The following post is the twentieth 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 replete with commentary about travel and roads and social history told in an entertaining manner, along with a great many fabulous illustrations.
A Vivid Description of an Inn
As I read Mr. Tristram’s description of these inns at Stilton—particularly the Bell—I found myself feeling the emotional impact of his words that made the visual details more alive and real to me. It was almost as though I were there in the innyard, watching the herds get shod for their long trip to London. Or later, watching the Scots prisoners march past from Culloden to await an uncertain future amongst the enemy.
Perhaps it’s just me and my own vivid imagination that responds so intimately to these passages. But I’m reproducing them here in the hope that you will also be able to experience the historical reality of these old inns, as described by W. Outram Tristram. I am convinced that not only will I be setting a scene here at some point in the near future in one of my own stories, but I will put this inn on my list for a place to stay at a future trip, as I find staying overnight in these historical buildings so inspiring!
“No place more representative of the ‘Coaching Age Decayed,’ than Stilton, is to be found on Earth”
For here the Great Northern way has diverged from the line of the old road, and by doing so, has turned a vast coaching emporium into a corpse of a town… It was rather, in its best days, a village clustering about two magnificent inns, the Angel and the Bell, which still stare at each other stonily across the great North Road. At the Angel, well known in the coaching days as the house of the famed Miss Worthington (stout, smiling, the christener of Stilton cheeses made miles away, but so called because they were sold at her hospitable door), over 300 horses were stabled for coaching and posting purposes. Vast barracks indeed stretching at the back of the old house—one wing of which alone is now open to travellers—tell of the bustle of post-boys, of the hurrying to and fro of fidgety passengers over-eager to be off, the harnessing and unharnessing of horses, of all the many-voiced Babel of travel in fact which fifty years ago surged and swayed round this teeming coaching centre, now lying silent and deserted as the grave. I am told—and from its central position on the great North Road seventy-five miles from London, I can well understand the fact—that at Stilton in the old days the ebb and flow and traffic never ceased. All day coaches and postchaises continually poured into the place and out of it. And by night the great mails running from Johan o’Groat’s almost, into the heart of London, thundered through the splendid broad thoroughfare, visible mediums as it were of an empire’s circulation. And other wayfarers besides postillions and coachmen seemed never off the road—huge flocks of geese destined for the London market, and travelling the seventy-five miles with uncommon ease; enormous droves of oxen, not such roadsters born. Each beast was indeed thrown and shod at Stilton to enable them to bear the journey. And to show the huge press even of this kind of traffic, this business of shoeing oxen was a trade almost in itself, as I have been told by the present landlord of the Angel Inn, who used in his youth to do the office himself, and to whose still active memory I am indebted for most of the foregoing details.
And to cross the road (the breadth of the great North Road at Stilton at once seizes the imagination, it is royal, the breadth of it, and looks like the artery of a nation), to cross the road from the Angel, and to come to the Angel’s great rival, the Bell, is to bridge a whole period in the history of English travel; to pass in twenty yards from the age of crack coaches and spicy teams to times long antecedent, when Flying Machines were not; when the great roads were hazily marked over desolate heathy tracks; when men travelled on horseback and women rode pillion, and people only felt secure when they went in large companies; when the solitary travellers went in fear of their lives when the gloaming overtook them, and “spurred apace to reach the timely inn.”
Here is a picture of medieval travel such as I think must have often been witnessed from the windows of such old houses of entertainment as the Bell at Stilton, when the Tudors ruled England. And often sterner episodes of history must have passed beneath its magnificent copper sign than wedding processions of royal princesses, even in the days, when England was called merry, and was merry England indeed. During the year 1536 the Bell at Stilton was no doubt often visited by one of those medley cavalcades so common at the time, consisting of abbots in full armour, waggon-loads of victuals, oxen and sheep, and a banner borne by a retainer on which was worked a plough, a chalice, and a Host, a horn, and the five wounds of Christ—the well-known badge which marked the fiery course of the Pilgrimage of Grace. This great rising, which began in Lincolnshire ran much of its course along the Great North Road—who knows how much of it passed through the now-deserted rooms and corridors of the great Northern inns such as this Bell at Stilton! It was in an inn at Lincoln at all events that on a night of October there was present a gentleman of Yorkshire whose name (Robert Aske) a few weeks later was ringing through every English household in accents of terror or admiration.
But indeed standing before such a monument of days gone by as this is, it is not a question of this or that romantic episode rising to a fanciful man’s mind as the pageant of a whole nation’s history passing in a sort of ghostly procession. And what episode of that pageant or such part of it at all events as passed on the Great North Road, has not this great deserted house of entertainment seen, fed, sheltered within its now crumbling walls? Gallants of Elizaeth’s day, Cavaliers of Charles the First’s, Ironsides on their way to Marston Moor, Restoration Courtiers flying from the Plague. And in days more modern, King’s messengers spurring to London with the tidings of Culloden—and Cumberland himself fresh from his red victory, and the long line of Jacobite prisoners passing in melancholy procession, their arms pinioned behind them, each prisoner’s horse led by a foot soldier carrying a musket with fixed bayonet; each division preceeded by a troop of horse with drawn swords, the drums insulting the unhappy prisoners by beating a triumphal march in derision.
Why, scenes beyond number such as these must have passed before the long gabled front of this old Bell at Stilton; passed, faded, been succeeded by hundreds more stirring, which in their turn too, vanished like some half-remembered dream. And the old house still seems to keep some mysterious memory of these scenes locked in its old withered heart; as gaunt, ghost-like, deserted, but half alive, it stares night and day on the lonely North Road.