The roads, carriages and railway to town: history article

Covid-19 has placed severe restrictions on our travel freedoms and we complain about being confined to our local area, potholes, late trains and single carriageway roads – but spare a thought for our ancestors.

Thursday, 6th May 2021, 9:46 am
An image of Berwick town centre in the 18th Century.

Until the 18th Century, the only safe way in and out of Berwick was by sea, just the brave and the poor would take to the highway.

In pre-historic times, Bronze and Iron Age folk used wheeled chariots on ‘roads’ of sorts, but it was the Romans who created paved surfaces and river bridgeheads.

When they quit our land their great stone highways became overgrown, sturdy bridges unrepaired.

The Norman influence and growing urbanisation of the country did maintain some key routes, including the Roman Ermine and Dere Streets which became ‘The Great North Road’ (today’s A1) but many returned to nature.

The only regular means of travel between towns in medieval times for non-military folk was by pack horse. Trains of up to 40 would carry goods and people over rough tracks, many arched ‘pack horse’ bridges built over streams still stand today.

It was not until the 17th Century that wheels were used for more than simple domestic carts. Huge wagons were dragged over muddy tracks between towns by six or eight horses.

Passengers were carried in baskets hanging off the rear, the wagon being laden with goods.

Three miles an hour was considered fast; London to Exeter took eight days.

Single horses remained the preferred method of travel well into the 18th Century. Town stables would house hundreds of horses, around one per 30 head of population, rented out at three pence per mile.

Mail was carried between towns by lone riders. Red posts were erected in market places where a ‘postmaster’ would receive the mail and hand return letters to the rider or ‘postman.’

Our A1 was literally carved by feet, hooves and wagon wheels.

In 1712, a fortnightly coach from Edinburgh to London was advertised to ‘perform the whole journey in thirteen days without any stoppages (if God permits), having eighty able horses to perform the whole journey’.

The fare was £4 10s, £915.10 in today’s money.

One coach a fortnight shows how few travelled between the two cities and only the very wealthy.

Road surfaces improved, paid for by travellers passing from one section to another through turnpikes or toll gates, and the age of the stage coach dawned.

Palmers coaches linked London and Edinburgh in 60 hours by 1786, instead of the previous 13 days by wagon. Each journey required 10 coaches and 620 horses, stopping in stages of 10 to 15 miles for rest, food, change of horses, drivers and carriages.

By 1820, 1,500 coaches left London every 24 hours, including 30 to Edinburgh, 13 to Glasgow, nine to Aberdeen and three to Inverness.

The industry required 3,300 stage coaches, 700 mail coaches, 150,000 horses, 30,000 full time workers, farrier blacksmiths, saddlers and, of course, hundreds of coaching inns.

Berwick still has evidence of its inns, curved stone archways through which coaches would pass.

In 1792, a coach would leave Edinburgh Post Office at 3.45pm, the driver carrying a clock to ensure strict adherence to the timetable. It arrived at Haddington at precisely 6.15, Dunbar 7.45 and Berwick 11.45, where the timepiece would be delivered to the next driver, half an hour allowed for supper.

Newcastle was scheduled for 9.05am, where the timepiece was handed over, and 30 minutes allowed for breakfast, the coach departing by 10.

The journey continued through towns south until the mail was delivered at the General Post-Office London at 4.25am next morning, after covering 396 miles in a little over 60 hours.

On September 27, 1825, Northumbrian George Stephenson’s Locomotion No1 steamed out of Stockton on Tees.

It pulled carriages containing 80 tonnes of coal and flour and one carrying paying passengers, reaching 24 miles per hour, three times the speed of a horse driven coach – no contest.

By 1837, the railway network had expanded throughout the land. By 1847, horse driven stage and mail coaches, such a visible and vital industry in every town and village for 150 years, were confined to history.

Thankfully, the late Duke of Edinburgh has helped revive carriage driving as a sport in the 20th and 21st Centuries.

By July 1847, the lines from Edinburgh to Berwick and Tweedmouth to Newcastle had been opened. The journey between stations at Berwick and Tweedmouth undertaken by horse drawn coach.

On May 15, 1847, the foundation stones were laid for a bridge crossing the Tweed. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert opened The Royal Border Bridge on 29 August 1850.

Now travellers could board a railway carriage in London, read the morning newspaper and hand it to a friend in Edinburgh by early evening.

Given Berwick’s pivotal rail history, I suggest it is time for the town to consider how to mark the 200th anniversary of the opening of the passenger railways in 2025.

By Canon Alan Hughes