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  • Writer's pictureHeather Moll

Summer Holiday in Regency England

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

As those of us in the northern hemisphere prepare for summer break from school and start planning vacations, it made me think about the Georgians did when the season in town ended and field sports wouldn’t begin for a few months. When the weather warmed in England, they went on holiday just like we do.

Italy had been a popular destination in the 18th century, but from 1796-1814 Napoleon occupied Milan and most of Northern Italy. Until after Waterloo, most of continental Europe was out of reach for British tourists. The Grand Tour was on hiatus, so Britons looked to home for entertainment.

Road developments in the late 18th century and early 19th century led to improved mail delivery and greater ease of travel. Turnpike trusts, reliable coaching schedules, and guidebooks for travelers all made it easier for those both with or without their own horses to travel—and not just for business.

The wealthy often traveled and summers were spent in the country visiting friends while winter was spent in the most attractive city you could afford, especially London or Bath. But while some people never went farther than they could on their own two feet, this was a time when the middle class joined the aristocracy in traveling for pleasure.

To make these journeys easier, travelers needed to know how far it really was between cities, what route is the most direct, where could they stay and what coaches left from what inns in what city. These coaching routes and improved roads were not just meeting the needs of merchants, manufacturers, and business, but for tourism.

These domestic tourists—a word in use since only 1772—relied on travel guides to help them explore. John Carey was commissioned by the Postmaster General to survey the United Kingdom’s principal roads, and from 1778-1831 Carey published many books with multiple editions of maps and surveys, like Cary’s New Itinerary from 1815, where this map is taken from. Paterson’s Roads is another example of a source for British to easily navigate their own country, and leisure travel in this era exploded.

So what were the British doing in their own backyards? Scenic beauties, stately homes, and even less savory trips that included coal mines or factories might be included on a tour. Domestic tourism got a boost from the picturesque craze in the late 18th century. Gilpin and his focus on natural beauties fueled an already growing desire to travel within the UK. Mountains in Wales, the Lake District, and the Scottish Highlands became both accessible and alluring to more Britons.

The guidebooks mentioned above often had more than just how to get from point A to B. They also had mention of the well-known country seats, and even notes on what antiquities, tapestries, paintings, or gardens one might find.

As we see in Austen’s novels, touring homes and gardens was a popular pastime. In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Gardiner wants to visit her friends as well as see “…all the celebrated beauties of Matlock, Chatsworth, Dovedale, or the Peak.”

Matlock is a spa town, Chatsworth the grand estate of a duke, and Dovedale and the Peak are natural beauties. The Gardiners, an affluent family from trade, pack in a lot on their three week summer vacation.

But one didn’t have to travel far or for weeks at a time to be a domestic tourist in the UK during the Regency. They also took day trips, such as the one planned in Sense and Sensibility. The group plans to travel twelve miles to Whitwell, the home of a brother-in-law of Colonel Brandon.

“The grounds were declared to be highly beautiful, and Sir John, who was particularly warm in their praise, might be allowed to be a tolerable judge, for he had formed parties to visit them, at least, twice every summer for the last ten years. They contained a noble piece of water; a sail on which was to form a great part of the morning's amusement; cold provisions were to be taken, open carriages only to be employed, and everything conducted in the usual style of a complete party of pleasure.”

This day trip, of course, doesn’t get off the ground, but staying close to home still offered the chance for entertainment, especially as spa towns and seaside resorts were also on the rise. Sea bathing and spa visits shifted from being for purely medicinal purposes to being leisure outings.

A typical tourist day in Bath might consist of bathing in the natural baths, drinking the water and socializing in the Pump Room, shopping, the theater, gambling, and dancing. The upper-middle class enjoyed Bath as a place where they could mingle with nobility. However, the aristocracy soon felt the city was overrun by the lower classes and looked elsewhere to vacation towards the latter part of the eighteenth century, but other spa towns and resorts took Bath’s place.

For example, Weymouth grew in popularity after George III first visited following his illness in 1789. After 1791, he frequently returned to for long holidays on the Dorset coast and the court followed. As seaside bathing in general became more popular as well an increase in royal visits, Weymouth grew to accommodate the tourists and offered fashionable entertainments including assembly rooms, libraries, and a theatre.

With a guidebook and good roads, Britons during the regency could easily and affordably visit stately mansion, beautiful gardens, the Highlands or the seaside.

Are you traveling anywhere this summer? Are you traveling far or staying in your own backyard?

Metcalf, Whitney; Jeffs, Amanda; Jackson, Karina; and Rugh, Susan, "English Tourists in the Georgian Period: A Cultural and Leisure Pursuit" (2010). FHSS Mentored Research Conference. 47.

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