Ray’s extensive travels were driven by his curiosity and desire to collect specimens of all living things.
William Stearn, in his account of the natural history travels of John Ray, writes that Ray was ‘the most travelled British naturalist of his century’. He also observes: ‘For us, able to get to most places in Britain by cars, motor coaches, trains, or even planes and helicopters, equipped with guide books and Ordnance Survey and other maps, protected by warm and waterproof clothing, it is difficult to realise how heroic, slow and uncomfortable by our standards, were the journeys of Ray and Willughby’. The first ‘road’ maps were published in 1675 but the ‘roads’ themselves were merely muddy tracks often impassable in bad weather. Ray’s travels covered most of the British Isles and continued through Europe as far south as the islands of Sicily and Malta.
Before setting out on their first journeys Ray and Willughby had decided to catalogue all living things in a methodical way for the first time, originally with Willughby concentrating on birds, animals, fish and insects and Ray on plants. To achieve their aims they needed, wherever possible, to study at first hand the specimens in their natural habitat. It was Willughby’s early death in 1672 which encouraged Ray to complete their agreed task single-handed.
During this travels Ray had not only collected specimens for his botanical studies but also recorded his surroundings, visited ancient monuments and churches and commented on the habits and character of the local people, writing after one particular journey ‘… the women, generally, to us seemed none of the handsomest. They are not very cleanly in their houses, and but sluttish in dressing their meat. Their way of washing linen is to hitch up their coats, and tread them with their feet in a tub … They have neither good bread, cheese or drink. They cannot make them, nor will they learn. The people seem to be very lazy, at least the men …’