The Historic Coaching Inns of England
Until the arrival of the “iron way”⎯the railroad network⎯in the 19th century, people traveled by horse-drawn coaches that also carried the mail. Journeys were long and tiring, so a vast network of “coaching inns” offering food, drink and accommodations sprang up all over England. Many survive in all their half-timbered glory, as Ted Bruning discovered on a pleasure-filled journey.
If anyone can think of a more pleasant way of spending a summer than traveling the length and breadth of England visiting some of its most ancient and picturesque inns, I have yet to hear of it. Such was my lot in 1999 when work on my new book, Historic Inns of England, was in progress.
I’d like to be able to console those who haven’t been as lucky by recounting the hardship behind the scenes, the rigors of the road, the vagaries of our climate, the agonies of the creative process. Sadly, I can’t. I drove around the loveliest parts of the country. I enjoyed the finest buildings. I drank some pretty good beer (not too much, mind). I ate some pretty good food. In short, it was a breeze.
Now, England is a small country by American standards. At a push, and with two of you sharing the driving, you can make it from Kent by the English Channel to the Lake District in the far northwest in a day. But for all that, England is a country of contrasts, and those contrasts are well reflected in the range and variety of its old inns.
The oldest of them⎯and some dozens survive⎯date back to the 15th, or even 14th centuries, and were established by monks, who had a duty to entertain wayfarers. The larger common hostels for poor pilgrims have, as far as I know, all gone. But many of the better class of monastic hospices survived the dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry VIII in the 1530s as privately-run inns catering for the many well-heeled merchants and noblemen to be found on England’s roads.
The Coaching Inns
About the middle of the 17th century, stagecoaches started making their appearance, often based in inn-yards and promoted by the innkeepers themselves. Many of these coaching inns also became local mail depots, a lucrative sideline that became even more so after 1784. At that time, the Royal Mail abandoned the old system of mounted postboys (rather like the Pony Express) and instead started transporting the mail on official coaches contracted out to innkeepers.
This happy state of affairs lasted until the 1840s, when the Royal Mail started using trains instead of coaches. Trains also succeeded coaches as the preferred method of mass transit, and the old coaching inns went downhill fast. Many closed, and it wasn’t until the advent of the motor car in the 1920s and ’30s that the fortunes of England’s fine old inns began to revive.
As a result, a huge variety of old inns can be visited and enjoyed. As an added bonus, these inns tend to be located either in the countryside or in England”s older towns, since they had their heyday when most of today’s industrial cities⎯Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Liverpool⎯were mere villages.
Medieval to Victorian
There are medieval inns still offering hospitality to the wayfarer just as their founders intended. There are inns that were new when Shakespeare was a boy. There are inns that entertained Charles I and Cromwell on their savage campaigns. There are neoclassical inns that were expressly built to serve the stagecoaches of the 18th century. There are even 19th-century coaching inns⎯grand inns, representing huge investment⎯built even as the market they were meant to serve was collapsing.
Architecture, too, runs the gamut: from the gothic pointed arches and great halls of the monastic inns, through the apparently thoughtless randomness of Tudor whimsy, to the stern classicism of the Georgian period and the ornate grandiloquence of the early Victorians.
To add still further to the variety of old inns, England”s regions all have their own traditional building materials and styles. On my travels I saw little whitewashed inns in Cornwall, hunched down against the Atlantic gales and hung with protective mantles of slate.
I saw grand brick-built inns in the rich, rolling Midlands. I saw the palatial dark stone inns that line the old Great North Road connecting London and York. I saw the long, low, rambling inns of the Cotswolds, built of the mellow local honey-gold limestone. I saw the quaint black-and-white inns of the Welsh border counties, where ancient oak forests were plundered for building timber well into the 17th century.
Every one of these old inns has its story: of a murder, of a ghost, of a highwayman; of a visionary entrepreneur; of a heroically bibulous coachman; of an equally garrulous ostler. And they have their laureates, too: before steam, everyone who traveled needed the services of the inn, and this quotidian experience filtered through into literature. Goldsmith, Dr. Johnson, Fanny Burney, Washington Irving, and Dickens⎯especially Dickens! ⎯all knew and wrote of the inns that bulked so large in their travels.
Into Modernity and Minor Discomforts
So much for antiquity. It may surprise you to discover that in this land, which you think of as so ancient, more than half of the buildings are less than 50 years old. We have our medieval parish churches, we have our mountainous cathedrals and their closes, we have our rows of quaintly crooked cottages, we have our Georgian main streets, and we have our inns; but largely, this is a modern country.
And while the vision of Old England⎯of stone mullions unaltered since the mason shaped them 500 years ago, of adze-marked oak beams bent by the weight of years, of inglenook fireplaces blackened with the soot of countless fires⎯may delight your mind’s eye, what you actually want from an inn is a comfortable bed and a modern bathroom.
Alas, only Disney can square this circle, especially with regard to the oldest and quaintest of England’s inns. Few buildings of the 15th century can be adapted to meet the demands of the 21st with total success. While the historic exterior, the warren of snugs and parlors, and the fine paneled dining rooms of many an old inn can meet your every expectation, all too often the clumsily modernized bedrooms disappoint.
For example, I was at Llanthony Abbey in the wilds of Wales, where amid the ruins the old abbot’s lodging has been converted into a wonderful small hotel. An American couple drew up in a hired car, having presumably fought their way from Heathrow against jet lag and traffic to the idyll they had booked. They hefted their matching Samsonite all the way up the narrow spiral staircase to their room at the top of the tower⎯then hefted them all the way down again.
There was no elevator. The bathroom was two floors down. Their room had an uneven floor of cold stone flags. This wasn’t in the brochure! They left in a hurry, in search of a Holiday Inn.
What the couple hadn’t realized is that the facilities and standards of a modern chain hotel can’t be grafted onto the frame of a ruined monastery. You, of course, have an intelligent understanding of the realities of romantic travel. You will have weighed the likely practical disadvantages of a building intended for the pilgrims and coach passengers of centuries long gone against the aesthetic and, dare I say it, spiritual qualities of such a place. And you will put up with the minor discomforts necessary to enjoy the experience.
Good Food and Service Expected
But the practical limitations of converting a centuries-old hospice into a reasonably comfortable hotel should never be used to excuse abominable food and rotten service. In particular, two of the few glories of British cuisine⎯beer and breakfast⎯are all too often neglected and abused by the proprietors of the very establishments that ought to be glorifying and celebrating them.
What could beat a proper British breakfast? What’s better than dry-cured bacon, cut thick; or butcher’s sausages, meaty and juicy and spitting from the grill? Or genuine black pudding, with pearls of fat and specks of oatmeal marbling its blood-brown flesh? Or new-picked field mushrooms, roughly sliced and fried in dripping?
All too often, what you get is sad factory bacon, pumped up with brine and wilted in the microwave; sausages more rusk than pork, with the consistency of wax candles; tasteless button mushrooms, poached and served in a puddle of water. As for black pudding⎯why, none at all, for fear that the very thought of blood might offend. (I will draw a polite veil over British coffee.)
Then there’s beer. The best British beer, as you will know, conditions in the cask. It comes to you live and unapologetic, full of malty fruitiness and richness, and aromatic and bitter with hops. All over Britain, there are craft brewers producing beers of flavor and character. But far too many of our oldest inns serve only the bland output of the national brewers’ great fizz factories. Or, worse, they serve no cask beer at all, but only pasteurized and carbonated fizzwater, bought cheap and sold dear.
Don’t be put off, though. All over the country, there are fine inns where you can genuinely live a dream of Old England. If you never visit another English inn, for instance, visit the Shaven Crown at Shipton-under-Wychwood in the Cotswolds and delight in its monastic tranquility. See the original open galleried courtyard at the New Inn at Gloucester. Drink the homebrewed ale at the Black Bull at Coniston, in the glorious lakes. Mourn for Owen Tudor, beheaded outside the Green Dragon, Hereford.
Or, at the very least, buy my book.
Ted Bruning edits What’s Brewing, national newspaper of the Campaign for Real Ale. He is the author of Historic Pubs of London and Historic Inns of England (both published by Prion Books).