Ancient inns along traditional routes offer history, time-honored fare and a few resident haunts
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In 1667, a startling notice with an unimaginable proposition appeared on the streets of London. “FLYING MACHINE,” it boasted.
“All those desirous to pass from London to Bath, or any other place on their Road, let them repair to the Bell Savage on Ludgate Hill in London and the White Lion at Bath, at both which places they may be received in a Stage Coach every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, which performs the whole journey in Three Days (if God permit), and sets forth at five in the morning.
“Passengers to pay One Pound five Shillings each, who are allowed to carry fourteen Pounds Weight—for above to pay three halfpence per Pound.”
A journey of 105 miles in three days seemed beyond belief, considering roads at that time were little more than dirt tracks beset with potholes, mud, loose stones, wayward herds and anything else nature and the complete lack of government funding could throw in a traveler’s path. Nevertheless, one early morning six brave souls climbed aboard in London to make the journey.
After being shaken, jolted and thrown to the other side of the carriage more times than they cared to count, the Londoners made it to the wilds of Hounslow Heath only to be robbed by Claude Duval, one of England’s most notorious highwaymen. After a brief, but courteous, acquaintance with this most gentlemanly of robbers (who once convinced a lady passenger to dance with him in exchange for a partial refund), the coach made it to Bath in the promised three days.
Thus began England’s first regular stagecoach service. Coaches had been braving England’s roads since at least 1500, however, and innkeepers who offered food, shelter and fresh horses already enjoyed a lively trade. Their coaching inns became a familiar sight after the London-Bath route proved profitable and more routes opened. By the mid-18th century, England was crisscrossed with coach routes, and hundreds of inns were spread out at seven to 10 mile “stages” across the land. The coach stopped at the end of each stage to change horses and allow passengers to refresh themselves.
By the 1840s, however, the rattle of wheels and the clop of hooves began to fall silent. The coachman’s horn, sounded on his arrival and departure, was replaced by the whistle of a steam train. And one by one the coaching inns shut their doors.
But a few have fortunately survived, and travelers can still retrace the old routes and catch a glimpse of a more sedate era.
‘EVEN THE FIREPLACE IN THE BAR IS LITERALLY FILLED WITH HISTORY. IT BURNS BOG OAK, PRESERVED WOOD FROM THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO RETRIEVED FROM THE LOCAL FEN’
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While “Flying Machines” took three days to get from London to Bath, a modern driver can make it in two hours. To avoid finishing the journey before it’s properly begun, the best coaching route to follow is the Great North Road from London to York, already familiar to British Heritage readers (“Adventures on the Great North Road,” September 2007). The A1 highway now follows most of this route, only occasionally diverting from where the Great North Road cut through villages.
Leaving London, a coach’s first stop would be Spaniard’s Inn at the edge of Hampstead Heath. The famous highwayman Dick Turpin used to stand atop the nearby hill spying out approaching coaches. Although now well within the metropolis of London—and no longer an inn—the cozy pub with its exposed oak beams evokes the era of one of England’s most memorable robbers. After a successful career, he retired to run a stable stocked with stolen horses. It was a charge of horse theft, not highway robbery, that eventually sent him to the gallows.
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Once on the A1, a 70-mile drive through rolling Cambridgeshire countryside leads to Stilton. This quiet village once offered two major inns, The Bell and The Angel, across the street from one another. While The Bell remains an inn, The Angel has become that other symbol of British hospitality—a curry restaurant.
The Bell gained fame for being the original source for Stilton cheese. In 1730, owner Cooper Thornhill discovered nearby farmers making a distinctive blue cheese and decided to sell it to travelers. The Bell’s location on England’s main thoroughfare helped spread the word, and today the inn’s restaurant features dishes made with the famous cheese.
The Bell dates from 1642, the very beginning of the coaching age, but there’s a record of an inn on this site serving hardy travelers as early as 1500. The inn has housed a host of famous guests over the years, including the aforementioned Dick Turpin, who hid out here for six weeks before being discovered. His hideout is now the lounge, and still features the back window from which he leapt to freedom.
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The building echoes with such stories—an old staircase had a hidden Catholic altar, tunnels may have led to the nearby church; and ghosts occupy rooms 21 and 33.
In room 21 a frantic woman sometimes paces up and down pulling at her hair. The room was once a maternity, so perhaps she mourns a lost baby. The female spirit in room 33 is more sedate, content to simply sit on the bed and brush her hair.
Even the fireplace in the bar is literally filled with history. It burns bog oak, preserved wood from thousands of years ago retrieved from the local fen.
The next stage for most coaches was six miles up the road at the cathedral town of Peterborough. The Bull was the main coaching inn, and its 1840 façade retains its period charm. The oversized entryway used to be the coach entrance; the courtyard became the dining room. With four-star hospitality and fine period paintings from the Duke of Argyll’s collection, The Bull is the most luxurious of the inns included in this article, and as the center of local social life, it has many stories to tell. The Wake-ford Suite is named after an archdeacon who in the early part of the last century stayed in this room with his mistress and was found guilty of adultery “without concealment.” The owners wryly designated this as the honeymoon suite.
Live the history!
London: The George, 77 Borough High St., 020-7407-2056
Spaniard’s Inn, Spaniard’s Road, 020-8731-8406
- Bicester: Best Western Jersey Arms Hotel, Middleton Stoney, 018-6934-3234, www.jerseyarms.co.uk
- St. Albans: Lower Red Lion, 36 Fishpool St., 017-2785-5669
- Stilton: Bell Inn, Great North Road, Stilton, 017-3324-1066, www.thebellstilton.co.uk
- Peterborough: The Bull, Westgate, 017-3356-1364, www.peelhotels.co.uk
- Stamford: The George, 71 St. Martins, Stamford, Lincolnshire, 017-8075-0750, www.georgehotelofstamford.com
- York: Coach House Hotel, 20/22 Marygate, Bootham, York, 019-0465-2780, www.coachhousehotel-york.com
Next stop is Stamford, where The George Hotel has been serving travelers for about 1,000 years—although most of the visible building is 18th-century. The garden dates to the Middle Ages, when it was used by the hospital for the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. In its heyday The George was one of the busiest inns in England. To either side of the main door are two other doors, marked “London” and “York,” remnants of the two waiting rooms from the coaching days.
The Coach House Hotel in York started its working life as a coach-builder’s shop more than 300 years ago and only later becoming an inn. Yet it has kept more of the old atmosphere than some inns twice its age and features a low, beamed ceiling in the dining room and a well-preserved exterior. Two rooms are furnished with ghosts at no extra cost. It’s located in a quiet neighborhood at the edge of the city center, yet is still only a few minutes’ walk to the minster and other attractions.
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The 210 miles from London to York take about four hours by car; in the early days of coaching it took four days, although improvements in road conditions cut the time in the early 19th century down to an exhausting 20 hours.
Modern visitors who haven’t time to stray beyond London can get a good idea of how coaching inns looked at The George, now a popular neighborhood pub on 77 Borough High St. in Southwark. The original cobblestone courtyard and two-story galleries make The George one of the best preserved coaching inns anywhere, looking much as it did when built in 1676. Have a pint where coachmen and passengers drank before heading down the Dover Road (Watling Street), or go to the upstairs restaurant, which used to be the sleeping quarters.
For a getaway close to the capital, two excellent coaching inns offer hospitality. Near Bicester, Oxfordshire, is the Jersey Arms, an inn since 1243 on the Northampton-Oxford road. The snug bar and dining area, with crackling fireplaces and original stone walls, offer the aura of the days when the peasants on Lord Jersey’s estates came to relax over a pint of the local brew. The Lord Jersey sold the place in 1951, and the present owner, only the third in 800 years, bought it in 1985. Located in tiny Middleton Stoney, the inn is only a few minutes from the Cotswolds. Oxford, Stratford and Warwick Castle are also nearby.
In the quiet cathedral town of St. Albans is the Lower Red Lion, the best-preserved coaching inn mentioned here. It was one of the first stops on the Holyhead Road (the A5, now Watling Street). But its proximity to the modern A1 means it can also be the first stop after the Spaniard’s Inn for those retracing the Great North Road. The inn is a 16th-century timber frame building that’s much the same as when it was built. The rooms are small, the beams skullcrackingly low, the stairs winding and uneven, and there’s not a straight line in the entire building—but that’s all part of the charm. Downstairs is a lively pub serving a wide selection of local ales. After it closes, a dark, spectral figure sometimes haunts the bar.
Perhaps he’s the ghost of a passenger who tarried too long and missed his coach, and has decided to spend eternity in the comfortable hospitality of a traditional coaching inn.