Sunday, May 20, 2012
Byng's Sussex Pub Guide
At 7am on Friday 15th August 1788, the Honourable John Byng set out on his horse, Poney, from Westminster Bridge. He rode south through “long, lazy, Lewisham” before arriving a few hours later at the Bell Inn, Bromley, where he met a friend of twenty five years, Mr D. From here they were to embark - Byng on horseback, Mr D on foot - on a tour of Sussex.
Having been in royal service and then the Army, in middle age John Byng was a civil servant in the tax office, a position that enabled him to go off for six weeks each summer touring different parts of England. Part of a Georgian vogue for exploring and celebrating landscape, churches and country houses, three of Byng’s trips are recorded in Byng's Tours: The Journals of The Hon. John Byng 1781-1792. First discovered and published in the 1920s, I recently stumbled across an edition put out by the National Trust in 1991. What makes the journals so readable is their irascible and Pooterish quality. He spends most of his time bemoaning poor inns and the deficiencies of the people and places he encounters, and there are clearly problems in his relationships, both with Mr D and his own wife, that Byng is comically oblivious to.
Byng and Mr D - or I.D.as he is sometimes referred to - constantly leapfrog past each other on the journey. Byng invariably gives his companion a head start, overtakes him but then stops at an inn for a lunch which Mr D spurns and keeps walking. They are rarely together. After travelling through Kent, Byng arrives in Sussex at Rye and notes that it “smells of fish and punch”. He makes for the George – these days a plush hotel and wedding favourite but here described as “a dirty sea-port inn with a wretched stable” – where he finds Mr D “hardly glad to see me, so discontented was he with his treatment at this house”. Quitting Rye for Winchelsea, they find an inn where they have a “noble meal” of cold beef and roasted fowl; but the evening ends early: “we never sit late; for I.D. is very hasty for bed”. But it is not all humour at his own expense: Byng can turn a phrase to invoke something of the Sussex landscape. As he looks back at the first two towns he observes, “the one, Rye, upon a bare rock, the other Winchelsea, on a wooded point, both springing out of the flat and looking like two cities in Chinese paintings”.
Hastings and Battle fare no better than Rye. Hastings is “narrow streeted and ill-paved” and Byng is disappointed at the lack of fish for lunch. He complains that “there is always some excuse of wind, or idleness, to prevent the fishermen”. At Battle, they stay in a “miserable alehouse” where they have lamb chops for supper “and then having said little to each other, we mounted to our sleeping apartments”. Clearly, it is the company that is colouring the hospitality. When Byng has lunch alone in a public house at Boreham – presumably what is now the Bull’s Head at Boreham Street – his report of its excellence to his companion causes Mr D to double back a mile and eat the same lunch, also alone.
Byng does visit some interesting places, though. At the Ashburnham estate, he is shown the family church and a chest of relics, including some mementoes of Charles I given to John Ashburnham in the King’s last moments. As well as a watch with an enamelled dial plate he sees “the shirt worn by that unfortunate monarch at the block…one sleeve much stained with blood”. But even here, Byng finds cause for complaint as he unsuccessfully tries to cadge some Morello cherries from the kitchen gardener. At Herstmonceux – “a name pronounced with such variety of wrong by the natives” – he sees the castle and decries its parlous state. “Mr Hare Naylor, the owner…has stripped, destroyed and pulled down all the interior parts of this grand old mansion…which was one of the largest habitable seats of antiquity in this kingdom”. Naylor had built what is now Herstmonceux Place - a building Byng describes as “a paltry citizen-looking house at the edge of the park” - and plundered the interior of the castle, leaving it a picturesque ruin until it was restored at the start of the twentieth century.
After staying overnight at the King’s Head in Horsebridge, a hostelry that gets rare approval from Byng, they travel to Lewes where he is to meet his wife and son, travelled down from London. Byng and Mr D do some rare sightseeing together here but, even as Byng explores “every old corner” of Lewes Priory, Mr D “laved his feet in the brook”. They stay at the White Hart but “the only good thing…was some brill fish”. This causes Byng to reflect on Sussex hospitality: “the beer everywhere has been very indifferent” (Harvey’s brewery was two years away from being founded) and “I do not believe in the county of Sussex there are any such excellent inns”. Paranoia creeping in, he also thinks the best bread has been kept from him: “I have sometimes seen wholesome comfortable-looking brown bread under a cottager’s arm, yet I have been obliged to eat of tough, white, tasteless bread.”
Hilariously, with the final part of the tour yet to be completed with Mrs Byng and son Henry, Mr D “expresses a wish to return instantly to London”. When he is gone, Byng reflects that “I.D. did not appear, during our being together, to be in right health, for he neither ate nor drank”; well, not with you John, certainly. When his wife Bridget and son Henry arrive, they are accompanied “to my great surprise, by my late companion in touring, Mr Windham”. William Windham II was married to Bridget’s sister Cecilia, was something of a philanderer and known to have been in love with his sister-in-law. Innocent of this, Byng can only be thankful that Windham “kindly came as escort”. When they go to Brighton, Mrs Byng and Windham travel together by carriage – “at Windham’s desire” – while Byng rides on horseback. Unsurprisingly, he is dismissive of Brighton: “Brighton appeared in a fashionable, unhappy bustle, with such a harpy set of painted harlots as to appear to me as bad as Bond Street in the spring.” Quite.
Byng’s journals are clearly not as celebrated as William Cobbett’s Rural Rides, or have the same significance as the diaries of Pepys and Kilvert, but they do provide a funny and revealing glimpse of the Georgian English landscape at a time when it was on the verge of revolutionary, industrial change. For a large part of his life, Byng was estranged from his older brother George because of his sibling’s profligacy with the family name and fortune. In December 1812, George died and John finally became the 5th Viscount Torrington. Sadly, it was a title he held for only a fortnight as he too died on New Year’s Day, 1813.