A journey from the New Forest to London without fumes
And an observational look at Lymington's past, from a different perspective
The latest instalment by our by now well known in the New Forest writer and cartoonist duo Mark and Hugh takes us once again back in time but in a different direction this week, with more than a little play on words as well as on the stage...
A journey to London, without car fumes
Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington. Noel Coward.
Imagine that you are a young French student keen to master the English tongue and you are told that the word stage meant not only treading the boards but also a coach and horses. In fact, the student would be more familiar with the French word 'stagiaire' which means learner or student, learning in stages.
Here we speak of a forgotten world. One of ostlers, farriers, saddle makers, blacksmiths, stable boys and stables. There were once thousands employed across the country, all in gainful employment because of the prime mover of the day; the horse. These buildings, trades and people still exist today but in a much lesser sense. Today horses are almost always used for leisure, not commerce. Before the invention of the railroad and then afterwards, the motor car, there were only two ways to get from A to B which was by horsepower, or, the power of a horse if you could afford it. By foot, if you couldn’t.
It’s speed, but not as we know it
The average person walks at around three miles per hour, a gentleman walking home after an evening with friends might be, ahem, a little slower. Lymington to London is around ninety-eight miles. By car, a journey of two and a half hours, give or take. By foot, thirty-three hours! Walking for eight hours a day this means that you have a gruelling four-day trip ahead of you. Imagine that. It makes you wonder how Poldark did it when he seemingly hopped onto a steed and, almost magically, re-appeared in London. The wonder of television.
Travelling by coach, drawn by four horses, you could expect to achieve a speed of around six miles per hour. That’s just forty-eight miles in a day. Remember that ‘roads’ of the time were nothing at all like those of today in that they were rutted, muddy, slippery and there were often boulders to contend with. No wonder that advances in suspension were keenly followed. Imagine being stuck in that little box in close proximity to your fellow passengers both inside, and, perched on the roof above, with the whole contraption swaying and bucking. I read an account of a trip where the going was so rough and the speed of the coach so slow that the passengers were briefly allowed to walk alongside. The author described this short period as ‘an utter relief’. Perhaps consider this the next time you are driving on a billiard table smooth tarmac road at the rate of over a mile a minute.
The term stage is simple enough, it means that exhausted horses were changed at suitable intervals, or stages, of ten to fifteen miles. Very often this change was carried out at an inn where passengers, who were similarly in need of rest, could eat and stay the night.
Raise your eyes to heaven
Lymington High Street is fascinating. If, for a moment, you stop awhile and rest your back against a cool brick wall, look around you. Not at street level where you find the ubiquitous WH Smiths and Boots, raise your gaze. Take in the various architectural styles that have evolved over the years. If you do the same in Southampton, heavily bombed by the Nazis in WW2, you might not be quite so pleased, there is concrete ugliness everywhere. Plymouth was similarly blasted to bits and the buildings that were erected in my home town after the war are, almost universally, as ugly as sin. Lymington by comparison is beautifully detailed. Some bricks are laid with the familiar wide gaps of modern mortar and others with the much thinner, more elegant and pleasing gaps of lime mortar. It’s all there, you just have to look.
Mews. Odd word, odd origin.
A further task for you and this is all about awareness. Stop once more and carefully study the street level, but not in detail; just look for those huge square gaps in-between some of the shops. The type that could easily swallow a coach and horses. Instead of walking past one of these coaching entrances why not take a stroll inside? After all, there are invariably shops there to enjoy. When you enter the mews take a moment to study the fabric of the buildings. Look for the ill-fitting bricks filling the space once occupied by a door; the clue is in the arched brick lintel. Study at leisure the missing, bricked up, windows on the first floor. Today’s planning zealots would have raged at such liberty and insisted that these outdated buildings should be preserved in aspic. Back then the goals were progress and prosperity, not posterity. There are many of these coaching entrances and they range from the bottom of the hill all the way up to the Kings Arms. At one time Lymington was a very busy transportation hub providing employment for many. Just imagine how busy it might have been.
The word mews was coined around five-hundred years ago and these buildings ranged around an off-street courtyard were used to accommodate horses. Mews were the motorway services of yesteryear; minus the amusement arcades, one-armed bandits. Look carefully and you will spot the yawning mouths of the coach entrances, incongruous against the space-hungry high street where every inch of shop frontage is utilised. Here, four-wheeled coaches drawn by four horses would arrive and leave on a regular basis for various destinations. The driving force for all of this, the horses, the coaches, the ostlers, the stable boys, everything, was all driven by our desire to explore, to go further or perhaps arrive in a different fashion. In fact, this was all about our innate curiosity.
Progress, painful for some
The huge changes in transportation have wrought destruction upon various livelihoods. In the day of the horse-drawn cart, operating on rough potholed roads, a cargo of fine china could really suffer. Then came the canals with, initially, the horse to pull the eighteen ton or more loads. Here the china would survive and so too did the horse, for a while. But then came the death knell, the railway. By the middle of the nineteenth century, it was all over; the stagecoach business was finished. Rail ruled the roost, for the time being. But we all know what came next and we all know what became of many local rail lines.
Working horses have never quite since regained their popularity. Nowadays, instead of sweeping up the waste from a horse and putting it on our rose beds or vegetables, we breathe in various concentrations of oxides of nitrogen and oxides of sulphur from passing vehicles. Progress eh?
In the same way that the railway finished the horse, the electric motor may finish the piston engine. Pollution in cities has to stop because it is killing people. It’s a pity we don’t use horses today, the roses would certainly appreciate it, but the problem is that we’ve rather got used to the convenience of modern cars.
The evidence of the past is there for all to see, it just takes a moment to pause and think.
More tales and cartoons for Lymington and the New Forest from Mark and Hugh
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Meanwhile, if you'd like to read previous articles on diverse subjects written by Mark and illustrated by Hugh's cartoons here they are, click the links embedded in the titles:
The brilliance - and persistence - of Marconi
Equality in the skies
Bees pollinators par excellence
Cordless home entertainment
The joy of sheds
When the Isle of Wight was just Wight
Pond Life in our Forests
Rufus Stone and Sir Walter Tyrrell
Graffiti through the ages
Freedom of the roads
Watch the birdie
Unstoppable momentum of nature
Socially distanced socialising
Calshot Spit, a curse for mariners...