Why Suffolk villages are historic milestones
PUBLISHED: 12:01 24 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:25 20 February 2013
Suffolk villages weren't always places of peace and tranquillity. In the days before rail travel many of them were hives of activity, important stops on the county's coach routes. Carol Twinch investigates their history
Suffolk villages werent always places of peace and tranquillity. In the days before rail travel many of them were hives of activity, important stops on the countys coach routes. Carol Twinch investigates their history
Dotted throughout rural Suffolk are villages containing clues to show that they were once important stops on the 18th century coach routes that criss-crossed the county. These sparks of history celebrate a bygone age of travel and catch the light in unexpected places, such as milestones seen along many country roads. Amazingly, over half of the original 200 still remain, and some even have the old stone markers hidden behind the later cast iron ones. There are also inns named Coach and Horses or Horse and Groom, as at Melton which has one of each, and the relative size of Scole Inn (on the Norfolk border) and the old Eye White Lion shows how significant these establishments were in their heyday. You can almost hear the coach rattling over the cobbles and the hustle and bustle that followed its arrival.
In the 17th and 18th centuries travel was limited and uncomfortable but, before the railways opened up the countryside in the mid-19th century, coaches were the only means of public transport. The early stage coaches, so called because the journey was done in stages, offered straw-covered flooring, open sides and loose leather curtains, so that in summer travellers were choked with dust. In winter they had to struggle through mud and ruts, often up to a foot deep, and negotiate large stones and fallen trees. If stuck, passengers would be required to assist the coachman to get the coach moving, getting wet and muddy in the process.
Since the cost of maintaining the roads was incumbent on the parishes through which they passed, the surfaces were often neglected and in poor repair. But with increased volumes of traffic in the 1700s came toll roads to enable parishes to garner income for road maintenance. Turnpikes were later erected as a barrier to prevent evasion of payment by coach masters who sped past the toll collector without paying. The pikes were usually spikes fixed to a pole put across the road and moved aside when the toll was paid. Some toll roads became known as turnpikes and there is a Turnpike Hill at Withersfield and another at Haverhill.
This colourful phase of Suffolks travel history is evidenced wherever there is a Tollgate Cottage or Turnpike Lane in the vicinity. Cottages bearing the name Toll are still seen along the old coaching routes such as at Occold, Letheringham, Yaxley, Crowfield, Darsham and Braiseworth marking out villages that were once key components in the commercial arteries of 18th century Suffolk.
Genuine tollhouses are unusual since most were built very close to the road edge, sometimes jutting out over the roadway itself, and were lost when road widening took place. Their round, sometimes octagonal shape, allowed the toll keeper to keep an eye on the approach roads from as many directions as possible. A unique toll house is The Mustard Pot at Needham Market which once stood beside the A140 at Brockford but was saved from demolition during a road widening scheme and removed to its present site in the 1970s.
One of the best known toll houses is that at Sicklesmere, a stop on the regular coach service to and from London via Sudbury that ran four times a day. Once known as Turnpike Gate, it was constructed in the early part of the 19th century by a Turnpike Trust, one of 14 set up across Suffolk to maintain road surfaces. Although an informal toll system had operated from around 1660 onwards, to pay for road maintenance, the first turnpike act was not passed in Suffolk until 1711.
When travel became more popular and affordable, small market towns had their day in the sun as staging posts for the Royal Mails coach and horses, which were faster than the stage coaches, and stopped for passenger refreshment and a change of horses. This provided not only local employment but the opportunity for gossip and news from beyond the invariably isolated communities of the countryside. Places such as Saxmundham, which was on the London and Ipswich to Yarmouth turnpike road, became commercial centres for the surrounding villages. The toll house at Kelsale-cum-Carlton, just outside Saxmundham, stands by the road that eventually became the old A12. The house itself is a Suffolk bungalow type and can still be seen at Carlton Gate.
Saxmundhams Bell Hotel dates from 1824 and is thought to have been the last coaching inn built in England before the advent of the railways in the 1840s.
Among the most famous descriptions of early 19th century coaching stops are those by Charles Dickens, particularly his references to the Plough Inn at Blunderston in David Copperfield. When the novel was published the railways had already superseded the coaches but he deliberately set it in the coaching age of his childhood. He was a lover of coaching inns and it is calculated that he mentions some 60 to 70 in Pickwick Papers alone, many of them in Suffolk.
Tolls were, though, nothing new. For centuries trade tolls were levied on roads and bridges associated with ancient trade routes which eventually evolved into coach routes and then the road system we know today. Itinerants and traders were charged a fee for setting up stalls at country markets, paid at the parish boundary. An unusual remnant of this is found in the tiny hamlet of Eastbridge. The Tu Penny arched bridge is an ancient toll bridge which, presumably, cost two pence to use. An even older toll route is the four-arched, 15th century Packhorse Bridge at Moulton, which stood on the mediaeval trade route from Cambridge to Bury St Edmunds. A similar remnant is the Topplesfield Bridge near Hadleigh.
Coach travel might have been arduous but was safer than being alone on country lanes, or even main highways, which were still dangerous in the late 18th and early 19th century. Among the lists of transportees from Suffolk to Australia are found several who were guilty of highway robbery. Samuel Raynor was convicted for stopping and robbing Thomas Turner on the highway between Barham and Thetford and transported for life. He sailed for New South Wales on July 24, 1817 aboard the Larking and arrived four months later. In 1811, 22- year-old Charles Kent was convicted for robbing and cruelly treating Jonathan Clift on the highway in the parish of Mildenhall and also sentenced to transportation for life.
Few men or women transportees returned to Suffolk, even after serving their sentence, but one man came back to his home village of Glemsford. Convicted in 1841, William Pearman served 12 years of a 14 year sentence in Tasmania, after which he made his way to the goldfields of Ballarat where he made a fortune. He returned home to Glemsford where he set up a blacksmiths and butchers shop (for his wife, Susan) and duly prospered. William died in 1897, aged 80, both he and his family rehabilitated within the community.
By then the coach age was barely a memory. One of the last mail coaches to traverse Suffolk was the London to Norwich run, via Newmarket, which was founded in 1785 and ended in 1846 by which time even Dickens travelled by train and embraced the dawn of a new railway era.