Questions about Travel Times

Kathryn and I had an interesting discussion about travel times in Regency England. She wrote:

Hello! I was referred to you by Eloisa with a question.  Though it is possible that I might find the answer to this question in one of the titles mentioned above I figure I will ask any way! How do you calculate the traveling time (via coach, horseback or ship) for your authors? Is there a website that has a such a calculator on it or something to that effect? I was very curious how one goes about finding that information. Thank you!

And I wrote back:

Thanks for the good question.
Mostly, I punt. I look up the two cities the character is traveling between in Google maps, get directions, and figure the mileage that way. (If you have a Regency-era setting, all the travel distances were still in miles, so no need to do complicated metric calculations.) I figure 20-30 miles a day, for a carriage traveling, with servants, luggage, etc. In addition, I presume roads were in better shape nearer London, and travel times would be extended from someplace in the middle of nowhere. For a man or couple of men traveling on horseback, willing to change horses at every posting inn on the way, the daily distance could be greatly increased–remember Dick Turpin’s ride to York in one day. But for a middle-aged man, riding his own horse, and not changing horses, his daily distance would be closer to that of a private carriage .
Roads got a lot better as time progressed. The real progress started with when Telford and McAdam began their road improvements. so use that, depending on the date you’re working with. Even before McAdam, the popularity of stage coaches and post coaches necessitated some attempts to maintain and improve the roads.
I haven’t spent a lot of time with the books I’ve mentioned in my travel section, though I was looking at the Margetson book, and found some very interesting bits of information about stage coaches, the public transportation of the day. For instance, by the late 1700s, one could reach Bath from London, a distance of almost 120 miles, in seventeen hours by stage coach. Also, a circular from 1799 boasts that the new post coach that sets out from London every evening except Saturday, arrives in Carlisle, in northern England, in three days, and in Glasgow in just four days. The stage coaches traveled at night, and their stops to change horses at the posting inns were very brief. The poor passengers were not allowed to bring food into the coach, but didn’t have enough time to eat at the inns while the horses were being changed, so it was not a comfortable ride. Servants or tradesmen might travel by the stage coaches, but probably not the higher classes, unless there was a good reason demanded by your plot. Unlike today’s Greyhound schedules, arrival times were not predicted to the minute for the coaches. All sorts of random events could affect travelers, such as highwaymen, mechanical breakdowns, lamed horses, bad weather, etc.
For travel within a city, say, London, then you have new factors. What time of day was the journey? How far apart were the destinations? By the river? By the roads? On foot, in a hackney, on horseback? I think five miles an hour would be an adequate travel time within a City, at least if not on Market Day.
I’m not sure about travel by water. These were still the days of sail (though steam engines were starting to appear in the Thames around then) and hence, dependent on the wind, or lack of wind. I usually figure around one night with a good wind for the Calais to Dover smuggling run, but anything else would take a long time. It might well take a couple months to cross the Atlantic from England to the United States.
I think trying to imagine travel times is especially difficult for modern readers. We are so utterly accustomed to, and dependent upon, totally reliable mechanized transportation that it’s hard to imagine how unreliable and unmechnized it all was two centuries ago.
Be sure and go to my Romance University tab for more information about travel in Regency times.

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