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.
There are medieval inns still offering hospitality to the wayfarer just as their founders intended.
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.