When William Webb travelled from his birthplace of Whitchurch in Hampshire to Sawston in Cambridgeshire before his marriage in 1764, he may well have ridden on horseback. Subsequent journeys with his wife and children to Eynsham in Oxfordshire, and from there to Beoley in Worcestershire (prior to 1773) would have been made by stage coach.
No main roads were built in Britain from the end of the Roman occupation until the era of the Turnpike Trusts in the 18th century. The Roman roads were maintained to some extent and there existed many ancient paths, tracks and ridgeways such as the Pilgrims Way to Canterbury. There were also Pack horse trails used in the transportation of, for example, wool from the Cotswolds and salt from Droitwich. Pack horse trails were wide enough to allow the horses or mules to move in single file, and where the track crossed a river, the bridge was made very wide to allow for the paniers, and hump-backed for added strength. Whole villages would turn out to see the long "trains" pass by and of course accommodation was available for drivers and animals, as most journeys took many days.
Other pathways were drovers'
ways, along which sheep and cattle were moved from
Wales, through Herefordshire and south to the expanding markets
of London. These drovers' ways were much wider as 200 - 400 animals
might be on the move at a time, and perhaps 2,000 geese
in a single goose-drive. By the mid 18th century 30,000 head
of cattle travelled annually through Hereford.
The wear on the animals' hooves had to be taken into consideration. Pigs could be driven no more than 6 miles a day, and cattle between 15 - 20 miles. Cattle and sheep were shod for the journey, and some drovers employed smiths to accompany the train on horseback, who carried spare shoes and nails. Pigs, who were driven shorter distances, wore knitted woollen socks with leather soles. Geese were driven through tar and then through sand or sawdust to harden their feet.
Inns provided accommodation for
the drover and there was often a smithy nearby. Famous drovers'
inns in the Midlands were the Feathers at Ledbury, and
the Lygon Arms in the Cotswolds. The term "Cold
Comfort" dates from this time, and provided basic shelter
for drovers who had not reached an inn by nightfall. Such stopping
places were often marked by 3 or 5 pine trees, tall enough to
be seen from a distance. "Greens" were grazing
places for cattle and sheep on the move, as well as for local
stock, and terms such as "Halfpenny Green" reflect
the charge per night for grazing and fodder.
The state of main roads in England remained fairly dire for many centuries. Parishes were responsible for the upkeep of roads within their boundaries and usually managed basic repairs to enable local traffic such as carts to proceed, but there was no central organisation or standard of maintenance throughout the kingdom, nor indeed the knowledge or skill for the upkeep of major highways. In the 17th century some counties such as Hertfordshire were able, by means of an Act of Parliament, to levy a charge or toll from road users to pay for maintenance and this was paid at the tollgate or turnpike. Later, other counties petitioned for Acts to establish Turnpike Trusts and in 1706 an Act was passed which served as a model for the next 130 years. By the 1720s and 30s, several Trusts existed to manage roads around local towns, for example by 1726 Worcester had 76 miles of turnpiked roads. However there was little co-operation between neighbouring Trusts, and travellers would notice a distinct change from "improved" to "unimproved" surfaces along a stretch of road.
England was still predominantly
a rural and agricultural society, but things were changing, the
population was expanding and the export market was growing, so
goods and people needed to move around more freely. The years
1751 - 1772 saw "Turnpike mania" and in 1773
came the General Turnpike Act.
In those days of highwaymen,
the coach guard was important, and he was armed with a blunderbuss
if the coach was carrying mail. He would sound his horn to clear
the road ahead and to warn the hostelry of the approaching coach,
which would require a fresh team of horses if travelling through
the day, or refreshments for the passengers if a longer stop
A impression of the era of coach
travel may be gleaned from the following advertisement in The
London Post for February 1753:
A five-hour journey of some 30 miles! This was apparently a up-market "post coach" as it carried so few passengers. Stage coaches usually carried up to 18 passengers (though not all inside the coach) while mail coaches would cater for four passengers inside and six outside. The poor did not travel - the cost of a one-way journey on the above would be 5 days' wages for a labourer. In 1794 the stage coach charged 9 shillings for a seat inside, and 5 shillings for a seat outside on the same Worcester to Birmingham run.
We are left to speculate how William Webb and family journeyed from Eynsham to Beoley in the early 1770s (see Chapter 1). Beoley is on Roman Iknield Street, so he might have travelled either from Oxford via Chipping Norton and Moreton-in-Marsh to Evesham, and from there via Offenham to Bidford and onto the Roman road via Alcester, Studley and Ipsley. Alternatively, as the "new" road over Broadway Hill was opened in 1771 (with the Fish Inn built at the top to cater for travellers and to house stabling for horses), he might have joined Iknield Street at Broadway, and proceeded via Weston-sub-Edge and Cow Honeybourne to Bidford.
Coach travel reached its peak
in the 1820s and 30s, when
inns were doing a roaring trade. An inn at any important town
might have had 50 or 60 horses available in its yard. There were
about 3,000 stage and mail coaches on the (much-improved) roads,
but all this was to change with the advent of the railways.