1608: Walking From Somerset to India

Thomas Coryat didn't walk all the way, but he first traveled 2,000 miles mostly on foot in Europe and then went on to explore the Orient covering over 4,000 miles also mainly on foot. If you think this is extraordinary, imagine further that he did this at the beginning of the 17th century. 




Thomas Coryat was born in Odcombe in Somerset where his father served as rector. The year could have been either 1577 or 1579. As the spelling of family names was not fixed until the 19th century (names were spelled as heard), you will find alternative spellings of Coryate and Coriat for Thomas and other members of the family cropping up. Thomas went to Winchester College and then attended Gloucester Hall. Gloucester Hall was a college established in 1560 in what had been Gloucester College until its dissolution in 1540. Gloucester Hall was intended for Greek Orthodox students which might explain Thomas' particular interest in the Orient. Gloucester Hall became Worcester College in 1714. 


Thomas Coryat became a member of Prince Henry’s court in 1603 where he seems to have been regarded as something of a country bumpkin and jester. This must finally have got on his nerves as he left the court in 1607 to return to Odcombe. From there, he set out in 1608 to explore Europe. It’s an extraordinary decision in a time that didn't know tourists and before the Grand Tour had been invented. His contemporaries mostly hadn't traveled farther than the next village and many of the rich nobility usually knew but their own estates and the Royal Court in London. 


His trip took him through France and Italy to Venice and then through Switzerland and Germany to the Netherlands. About half of this he did on foot, a lot of the rest he did in rowing boats. When he returned to Odcombe, he hang up his shoes (yes, he had used only one pair of shoes) in the church where they remained until 1702 when they disappeared (a replica can be viewed in the church of Odcombe). He wrote down his adventures and published them in 1611 in two volumes for which again he was ridiculed by his contemporaries. 


His travelling blog, though, is of interest to students of musical history, as it contains a detailed description of the Venetian School of Music; the composers of that school were the avant-garde of their time and would substantially influence European musical composition up to Bach’s Well Tempered Piano more than a century later. 


He seemed to have caught the travelling bug and in 1612 set out by boat for Constantinople. From there he walked to Jerusalem. He crossed back through Syria into Persia and eventually found his way through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the court of the Great Mogul at Agra. He then continued his travel to Surat where he fell sick and died in 1617. He had covered most of that 4,000 miles trek on foot. 


From various points during his travel he sent letters home which would be published in 1625. During his adventure trek he had soaked up languages like a sponge and became proficient in several European as well as Oriental languages (how very un-English). He has been credited with introducing the fork to England and was definitely responsible for the word umbrella entering the English language (from the Italian ombrellone ‘little shadow’). 


In 2005, Chris Worledge followed Thomas Coryat’s travels from Odcombe to Venice and produced the blog Following Tom; and in 2008, Robin Hunt started a quest to complete the full journey in bits and pieces over several years which can be followed in his blog Betwixt Europe.


The blogs: