Christmas Travellers 1810

Winter journeys by stagecoach were never comfortable and often the roads were impassable.  Travellers had to take their own food or rely on the roadside inns where their coaches stopped to change horses.  The stops were brief, the food served hot, was always rushed: the coach waited for no-one.

This mode of travel, which looks so attractive on Christmas cards, was very different in reality.  Roads were very uneven and often muddy.  William Cobbett writing around this time said of Sussex roads that the ‘clay is bottomless’.  It was even suggested by one visitor that the people and the animals of Sussex had such long legs because they were always having to pull them out of the mud.

Coaches weren’t very comfortable.  Washington Irving said: ‘There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse; as I have found in travelling in a stage coach, that it is often a comfort to shift one’s position and be bruised in a new place.’

One’s travelling companions sometimes left a lot to be desired.  Smoking too much, talking too much or eating too much as in a coach used by Lord Macaulay:

‘I travelled with a family of children who ate without intermission from Market Harborough to the Peacock at Islington,[London] where they got out of it.’  They brought baskets of food and bought more on the way at all the stops.

It was dangerous journeying by stagecoach for many reasons too.  Coachmen sometimes raced each other with disastrous, even fatal consequences.  There was always the risk of highwaymen, and it could be extremely cold.  Hot sweetened ale with beaten eggs was a useful reviver at the inn.

Turnpikes were set up to help pay for improvement of roads and cottages like this one were built for the toll-keeper and his family to live in right beside the road.  It was a thankless job in many ways: he could be woken at any time of the night to let someone pass,  many travellers avoided the toll if they could and he was always vulnerable to robbers who knew that he had toll-money in his house.

Despite all this, his job was seen by some as a comfortable one.

Contented in my little house,
On every call I wait
To take the toll: to ope and shut
The five-barr’d  turnpike gate