Colonel the Honourable John Byng was just another younger son of another not-very-well-known 18thc aristocratic family. He followed the normal route for younger sons, choosing the army over the navy or church and ended up as a minor government tax official. All uneventful and hardly the stuff of great novels or a way to get an obituary in the Times.
Although in the last days of his life he succeeded to a peerage he was not particularly well known in his lifetime and apart from one thing would have been long forgotten and just another name in small print in Burke’s peerage.
But that one thing was fascinating.
It was his his pre-occupation with travel, or more particularly his decision to keep a detailed account of his tours around Britain between 1781 and 1794. This fills twenty seven manuscript volumes totalling over 2,500 hand-written pages illustrated by his own sketches. The manuscripts were kept, virtually unknown, within the family and were not finally transcribed and published until 1934. From them we get an 18thc gentleman’s insights into the British landscape, its great houses and gardens and so much more…
John was born in 1743, the younger son of George Byng, third Viscount Torrington, of Southill, Bedfordshire, and the nephew of the famous [or infamous] Admiral Byng, who in 1757 was controversially executed for cowardice.
In 1767 he married Bridget Forrest and together they had 14 children. He did not get on with his elder brother, the fourth Viscount Torrington, and appears to have avoided contact with him, to the point that when he was near Southill he stayed in the local inn rather than the mansion. Nevertheless he eventually succeeded him to the title as the fifth viscount in December 1812.
It would be nice to think that John with his love of landscape might have inherited Southill where the grounds had been remodelled by Capability Brown in 1777 and the house remodelled by his son-in-law Henry Holland in the late 1790s. Unfortunately there was no estate to inherit as Southill had been sold in 1795 to Samuel Whitbread the brewer, to pay his brothers debts. In any case John only enjoyed his new rank for a fortnight, because he died on New Year Day 1813.
His journals describe 15 long tours on horseback through England and Wales between 1781 and 1794, when he visited two thirds of all English and Welsh counties. There were other earlier trips but there is no known record of them. They must have been Byng’s equivalent of the continental Grand Tour which he was unable to undertake because of the constant wars with France. However it’s also clear he believed that there was at least as much of interest in England and Wales as there was on the continent: ‘Talk not, therefore, gentlemen, of foreign parts, till you have seen and learnt something of your own country: – ye, who drive by Canterbury Cathedral, without deigning a look, and return boasting of rialtos eclipsed by the work of the most ordinary Welsh masons.’ [From A Tour in Hertfordshire, June 1788]
The first recorded tour is “An excursion taken in the year of 1781” to “the West” and it shows his interest in the newly emerging picturesque movement. [ What I also rather selfishly like is that he visits sites and meets people that I have already written about on here!]
On May 31st 1781 he and Bridget together with a posse of servants set off from London via Reading and Oxford to Cheltenham which was to serve as his base. He clearly disliked the town almost at first sight “for the dearness of every article” and because the weather was bad “it drives everyone to his own bad lodging to breed spleen and ennui ” and to pass “dull hours in the much no-discourse of the tea table”. But he attempted to join in with society life and got involved in amateur dramatics with his wife and “Lady A. Foley“, at the same time indulging in regular rides out of town to take in the views, one of which stretched over Lady Foley’s home at Stoke Edith, and then further on some 60 miles to the Wrekin.
Another ride was to Charlton Kings where he saw Charlton Park: ” a neat house, belonging to Mr Prin, with a small deer park, and in a dry clean soil, which is a rarity about Cheltenham.”
A second ride was to see the “truly magnificent ruins” of Sudely Castle which “prove it to have been a very noble place” -although it had been largely ruined by Cromwell, and the one habitable part turned into a farmhouse. The chapel where Queen Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife, is buried, was in the farmers garden.
It inspired Byng to verse [there are several more stanzas, and a lot more poetry generally, if you can track down a copy of the diaries]
Here on deserted and sequestered ground,
Whilome of chivalry, the vaulted hall,
On each remaining arch, and mouldering wall,
The Ivy and the bramble creep around.”
A few days later he is tired of Cheltenham and even his day-trips out, so sets off for Gloucester where he leaves his wife and makes a quick foray into Wales along ‘an intolerably bad road’.
Why Wales? I wonder if Byng had seen Thomas Pennant’s Tour published in 1778 even though Pennant only covers North Wales, because, as I showed in an earlier post, its not really until after the publication of William Gilpin’s Wye valley that the trickle of visitors to the southern Welsh counties begins to turn into a flood.
Byng reached Monmouth on the 15th June and rising at 7am the next morning is soon on the road for a busy day’s sightseeing. He begins in the public gardens “where when the weather permits the company of all the neighbourhood meet, every Thursday at 5 o’clock in the evening and dance until 9 o’clock upon two bowling greens from which the views are delightful… the remains of an old castle…have been lately pulled down by the owner of happy taste!”
From there he rode on until he reached “the village of Abbey – Tintern”.
Tintern had long been of interest to antiquarians and was one of those engraved in 1732 by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck and, like the rest of the sites in the Wye valley was also becoming known for its romantic and picturesque qualities. The earliest literary account I can find is Rev. Dr. Syned Davies’ poem “Describing a Voyage to Tintern Abbey” which was made by boat with a party of others as early as 1745. But there are few tourist accounts apart from Byng’s until after Gilpin’s Observations hit the bookshops.
At the village Byng swapped his horse for a boat complete with oarsmen and steersman.
“Now for Tintern Abbey – all description must fall short of its awful grandeur; situate amongst woods on the banks of the river Wye, and in the highest preservation a ruin can be in. The D[uke] of Beaufort its owner often comes here and has removed all filth from within, and guarded it from without by doors and locks.
Over this stile and by this door I entered the abbey accompanied by a boy who knew nothing and an old man who had forgotten everything; but I kept him with me as his venerable grey beard and looks added dignity to my thoughts; and I fancied him the hermit of the place.”
Byng is obviously enchanted by Tintern and in the best spirit of picturesque antiquarianism goes on: “most of the pillars and stonework of the windows are complete, and it well overgrown with ivy, and properly inhabited by Choughs and Daws, but I wish his grace would adorn it (instead of the well-mowed floor) with evergreens, cypresses etc and make the doors in gothic character.”
And that 18thc gentleman’s interest in “improvement” comes to the fore too. “At some trifling expense the surrounding cottages and orchards might be removed; and then the abbey backed up by woods and open to the water; at present its is shamefully blocked up.”
At least his improvements did not include the famous suggestion by William Gilpin that “a mallet judiciously used” on the surviving intact walls which “hurt the eye with their regularity, and disgust it with the vulgarity of their shape” would improve the abbey’s beauty!
Nevertheless the site could still be enjoyed although the best way to do so was “at leisure” and by bringing “wines, cold meat, with corn for the horses; (bread beer cyder and commonly salmon may be had at the Beaufort Arms). Spread your table in the ruins and possibly a Welsh harper may be procured from Chepstow.”
There was no stopping him, and he embarked for Chepstow taking in the amazing scenery as he was carried along the Wye. “As an honest historian I should own that by the wind meeting the tide the water began to be too rough for me” [not good for a member of a great naval family].
They passed “Mr Morris’s walks at Piercefield with the seats and alcoves peeing from the woods and cliffs” and then soon Chepstow Castle loomed into view “most superbly” and its “ruins seemed very magnificent”.
“Every part” of the castle was not only “overgrown with ivy, but decked with valerian, foxglove and red and white ladytire, a most glittering flower” [ and no I dont know what ladytire is either] . Elsewhere the courts were “sadly overgrown, as all the bottom is with brambles and nettles”
The following day at the crack of light he was up and back at Piercefield to inspect Mr Morris’s estate. Piercefield was already subdivided and so Byng asked for the gardener who rented part of the the land and “with him took the circuit of the walks.”
“The view from the house, and a neighbouring seat, commands the bridge, castle and town of Chepstow, with a long extent of the river Severn; and the several prospects from the grotto, cave, battery etc are singularly grand and romantic; affording every charm of rock, wood and water.”
“In these shades one might pass a happy day and dine as I before proposed in Tintern Abbey for there is a well near the Elm Walk that would serve to cool wine in; and the grotto or cave will protect from bad or sultry weather…. the opposite rocks…highly enrich the delicious scenery. ” At this point Byng relapses in poetry..,
He also begins to assess its tourist potential although clearly the grounds are in a poor state: “the walks are ill-kept, some of them almost impassable, viz the zig-zag walk to the water and that to the cold-bath. As horses would not spoil the walks, men and old women who cannot traverse them, should be allowed to go in any carriage; and how highly it would repay the gardener to keep a garden chair with a small horse; as is so profitably and agreeably practiced at Mr Hamilton’s at Pains-Hill.”
By the way the gardener was already doing quite well from visitors as he “sells the fruits of the garden and hot-house which wd add much to the entertainment in the woods.” He also seems to have been more adventurous. Another writer in 1781 suggested that visitors should ‘carry some gunpowder and leave it with Mr Morris’s gardener in order to fire some small cannon on the Rock as you pass by. The reverberating echo of which you will find has a wonderful effect.’ [Similar things happened at Ullswater too] Byng was back at his inn for breakfast by 9,00 so presumably missed this entertainment.
After a few more outings on June 27th the Byngs left Cheltenham with John recording tartly: “Cheltenham I quit thee with pleasure, and hope never more to revisit thee! I believe I may aver, and be agreed with, that Cheltenham is the dullest of public places; the look of the place is sombre, the lodgings dear and pitiful…. without benefit to Mrs B’s healths and without comfort to myself have I been spending much money: the only thing that has answered my expectations, was the Monmouthshire excursion.”
Well done Wales! More from John Byng in the future…