Readers of my novels will be aware of my fondness for road books. I’ve taken my characters to Albania and Egypt (the road in the latter case being the Nile), but my favorite place to travel is along the coaching roads of England.
Over the years I’ve acquired copies of Paterson’s Roads—the precursor of the railroad timetable—and its Victorian followers, like Black’s Picturesque Tourist, as well as Charles G. Harper’s loving studies of coaching roads in general and in particular, and, of course, Cecil Aldin’s beautifully illustrated The Romance of the Road. Nowadays, many of these 19th C works can be found on Google Books. While this does make traveling with my characters easier, it also increases the danger of my wandering into fascinating side roads.
Crucial to the coaching road is the coaching inn, which played a much larger role in travel than today's hotels and motels. Among other things, your average motel does not change your tires, put gas in your engine, or serve as a mail stop. In London in particular the great coaching inns were the Grand Central Stations of their time--if you add some thousands of horses, in underground stables, to the mix.
Although you might today dine and/or spend the night at any number of former coaching inns in the U.K. countryside, this is not the case in London. Of the galleried inns, only the George* remains, and it wants determined digging to get a clear sense of what those great coaching inns looked like, inside and out, how the traffic of people, vehicles, and horses flowed, and so on—all the information one needs to move characters through a scene.
The books above cited, along with many others, offer illustrations of the old inns, though not enough, never enough. That’s why I was so very excited when NHG Susan called to my attention this wonderful blog, Spitalfields Life, whose beautiful display of late 19th C photographs of London includes a few of of London’s old inns.
Yes, they’re looking shabby, as one would expect. After all, by the time these pictures were taken, the railroad had taken over. But for anyone enamored of the golden age of coaching, they offer a touching glimpse of what used to be.
*The before and after photos in a follow-up blog show us the venerable George Inn.
Above, from “The Olden Time, Fore’s Coaching Recollections," and below, The Edinburgh Mail Coach and Other Coaches in a Lamplit Street, both by Cooper Henderson, courtesy Wiki Gallery.