A tour of Britain via its historic coaching inns

The Black Bull, Boroughbridge.
The Black Bull, Boroughbridge.
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They are visible reminders of an earlier age. Roger Protz tells Phil Penfold why he took a tour of Britain via its historic coaching inns.

On March 23, 1603 a rather intrepid gentleman called Sir Philip Carey left London. Queen Elizabeth was in her final throes and Carey was chosen to ride north to Edinburgh to take the news to the Scottish court. Travelling up the Great North Road, Carey rested briefly at Doncaster. The following day he rode on, stayed at his own home near Morpeth and despite falling from his horse he arrived at his destination on March 26.

It was by any standards a remarkable feat, especially as the Great North Road was at best a series of potted tracks through woodland, fields and the odd major settlement and in winter much of it turned to mud.

Gradually though over the next couple of centuries traffic increased and these travellers not only needed overnight accommodation and somewhere to stable their horses, but refreshment and most wanted something a lot stronger than water, to sustain their strength.

“The day of the coaching inn, the Georgian and early Victorian version of the motorway service station, was about to begin,” says Roger Protz, one of the prime movers in the Campaign for Real Ale who spent nine months researching the route for a new book, The Coaching Inns of the Great North Road. “It all started when my wife Diana and I were out one day, and revisiting the places where she was brought up. We now live in St Albans, but she comes from Potters Bar, and she pointed out a pub and an old road sign next to it which read Great North Road. That was the light-bulb moment.”

The early decades of the 19th century was the heyday of the coach system, but, within a few years, it was all over. The railways arrived, and the last coach ran from the capital to Newcastle via Yorkshire in 1842.

“Happily many of the original coaching inns still remain,” says Roger. “And oddly enough, there was another coaching boom in the 1920s and 30s, with gleaming new roadhouse pubs being built for charabanc and coach trippers.”

There have always been pub landlords who have been quick to turn an extra few shillings at the expense of their customers. It was no different back in the coaching inn days when there were several stops where it was said the travellers would dismount, be ushered into a dining room and then, just as they would be about to tuck in, the horn would be sounded for departure.

They would have to grab what they could, and leap back on board their coach, gallop off, still hungry and thirsty, and the landlord would be able to offer all the untouched food to the next lot of unwary visitors.

“They were certainly an idiosyncratic bunch,” says Roger. “The coach fare didn’t include your accommodation, that was paid separately, and then you were also expected to tip quite liberally if you wanted anything like decent service. When the railways opened up, the fares were instantly a lot cheaper, and the death of the coaches happened almost overnight.”

Now a sprightly 77, Roger takes an entertaining – if partial – look at some of the county’s finest early watering holes. For the Yorkshire chapter, he travelled across the border with Nottinghamshire, but didn’t even take breath in Bawtry, where there was at least one coaching inn.

Heading straight for Doncaster, he also passes by the historic Salutation on Bennetthorpe – which still has the giveaway tall arch to the left of the main entrance, evidence that it was there that the coaches would enter, with enough clearance for stove-hatted passengers.

“It’s just a case of having to leave out some places, otherwise I’d still be on the road and taking notes,” says Roger, who starts his Yorkshire saga at the Red Lion, in Doncaster’s Market Place. Apart from the Salutation, this is the only remaining evidence of the coaching service thereabouts, but, as with all the other high streets along the way, there would have been at least three or four more choices, each favoured by different coaching companies.

He goes onto Ferrybridge, where he dismisses the Golden Lion in a few terse words. His narrative doesn’t only serve as a historical guide, but also as a commentary on today’s beers and services available, as well as the local sights and attractions.

York, perhaps unsurprisingly provided rich pickings for Roger, who is now compiling a history of India Pale Ale, with visits to the Old Starre, Blue Boar, the Golden Fleece and the Old White Swan.

Dating from 1664, the Starre, in Stonegate, is probably York’s oldest licensed premises and it is a wonder a coach ever got up the narrow street, let alone got into the courtyard at the end of a long narrow ginnel.

“I suspect that the passengers got off the coach at some point like the Shambles and then walked to the inn,” says Roger, who went onwards to the Swan and Talbot in Wetherby, the Black Bull and the Crown in Boroughbridge, the Three Tuns and the Golden Fleece in Thirsk, and finally Northallerton’s pair of beasts, the Black Bull and the Golden Lion.

“You have such an abundance of great pubs,” he says. “And I’m so pleased that there’s one Yorkshire business that is dedicating itself to reopening the wonderful station buffets as showcases for their excellent beers. I was so impressed by the one on Platform 1 at Sheffield that I was very late indeed for a meeting I had in Barnsley. Now there’s an idea for another book, perhaps – railway bars?”

Historic Coaching Inns of the Great North Road, by Roger Protz. camra.org.uk/shop