Monday, August 27, 2012

How fast can you travel by horse anyway?


How fast could this horse go?
While working on my second historical mystery, From the Charred Remains, I came across a rather straightforward mystery of my own.  How long would it have taken to travel the fifty-plus mile trek from London to Oxford, by horse and carriage, in the mid seventeenth-century?

 I have some faint memory of an equation that claimed distance=rate x speed (and even worse memories of trying to apply that equation).  I don’t think that equation works, though, when you don’t know the weight of a cart, the strength of a horse, or the conditions of the roads. 

So I had to set some parameters. I needed the cart (wagon, really) to be able to carry two men and two women, along with two or three barrels or bags of miscellaneous supplies.  I needed the journey to take less than a day.   The wagon had to be decent, but more serviceable and sturdy, than luxurious. It had to be capable of traversing 50 or so miles of the muddy, unpaved London Road. Similarly, the horses had to be from a hearty stock, and affordable for hire by a journeyman. Not being an equestrian, a farrier, or a blacksmith (okay, let’s face it, I’m not even sure if I’ve ever even been on a horse), this has been a truly puzzling question. 

So doing a little digging into the Early English Books Online and a few other primary sources, I first learned what kinds of wagons would have been available to a London tradesman in 1666. Here, I relied mainly on woodcuts to show me pictures of how tradesmen conveyed goods.  Hackney carriages were available for hire, but those would not likely have been owned by a tradesman. Coaches (Berlins) were just coming into fashion, out of Germany, but again my tradesman would not have found such a vehicle suitable to his needs or budget. 

Wing / 1917:08 
As for the horses, I looked to Gervase Markham, a seventeenth-century self-titled “Perfect Horse-man,” who shared his “experienced secrets” on horse care and training. He mentions some different kinds of horses (or perhaps more aptly, the services horses can offer), including the “courier,” the “carter,” the “poulter,” and the “packhorse.”   

Unfortunately, throughout Markham’s lengthy 200+ pages of advice to the horse-challenged, I could only find one bit of useful information for my purposes.  He says: “In journeying, ride moderately the first hour or two, but after according to your occasions.  Water before you come to your Inn, if you can possibly; but if you cannot, then give warm water in the Inn, after the Horse hath fed, and is full cooled within, and outwardly dried.” He then went on to say something about applying copious amounts of “dog’s grease” to the horse’s limbs and sinews, but I think I wandered off the page at that point.

Then I needed to find out how fast two horses can even pull a wagon.  Throwing my question to the whims of Google yielded an oft-repeated response: a team can travel 4 miles an hour on paved or semi-paved roads. Horses can only travel a few hours at a time; so it looks like my fictional travelers will have to exchange horses several times at various coaching houses along the way. 

This would mean it would take my travelers 15 hours to travel from London to Oxford, which is FAR TOO LONG for the purposes of my story. Yet, I've always been extremely scrupulous in my attention to historical details. So my puzzle has resulted in another conundrum—bend the facts to fit my story, or bend my story to fit the facts? 

What to do? What to do? What would you do?

12 comments:

  1. I love this! And I have had to grapple with just such a challenge. It's hard to write a thriller, which be definition is fast-paced, in a time when no one got anywhere quickly!

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    1. thanks--its definitely challenging. I try to make my points of high action as tight as possible, and leave some moments for slower development of characters, plots etc. So trot to gallop if you will :-)

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  2. In The Huguenot Sword, my heroes race to protect another character from an assassination plot, but the intended target had a 12 hour head start. The trick is maintaining the sense of jeopardy, as that is what adds to the scene not time or distance. So it takes 15 hours from London to Oxford? You can make a lot can happen.

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  3. Dog's grease, or [any mammal] grease, is rendered fat. I've never heard of it applied to dogs before, but I suspect that it's just a question of working with what you have. No idea why (or whether) dog's grease is particular is good for horses.

    I suspect that the easy answer to your question lies in 17th vs. 20th-century attitudes. I'm not duplicating your Google search, but what's the provenance of the 4 mph figure? Anything later than the Industrial Revolution, and I'd question whether that number hadn't dropped due to changing attitudes about how to treat horses. In the 17th century, a driver would think nothing of whipping a horse almost to death, *provided* that the injuries were all recuperable and no *economic* damage was sustained by the horse.

    That said, I have an idea where you can find historical data: the Royal Society was founded in 1660, and if anyone ever needed to make the trip from London to Oxford.... I strongly suspect that you'll be able to find several diaries in the hands of their librarians, and I equally suspect that if you need to find someone who was highly motivated to make the trip quicker, they'll be able to point you to that as well.

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    1. Jeff-thanks, all good suggestions. I imagine they'd have broken up their trip with stays at coaching inns, so I wonder if they'd have tried to make the trek in one day.

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  4. This is a great insight into the countless questions that an author must answer!

    I'm reminded of an article I read recently written by Tom Hanks about Nora Ephron, right after her passing. He relayed a story about the first Ephron film he'd seen--well before they worked together on Sleepless in Seattle--that took place in NYC. There was a scene where the main character had to travel across Manhattan and Hanks was struck by the fact that Ephron filmed the exact route one needed to take to get from point A to point B. He was floored by the accuracy and said that he'd never seen that before...and rarely since.

    Although somewhat interesting, my thought was: does it really matter? I live in the land where all John Hughes movies were filmed and none of the "nearby locations" are actually nearby each other. This fact certainly doesn't change my enjoyment.

    I'm happy to accept some creative license on minor things like "how long does it take to get from point A to B." 15 hours or 4 hours...I'm willing to go with it. I just want to know what happens when you get there!

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    1. Thanks Matt. There's a part of me that definitely thinks, 'ah well, maybe this is a place for some creative notice.' But I really feel--as a historian and for anyone who writes historical--this kind of under the rug sweeping should be done minimally and with great awareness (e.g should make it to the historical note).

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  5. These are the questions that tend to stop me in my tracks while writing. So do you stop the flow of the writing to do what could be (as you've seen) hours and hours of research or do you pretend you know the answer and work it out in the next draft? Or do you follow Matt's theory and know that your readers willingly suspend disbelief (within reason)? I know my dad is as much a stickler for NYC accuracy in films ("You can't get to the Brooklyn Bridge that way!") as I am for medieval history, but unless the error is egregious, we still enjoy films about NY or a show like "The Tudors." I think, as Miss Jane Austen would say, we have to make allowances.

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    1. fmantaliswrites-- Great questions! In my opinion, I don't think these kinds of questions should stop you in the first draft. My goal is always to just write the story, and then double-check details afterwards. I do think people writing historical novels should have done at least some basic research ahead of time to make the writing process go smoothly. Tell the story first, do the best you can to be accurate, and move on! Good luck with your writing!

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  6. There are always highwaymen! (A variant on the dictum, "When in doubt have a man with a gun show up at the door.")

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    1. Sam-Ha! It would only work if the ruffian came along with them! :-)

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