "Cop" or raised bank enclosed the Roodee in 1710. Shipyards can be seen to the north-west of the Roodee and the river end of the elongated wood-yard.

The River Dee at this time had not been diverted to its present course and the Roodee was not yet enclosed by a flood defence or "cop", which is shown in the Lavaux Map, so it was probably flooded at high tide as Fiennes describes. Both the Buck Brothers and Lavaux show shipping in the Portpool area and this may be the location of the "stocks" to which Fiennes refers.

Crossing the River Dee

Fiennes' description of her visit to Holywell is quite amusing, although it is sometimes difficult to tell whether she is being intentionally funny. First she passes through Flint which is:

  • "..a very Ragged place many villages in England are better, ye houses all thatched and stone walls, but so decay'd that in many places Ready are to tumble down. There was a town hall such a one as it was; it was at a Session tyme when I was there wch shew'd it at its Prime.".

It would actually be 1839 before a new Town Hall was erected, after the previous was demolished due to it being so decayed and deemed unsafe. She then proceeds to Holywell itself and describes the well. However she does not bathe in it, but writes:

  • "..there are stone stepps for ye persons to descend wch will bathe themselves in the well, and so they walke along ye Streame to the other End and then come out, but there is nothing to Shelter them but are Exposed to all the Company that are walking about ye well and to ye Little houses and part of ye Streete wch runs along by it but ye Religeuse are not to mind it, it seemes the saint they do honour to in this place must beare them out in all things. They tell of many lameness's and aches and distempers wch are Cured by it, its a Cold water and Cleare and runs off very quick so yt it would be a pleasant refreshmt in ye sumer to washe ones self in it, but its shallow not up to ye Waste so its not Easye to Dive and washe in, but I thinke I Could not have been persuaded to have gone in unless I might have had Curtains to have drawn about some part of it to have shelter'd from ye Streete, for ye wett garments are no Covering to ye body; but there I saw abundance of ye devout papists on their Knees all round a well. Poor people are deluded into an jgnorant blind zeale and to be pity'd by us yt have the advantage of knowing better and ought to be better."

Unfortunately, curtains were not provided, so Celia avoided stripping-off and getting into the well. Eventually she returns to the Wirral over the Sands of Dee to Burton. Evidently this was a perfectly normal way of getting to and from North Wales (avoiding both a long detour around the Saltney marshes and the toll on the Old Dee Bridge):

  • "I forded over ye Dee when ye tide was out all upon the sands at Least a mile, wch was as smooth as a Die being a few hours left of ye flood. Ye sands are here soe Loose yt the tydes does move them from one place to another at Every flood, yt the same place one used to ffoard a month or two before is not to be pass'd now, for as it brings the sands in heaps to one place so it leaves others in deep holes wch are Cover'd wth water and Loose sand that would swallow up a horse or Carriages; so I had two Guides to Conduct me over. The Carriages wch are used to it and pass Continually at ye Ebbs of water observes ye drift of sands and so Escape ye danger. It was at least a mile I went on ye sands before I Came to ye middle of ye Channell wch was pretty deep and with such a Current or tyde wch was falling out to sea together wth ye wind, the horses feete could scarce stand against it, but it was but narrow just the deep part of the Channell and so soone over. When the tyde is fully out they frequently fford in many places wch they marke as the sands fall and Can go near 9 or 10 mile over ye sands from Chester to Burton or to Flint town almost; but many persons that have known the ffoards well yt have Come a year or halfe a year after, if they venture on their former knowledge have been overwhelm'd in the Ditches made by ye sands wch is deep Enough to swallow up a Coach or waggon; but they Convey their Coales from Wales and any other things by waggon when the tyde is out to Chester and other parts."

Not only the odd cart but whole armies had previously crossed the Dee this way. Henry II and Edward I had both taken their armies over the Dee to Wales by this route.

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