The following post is the seventh of a series based on information obtained from a fascinating book Susana recently obtained for research purposes. Coaching Days & Coaching Ways by W. Outram Tristram, first published in 1888, is chock full of commentary about travel and roads and social history told in an entertaining manner, along with a great many fabulous illustrations. A great find for anyone seriously interested in English history!
Fifty Years Later
Mr. Tristram, our illustrious author, wants us to know that travel has undergone a great deal of change from 1773, so he tells us the story of our hero Mirabel (see previous posts) fifty years later, when he’s in his seventies, having lived most of his life overseas and now is returning to England to take the same route to Exeter. Dressed in much the same way he did then, he waits outside the Gloucester Coffee-house for the Exeter Fly, where the young bucks stare at his old-fashioned attire.
He expects to see the Exeter Fly—a trifle improved upon possibly—but still the Exeter Fly. And what does he see in its stead rapidly approaching? Why, a turn-out drawn by four spanking grays, which he takes to be a gentleman’s carriage, and which would do credit to a crowned head.
It’s called the Comet and our friend Mirabel soon learns where its name came from. He mistakes the coachman, who is well-dressed and genteel (for he is also the proprietor of the coach) for a gentleman. The Hercules Pillars at Hyde Park Corner no longer exists (recall that Apsley House replaced it soon after our last trip to Exeter), and the roads are macadamized and therefore much smoother than when they were made with stone.
The Comet travels at ten miles an hour and arrives at Hounslow fifty-five minutes after leaving Hyde Park Corner, not stopping at Brentford at all. Mirabel is eager for some breakfast since being told that the coach would change horses there.
The proprietor, smiling superior, blandly tells him that they have changed horses while he was putting on his spectacles. “Only one minute allowed for it at Hounslow, sir, and it is often done in fifty seconds by those nimble-fingered horse-keepers.”
He then proceeds to urge the horses forward in such a way as to cause the coach to rock violently and alarm our valiant Mirabel (remember when he apprehended the highway back in 1773?). In response to his concerns, the proprietor says simply: “Oh, sir, we always ‘spring them’ over these six miles.”
He looks out and sees death and destruction before his eyes, the horses going at the rate of a mile in three minutes, and the coachman in the act of taking a pinch of snuff.
At Staines, the coach takes on a fine thoroughbred “with a twitch on his nose” and Mirabel feels queasy, but the proprietor says, “Let ’em go, and take care of yourselves.” Just as Mirabel expected, the thoroughbred takes off and soon the horses are galloping and the coach rocks unmercifully, but the proprietor manages to steady them, and when Mirabel descends from the Comet at Bagshot, he is grateful to be alive and determined to find a slower and safer coach to take for the remainder of the journey.
Assured that the Regulator will be there in hour, Mirabel finally gets his breakfast and is ready and waiting when the Regulator draws up to the King’s Arms.
He sees…that it is a strong, well-built drag, painted chocolate, bedaubed all over with gilt letters, a bull’s head on the doors, a Saracen’s head on the hind boot, and drawn by four strapping horses.
The inside being full, Mirabel rides on the outside, and is relieved when the Regulator travels at a steady pace for the first five miles out of Bagshot. Once they reach the Hartford Bridge Flats, however, the coachman “springs ’em” to a gallop, and they go so face they catch up to the Comet. In the words of the coachman:
“He [Mirabel] was seated with his back to the horses, his arms extended to each extremity of the guard irons, his teeth set grim as death, his eyes cast down towards the ground, thinking the less he saw of his danger the better;”
and in this state he arrived at Hartford Bridge. Here he dismounted from the Regulator with the alacrity of lightning. “I will walk into Devonshire,” he cries. Then he thinks better of this, and says he will post; then he is told that posting will cost him twenty pounds; and then he says that will never do, and asks whether the landlord of The White Lion can suggest no coach to his notice that does not carry luggage on the top.
The Quicksilver Mail (the Devonshire)
The landlord advises him to take the Quicksilver mail, which travels at night, well-armed, with lamps and guards, and when asked about the speed, demurs and doesn’t mention that the Quicksilver mail (the Devonshire) is the fastest coach in England and commonly called the miracle of the road. But it doesn’t have luggage on top, at least.
Mirabel loses his head, and in spite of the assurances of the passengers that all is right, thrusts it out of the window to see where the deuce they are going to, sees nothing but dust and whirling wheels, and loses his wig.
Alas, we never find out whether or not poor old Mirabel ever got to Exeter, just that the coach reached Basingstoke, and presumably left our elderly hero there.
At least it wasn’t snowing as it did the last time!