A Georgian Staycation

Yesterday I went to the dentist, which was pretty exciting when you consider it’s the only planned outing I’ve had during the entire month of August.

With the exception of a couple of visits with my son and grand-dog, weekly trips to the grocery store, and daily walks for fresh air and exercise, I have made it my mission to stay at home, where I know it’s safe.

But that mission may soon change. My home state has been documenting a promising trend: a decline in the number of new COVID19 cases, as well as hospitalization rates. I see that as a good sign, and I wonder: Come September or October, will it be safe to venture out a bit further afield than the one square mile that surrounds my house?

I’m not thinking about taking a “real” vacation or heading off to some crowded resort, but if things continue to improve, a staycation might be in order. I could take my cue from Jane Austen, who knew all about staycations.

A view of Bywell Castle, Northumberland, by George Fennel Robson.

When Jane Austen began writing Pride and Prejudice in 1796, Europe was at war. British citizens were cut off from their usual tourist destinations on the Continent. If they wanted to travel, they had to be content with exploring the architecture and delights of nature to be found at home.

Whitton, by Humphry Repton.

That may be why Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner chose a pleasure tour of the Lake District for their summer travels in Pride and Prejudice, and they invited Elizabeth Bennet to come along.

Elterwater and Langdale Pikes, Westmoreland.

Other Britains had similar ideas. It soon became the popular thing to stay in England and visit spa towns and seaside resorts, the Lake and Peak Districts, Devon and Cornwall, Wales and Scotland.

Hillsborough Head near Ilfracombe, Devon, by John Frederick Tennant.

From all those domestic staycations sprouted a new industry: travel guides. One guidebook by Thomas West became a best seller.

Title Page for A Guide to the Lakes by Thomas West (1778)

West not only provided directions on how to reach some of the most popular destinations, he made a practice of describing “stations” where tourists could achieve the best and most picturesque views of landscapes and stately homes. Here’s one example:

Proceed through rocky fields and groves to Holker, one mile, the seat of the right honourable Lord George Cavendish; the carriage road is by Cark-Hall. At the top of the hill, there opens a fine view of Furness. Holker-Hall lies at your feet, embosomed in wood; on the left Ulverston bay opens into the great bay and is four miles over. The coast is deeply indented, and the peninsulas are beautifully fringed with wood.

Just as Elizabeth and the Gardiners set off “in pursuit of novelty and amusement” in Pride and Prejudice, Georgians flocked to to the countryside, where they visited monasteries and medieval ruins.

Tintern Abbey, by Frederick Calbert.

Derbyshire was particularly popular with tourists because it offered stately homes (like Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall) with the unmatched scenery of the Peaks.

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire.

Some grand estates received so many visitors they printed their own pamphlets so people could take self-guided tours. And historical sites, like Hadrian’s Wall and Stonehenge, suffered when overly enthusiastic visitors chipped off pieces of stone to take home as souvenirs.

A view of Stonehenge, 1744.

If things keep going well in my home state, I just might take a page out of Jane Austen’s proverbial tour book and plan a staycation of my own.

I think I’ll start small and visit a place that isn’t too far from home. How does an afternoon at the zoo sound to you?