Sunday, 11 November 2018

Travel in Jane Austen's day!

It's all too easy to imagine travel of yesteryear as a time consuming mediaeval plod, and yet, in some respects travel during the latter half of the 18th century and early 19th was expedient when it came to mail coaches, post-chaises, and private drag companies;  the latter who were paid to ply the highways and byways of Georgian Britain on commissioned travel by clients, as did private drags owned by wealthy gentlemen and the aristocracy. Strange as it may seem, many wealthy men thoroughly enjoyed driving their own conveyances equally as well as their coachmen. It was also fashionable to drive curricles (high-top ) or a low-slung Tilney. 

For example, the mail coach runs! 

Travelling by mail coach from London to Bath, the average time on the road inclusive change of four-in-hand horses every 10-15 miles was 11 hrs. The greatest contributing factor to speed was ostlers at inns, who prided themselves on fast-changeovers of horses, thus the relief team were already harnessed ready to go, and the switch of horses could and was achieved in twelve minutes or less depending on weather conditions.    

From Exeter in Devon to Hyde Park Corner: the travel time of the mail coach was 15 hrs.

Private and Post Chaise Horses required two hours of rest per forty miles driven at a more leisurely pace than that of mail coach teams.   

Lighter weight chaises with two-in-hand (pair) were capable of matching mail coaches for speed but again required an hour of rest per 20-25 miles depending on terrain.

There's a bit of a myth on the author circuit teams of horses were for hire to anyone who stopped at any inn (or horse for hire establishment) and wished to change horses and drive onward, hence that statement is factually incorrect unless the owner of said horses was familiar with the person wishing to hire one and that person had credibility. What some inns, and often as not a local smithy (blacksmith/farrier) hired out, were emergency horses with a postilion if a horse had gone lame etc., and that postilion would later return with the horse/s when the conveyance was driven to its destination. Horses were extremely valuable during the time of the Napoleonic wars, and notably in short supply due to acquisition of equines for military service to replace those killed in action or shot when need be. Horse breeders of quality equines tended to be the aristocracy, or those providing horses for the Royal Mail and coaching companies.   

All coaching companies paid dues to keep a string of teams at various coaching inns en route, and canny innkeeper's kept a few spare horses if their inn was located close to a steep hill. Brake horses were ridden to the top of steep hills when coaches were due, and before descending the hill the brake horses were attached to the rear of the coach, the postilion in a position to assist the coachman with extra brake power. Likewise on the same hill ascending, two extra horses were attached to the pole to assist the team and then unhitched on reaching the top, especially important during inclement conditions and snowfall. Some farmsteads offered the same service of brake horses, the times of coaches passing through was pretty much on schedule barring mishaps.

Snippet of earlier history: The First stagecoach started up in 1610 from Edinburgh to Lieth. During the years of the English Civil War travel by coach averaged 7-8 days from London to Exeter. But as time progressed and Charles II was restored to the throne, more coaching routes were developed and travel times were lessened with better design of coaches and the renowned Flying Machine. In the years 1667-1670 announcements were commonplace:

"All those wishing to pass from London to Bath (to take the waters) or to any other place on their road, let them repair to the Bell Savage on Ludgate Hill London and the White Lion in Bath, at both places which 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 14 Pounds Weight - for all above to pay the halfpence per Pound."  

Wars involved men travelling the length and breadth of the British Isles and overseas, not least those who became mercenary soldiers in the 30 yrs war, and those who fought in the Spanish, the French, and Dutch wars within the Low Countries on the Continent.
Thus the distance between "Land's End" at the most southern point of England in the far southwest of Cornwall, and to "John o' Groats" at the most northerly aspect of Scotland, represents the whole length of the main island of Great Britain. By road and highway it is 874 miles (1,407 km) betwixt the two and takes modern-day cycling enthusiasts 10 to 14 days; the record for running the route is nine days. 

Not all travel by horse was taken along highways! 

Dorset Ravine

A man and horse taking more diverse routes across country via bridleways, drover roads (ravines), and along old Roman roads in the 1800s and early 1900s matched that of the cyclists of today, and  with no change of horse en route. Hence the distance between the two extreme ends of the Island of Great Britain could be achieved in less time than imagined in yesteryear Britain. 

Pack-horse Drover Bridge

Although the main Roman roads ceased at the border between England and Scotland (Hadrian's Wall), where old drove roads and bridleways had afforded relative safety for lone travellers, so too the same sense of safety was preferable to riding the main highways with the threat of highwaymen. 

Many Drover roads were ancient track-ways traversing north, south, and east across England, and to the far west across Wales. Thus riding these routes across country, and over moorland, saved valuable journey time as opposed to conventional roads and highways.  

The same feats on horseback today require long diversions due to modern road systems, many of the original tracks are long since built on, and old Roman roads such as Ermine Street/Dere Street, known today as The Great North Road on which Dick Turpin rode with his famed Black Bess, now lie beneath tarmac. 

This is part of Watling Street (Roman way)

Part of Old Watling Street -
 registered as a green lane and bridleway.

Part of the Old Foss way  

Of other Roman roads there are many, not least The Foss way (220m), and Watling Street (200m), again great stretches now major modern roads. Of famous bridleways-cum-drove roads the most famous is The Ridgeway, an ancient track-way dated pre Roman times stretching longer than 87m, which is merely the wild section running along the Ridge of the Wiltshire and Berkshire Downs, above the famous Uffington White Horse. The Ridgeway remains as a track-way from start to finish. 

Although much of a second track-way, the Inkfield Way was built upon in more modern times and all but disappeared within the Home Counties, but in 1972 by slight deviations it was re-connected to The Ridgeway, hence once again providing a route almost as its original route from the Dorset coast to East Anglia. So, all in all, travel for lone riders, even troops of soldiers, much greater distances could and were travelled along the old track-ways than the more conventional routes which traversed town to town, city to city. 

Whilst coaching inns provided provisions for travellers, so too, along these old routes were taverns and inns aplenty in small villages. It's quite astonishing to think  Oliver Cromwell's great feat of marching his army and heavy cannon from Scotland to Worcester, covering 25 miles a day (1651). This feat is well documented. Whereas his cavalry and foot marched 40-50 miles a day to catch up with and to trail Charles II's Royalist forces from Scotland to Worcester. Charles had a head start of several days, thus the mammoth feat of Cromwell's men, all told, was one of endurance riding and marching, much of it along ancient routes and the great North Road (Dere Street), and thence to engage in battle within less than twelve hours of respite. And, what is more, Cromwell's men won the Battle of Worcester. 

Map of Roman Roads traversing England.