How our inns flourished

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I travel around a great deal, and in relative comfort compared to our ancestors. Before the coming of the railways, overland travel would have been undertaken in a large part by stagecoaches.

The first route, which started in 1610 ran from Edinburgh to Leith, and was soon followed by others which navigated the muddy, rutted roads at speeds of around 5 miles per hour. Imagine being bounced around for the 8 day journey from Exeter to London in 1673. However things improved, and during the 18th and 19th century, better organisation, improved roads and steel springs on the coaches made it possible for the ‘Flying Coach’ to reach London from Liverpool in just three days. Along the way there would be the need to stop and change the horses, allow the passengers to eat and drink and perhaps spend the night. A whole network of Coaching Inns sprang up to meet these needs. Often distinguished by an arch which allowed access to the stables at the back, these were often rather grand buildings, such as the Dukes Head or Globe in Lynn. However their time was limited, and as the railway network spread, they lost their original function. Gone is the Crown which occupied the gardens by the South Gate and which is visible on what might be the oldest photograph of King’s Lynn, closed by compensation in 1918. Also gone is the Crown Hotel which once stood on the car park on Church Street which went into steady decline as the railway approached Lynn, and which eked out its last few years as a Temperance Hotel before becoming the site of Johnson & Sons Garages, later, I think, Mann Edgerton. I think the irony would have been lost on the coachman who wrote a poem describing how he lost his livelihood and ended up living on the charity of his former customers.

However, not all the Coaching Inns have disappeared. One of the grandest ever built in Norfolk was the Scole Inn near Diss, built in 1655 by John Peck, and still welcoming guests today, although they are much more likely to turn up by car than stagecoach. We stopped there recently en route from Sweffling to Hockwold (a journey few make!), and had a well-appointed room in the old stable block. Unfortunately, what was once the main attraction of the Inn has long since disappeared? Back in the 18th century it sported the most expensive Inn sign in the world, an elaborate carved arch which spanned the road and was said to have cost £1,067 when it was constructed by John Fairfax at the same time as the Inn. Descriptions refer to it as having carved figures of Diana, Actaeon with angels, Neptune, Justice, Lions and several other figures, one of which acted as a weather vane. Depending on who you believe, it was removed as it was considered dangerous, in either 1750 or 1803. This is before the time of photographs, but there are several line drawings that should not be too difficult to find using an internet search, and if these are accurate, it was indeed a glorious construction.

I guess the modern day equivalent of the Coaching Inn is the Premier Travelodge.

How to make them stand out? Wouldn’t it be fun if the Freebridge Farm spent just short of a million pounds (John Fairfax’s budget, inflation adjusted) on a new pub sign straddling the bypass?