PARSON JAMES WOODFORDE (1740-1803) was an unknown character until John Beresford published the first volume of selections from his diary in 1924. This caused something of a literary sensation, and figures such as Max Beerbohm and Virginia Woolf were immediately intrigued and delighted by the details of this eighteenth century cleric’s life. The popularity of the first volume resulted in four more volumes being published in the following years.
Woodforde had been born in the West Country, and after getting a Scholarship at at Winchester College he got his degree at Oxford. He then spent ten years as curate in his father’s parish in Somerset. In 1773 he was presented with the living at Weston Longville in Norfolk. He moved there in 1776 and after becoming established there he soon settled into life in this country parish, about ten miles outside Norwich. The nucleus of Weston included the church, parsonage and the Hart, the public house that supplied Woodforde with port, gin and rum; much of it smuggled!
On horseback, and accompanied by a servant and a friend or relative, he would travel the East Anglian countryside in the summer. Great Yarmouth, Wells-Next-the-Sea, Lowestoft and Southwold were all seaside places he visited; they were not yet the holiday resorts that they would become in the next century. He was less interested in going to inland towns. For longer journeys back to Somerset he would take the coach from the Kings Head in Norwich Market Place and travel via London. Norwich, he said, was the fairest city in the country by far, and as a Norwich born person I may be slightly biased, but I think it has held up well to that description. From the castle to the cathedral to Elm Hill it presents a picturesque face to tourist and local alike.
What the reader of a diary wants are just the sort of everyday details he supplies. Of the great national events we may read full accounts elsewhere, but of Mr Mason of Sparham’s playing on the handbells (for example) we can only learn about in Woodforde’s diary. They may seem mundane events, but it is those very glimpses of the past that become lost as time passes, because no one else has recorded them. In the Parson’s diary we may read of an onion which measured 14 inches in circumference; this was certainly a big onion, but the interest is not so much its size. He seldom mentions the vegetables he has with his roast lamb or shoulder of pork, but onions are obviously one possibility. They have good keeping qualities. ‘Roots’ (probably turnips) he also refers to, and they were available for most of the autumn and winter; asparagus had short season in the spring, but that too appeared on Woodforde’s table.
Much fun was had by ‘the Captain’ – Bill Woodforde, the Parson’s nephew. He had served in the Royal Navy during the American War of Independence and with demobilisation following the Peace Treaty he stayed at Weston for several months. While there he built a miniature sloop (a type of sailing ship). The baulks of deal from which he constructed the hull he brought from Norwich in Woodforde’s cart, and the lead for the keel he acquired from a glazier in Mattishall. You may get some idea of the size of the vessel, as 25 lbs of lead were needed to balance the keel. Unfortunately he got the balance wrong, and on being launched the vessel listed to starboard and immediately began taking on water. This was a matter of great chagrin to the Captain. Where it took to the water is not revealed, but it may have been in the river Wensum, or else a local pond.
You can appreciate Woodforde in many different ways; you can dip into his dietary life, which is recorded on a daily basis, or chart the weather. Rain, snow and wind are all recorded, and he had a barometer from which he regularly took the pressure. For me the details of the lives of his acquaintances provide endless snippets of information for my researches into local history; although his appeal is nationwide, for me it is truly local. Weston Longville is only separated from where I lived by one other village. I can picture the rivers he fished in, the woods he skirted around and the roads he ventured along, not from the printed page but from my everyday familiarity with the landscape. Even many of the pubs he mentions are still there, in the old buildings Woodforde would have known, still serving their pints of ale to me as they did to him nearly 250 years ago.