One For the Road, an Exhibition

Local resident, historian and equestrian, Caroline Anns-Baldock has curated a special exhibition at the Bourne Hall Museum exploring the fascinating history of roads in this country. The museum is on the upper level of Bourne Hall, Ewell, above the library, and admission is free.

When we sit in our comfortable cars and whizz from one city to another with a radio, heating, and fantastic suspension, do we realise just how lucky we are? No, probably not. This exhibition explores the roads and the travellers of the period around the great era of coaching, 1780 to 1840. The period of the Regency was colourful in every sense, from the high life to the low life.

The Edinburgh and London Royal Mail, 1838 (John Frederick Herring Snr)

The Romans needed roads and the Romans did a great job of seeking out trackways already in use and built up these early roads to a standard that soon vanished after their departure, but with the slow industrialization of Britain roads became particularly important.

In order to move produce around – raw materials and coal – roads had to improve. Packhorse bridges were designed so that two packhorses could pass in the curved alcove of the bridge. In the winter, roads were terrible. Of course it did depend on where you were. Roads in Wales were twisted, narrow and rutted and what they called long miles. (Long meaning slow miles) Roads in Norfolk were straight and mostly flat due to the soil and the fact that the land was flat. Roads in Sussex were clay pits in the winter. Roads within cities were taken care of by an act of parliament passed in Tudor times. Only inter-city roads were cared for. Once you were out on the moors or the fennys, as they were called, you could find yourself driving your carriage into a three-foot deep hole and wondering how the hell to get it out.

Illustration of the construction of a ‘macadam road’, the Boonsborough Turnpike Road between Hagerstown and Boonsboro, Maryland, 1823.

Along came some road menders, blind John Metcalf and of course John Macadam, they revolutionized the laying of materials.  Macadam decided that ground stones poured over a solid base could then be worked in by the wheels of the vehicles and would form a good base. He was right, it did. These men were our first civil engineers.

Then came the coaches and the beginning of the Royal Mail. Royal Mail coaches were well looked after, well driven and had good horses, they were serviced every day. Riding on one of their coaches meant you had a good chance of getting to your destination. But there were accidents, many of them. You will find their stories in the exhibition. Nevertheless, there were many wonderful coach drivers and one you will find mentioned a Mr. Thomas Cross.

The Swan with Two Necks was a coaching inn in the City of London that, until the arrival of the railways, was one of the principal departure points for travel to the north of England from London (Engraved by F. Rosenberg after a painting by James Pollard. Published by J. Watson, London, 1831)

Anne Nelson was the owner of a famous coaching inn, the Bull inn, Algate, she was a unique character, along with other entrepreneurial women, Ann Dunn, and Sarah Ann Mountain, then there was the amazingly wealthy Mr. Chapin who owned three thousand coaches and a hundred and fifty thousand horses, but who on seeing the writing on the wall invested in the railways.

Frost Fair on the Thames, with Old London Bridge in the distance (1685) ( Artist unknown – 17th century, British – Formerly attributed to Jan Wyck, ca. 1645-1700, Dutch)

Then there were the Frost Fairs, from about 1600 to 1814 there was a mini ice age when the Thames was gripped in deep ice and what fun the Londoners had; skating, fornicating, eating, drinking, playing skittles, swinging in boat swings, bear baiting, and driving their carriages across the ice. Fun was had by all, though there were of course accidents.

Caroline Anns-Baldock

Caroline Anns-Baldock

Caroline lives in Tadworth and held a professional flat jockey’s licence, she works with horses and runs clinics on horse handling and long reining. She has worked in California as literary assistant for Monty Roberts, the world-famous horse trainer, (The man who listens to horses).

She ran a yard for Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum the ruler of Dubai. She rides and teaches Side Saddle and has had many adventures in exotic places like Iran and Turkmenistan. She is also a historian, a storyteller, a specialist in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen and a bit of a poet.