We know little about the coaching age because it pre-dates photography and film-making, and is also just that little bit too far into the past. It’s no longer our parents’ generation, nor even that of our grandparents so it slips into that part of history that has lost it interest.
So we probably give it scarcely a thought unless we visit an old coaching inn like the Bell at Stilton or the George at Stamford, when we might pause to imagine the occasional coach trundling in to change horses.
The reality was quite different. There were many routes, covered by crack coaches whose names became famous. And they ran to a regular timetable.
The Bell and The George inns are on the Great North Road and forty coaches a day passed through them – twenty up and twenty down. On the Great West Road, at Hungerford, fifty coaches passed through every day, stopping to change horses at the town’s coaching inns.
They passed through at these times:-
11.15 am going east 10.30 pm going east
11.45 am going east 11.15 pm going west
1.00 pm going east 11.45 pm going east
1.30 pm going east 11.47 pm going east
1.45 pm going west 12.00 am going east
2.00 pm going west 0.10 am going east
2.15 pm going east 0.15 am going west
2.45 pm going west 0.45 am going west
2.45 pm going west 2.15 am going west
7.30 pm going east 2.31 am going west
9.00 pm going east 2.43 am going west
10.25 pm going west
Coaching inns, were clearly very noisy and bustling places – especially between 11am and 3pm during the day, and between 10pm and 3am at night!
Being the capital, many coach routes led to London. Altogether 342 coaches departed or arrived in London every single day. They travelled in all directions and for very long distances. They set out, not from great railway termini like today, but from Inns across the city. It was a world of travel very different from the one we know today. It was exciting and glamourous – but definitely a lot less comfortable. First class was sitting inside the coach; it was cheaper to ride on the rooftop seats for a lower price, but this put you at the mercy of the weather.
What can it have been like, travelling on one of these long-distance coaches? We probably imagine them trotting along at five or six miles an hour but the reality was very different. Speed was of the essence, particularly for the mail coaches.
The next age is a description, written by someone who actually drove a mail coach.