A Travel Guide of the Regency Era

At the end of the eighteenth century, John Cary was commissioned by the Postmaster-General to survey all the principal roads in England. He did this by walking these roads, pushing a wheel connected to a counter, which kept a tally of the number of rotations and then produced an accurate mileage.

Between 1787 and 1831, Cary put his knowledge to use and published, among other books, The New English Atlas, The Travellers’ Companion, The Universal Atlas of 1808, and Cary’s New Itinerary which had multiple editions. The maps and surveys have some of the most accurate and valuable data about the structure of the Regency world. They also provide an insight into how people traveled in the Regency.

A detailed pen and ink map of the Environs of Cheltenham from Cary's New Itinerary.

Published in 1815, the fifth edition of Cary’s goes on to explain that it is, “an Accurate Delineation of the Great Roads, both direct and cross throughout, England and Whales, with many of the Principal Roads in Scotland, from an actual admeasurement by John Cary, made by command of his Majesty’s Postmaster General.”

There’s more detail provided at the front of the book in an “advertisement” that’s more of a preface.

The information alone on roads and distances, with fold-out maps provided, shows the practical problems that face any Regency traveler. How far is it really between London and Bath, and what roads might one take? What coaches depart from which inns, and when do they depart? How long might a trip take? Cary’s offers much more than practical information.
Cary’s divides into neat, organized sections. The man was obviously methodical. The first section lists the direct roads to London—as in all roads lead to this metropolis. The next section gives a list of principal places, or larger towns, that occur along the cross-roads. A cross-road is a road that crosses one of the direct roads into London (and many of these were built over the ancient Roman roads).

At this point, you begin to see how London-centric the Regency world really was. As someone living outside of London, it would be your goal to get to a major town, and then you could get to London. Cary, living in London, wrote his book for outward-bound Londoners, and that is how the book is organized.

The next section is a list of coach and mail departures. This includes the name of the London inn from which the coaches departed, the towns each coach passed through, the mileage, the departure time, and the arrival time. It’s an utter godsend if you have to get to Bath at a certain hour on the coach. Travelers must have poured over this information when planning trips to the seaside for bathing, or to spa towns to take the waters after an illness.

The next section lists all direct roads, as measured from key departure points in London, but this is not just a dry list of mileage. Descriptive notes are tucked into various columns to describe houses of note and distinctive sights. For example, if you’re going to Wells from London, then, “Between Bugley and Whitbourn, at about 2 m(iles) on l(eft) Longleat, Marquis of Bath; the house is a Picture of Grandure, and the Park and Pleasure Grounds are very beautiful.” This was an era in which slower travel meant taking the time to look at surroundings, and Cary’s was published in a size small enough to fit into a pocket or take with you, so you could pass the time looking up the names of sights you passed.

The next section provides a similar treatment for cross-roads, and not to be overlooked, the Packet Boat sailing days are listed for England’s various sea ports, just in case an intrepid traveler wishes to travel abroad.

Finally, Cary’s provides an index to Country Seats, or as Cary’s notes, “In this Index the Name of every resident Possessor of a Seat is given, as well as the Name of the Seat itself, wherever it has a distinctive Appellation.” This is actually a list from the 1811 returns to Parliament, as noted in the book. In the Regency, this actually would have been a much used feature, for it would allow a traveler to look up and visit various great houses and country seats. It was a time, after all, when visitors expected the great houses to always be open for show, and to be gracious in their hospitality, and so this might be part of a planned trip to stop and see the art collections or the historically important houses.

Overall, Cary’s is not a book that will give you insight into the politics of the Regency, nor into the social structure of that world. However, between its worn covers lays the description of the Regency world that can put you back into that era, just as if you were traveling the roads of England. (An 1802 edition of Cary’s New Itinerary can be found online at: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Cary_s_New_Itinerary/cg4QAAAAYAAJ?hl=en).

Article by Shannon Donnelly for The Quizzing Glass blog and The Regency Reader.

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