Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Portsmouth Road and Its Tributaries, by Charles G. Harper - Full Text


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From a painting by George Morland.
Till, woe is me, so lubberly,
The vermin came and pressed me.


The Brighton Road,
Marches of Wales,
Drawing for Reproduction,
&c., &c., &c.

Illustrated by the Author, and from Old-time Prints and

London: CHAPMAN & HALL Limited
(All Rights Reserved.)

Richard Clay & Sons, Limited,
London & Bungay.

[Pg vii]
My dear Reichardt,
Here is the result of two years’ hard work for your perusal; the outcome of delving amid musty, dusty files of by-gone newspapers; of research among forgotten books, and pamphlets curious and controversial; of country jaunts along this old road both for pleasures sake and for taking the notes and sketches that go towards making up the story of this old highway.
You will appreciate, more than most, the difficulties of contriving a well-ordered narrative of times so clean forgotten as those of old-road travel, and better still will you perceive the largeness of the task of transmuting the notes and sketches of this undertaking into paper and print. Hence this dedication.
Yours, &c.,
[Pg viii]

[Pg ix]

There has been of late years a remarkable and widespread revival of interest in the old coach-roads of England; a revival chiefly owing to the modern amateur’s enthusiasm for coaching; partly due to the healthy sport and pastime of cycling, that brings so many afield from populous cities who would otherwise grow stunted in body and dull of brain; and in degree owing to the contemplative spirit that takes delight in scenes of by-gone commerce and activity, prosaic enough, to the most of them that lived in the Coaching Age, but now become hallowed by mere lapse of years and the supersession of horse-flesh by steam-power.
The Story of the Roads belongs now to History, and History is, to your thoughtful man, quite as interesting as the best of novels. Sixty years ago the Story of the Roads was brought to an end, and at that time (so unheeded is the romance of every-day life) it seemed a story of the most commonplace type, not worthy the telling. But we have gained what was of necessity denied our fathers and grandfathers in this matter—the charm of Historical Perspective, that lends a saving grace to experiences of the most ordinary description, and to happenings the most untoward. Our forebears travelled the[Pg x] roads from necessity, and saw nothing save unromantic discomforts in their journeyings to and fro. We who read the records of their times are apt to lament their passing, and to wish the leisured life and not a few of the usages of our grandfathers back again. The wish is vain, but natural, for it is a characteristic of every succeeding generation to look back lovingly on times past, and in the retrospect to see in roseate colours what was dull and, neutral-tinted to folk who lived their lives in those by-gone days.
If we only could pierce to the thought of æons past, perhaps we should find the men of the Stone Age regretting the times of the Arboreal Ancestor, and should discover that distant relative, while swinging by his prehensile tail from the branches of some forest tree, lamenting the careless, irresponsible life of his remote forebear, the Primitive Pre-atomic Globule.
However that may be, certain it is that when our day is done, when Steam shall have been dethroned and natural forces of which we know nothing have revolutionized the lives of our descendants, those heirs of all the ages will look back regretfully upon this Era of ours, and wistfully meditate upon the romantic life we led towards the end of the nineteenth century!
The glamour of old-time travel has appealed to me equally with others of my time, and has led me to explore the old coach-roads and their records. Work of this kind is a pleasure, and the programme I have mapped out of treating all the classic roads of England in this wise, is, though long and difficult, not (to quote a horsey phrase suitable to this subject) all“collar work.”
35, Connaught Street, Hyde Park,
London, April 1895.


Stone’s End, Borough, to—
Battersea Rise4
Wandsworth (cross River Wandle)
Tibbet’s Corner, Putney Heath
“Robin Hood,” Kingston Vale9
Norbiton Church11¼
Kingston Market-place12
Thames Ditton13¾
Cobham Street (cross River Mole)19½
Wisley Common20¼
Guildford (cross River Wey)29½
St. Catherine’s Hill30½
Peasmarsh Common (cross River Wey)31¼
Moushill and Witley Commons36¼
Hammer Ponds38½
Hindhead (Gibbet Hill)41¼
Cold Ash Hill and “Seven Thorns” Inn44¼
Liphook (“Royal Anchor”)46¾
Milland Common47½
[Pg xvi]Rake50¼
Sheet Bridge (cross River Rother)53¾
“Coach and Horses”59
Waterlooville and White Lane End65½
Purbrook (cross Purbrook stream)66½
North End70¾
Portsmouth Town72
Portsmouth, Victoria Pier73

[Pg 1]
The Portsmouth Road


The Portsmouth Road is measured (or was measured when road-travel was the only way of travelling on terra firma, and coaches the chiefest machines of progression) from the Stone’s End, Borough. It went by Vauxhall to Wandsworth, Putney Heath, Kingston-on-Thames, Guildford, and Petersfield; and thence came presently into Portsmouth through the Forest of Bere and past the frowning battlements of Porchester. The distance was, according to Cary,—that invaluable guide, philosopher, and friend of our grandfathers,—seventy-one miles, seven furlongs; and[Pg 2] our forebears who prayerfully entrusted their bodies to the dangers of the roads and resigned their souls to Providence, were hurried along this route at the break-neck speed of something under eight miles an hour, with their hearts in their mouths and their money in their boots for fear of the highwaymen who infested the roads, from London suburbs to the gates of Portsmouth Citadel.
“Cary’s Itinerary” for 1821 gives nine hours as the speediest journey performed in that year by what was then considered the meteoric and previously unheard-of swiftness of the “Rocket,” which, in that new and most fashionable era of mail and stage-coach travelling, had deserted the grimy and decidedly unfashionable precincts of the Borough and the“Elephant and Castle,” for modish Piccadilly. So imagine the “Rocket” (do you not perceive the subtle allusion to speed in that title?) starting from the “White Bear,” Piccadilly, which stood where the “Criterion” now soars into the clouds—any morning at nine o’clock, to the flourishes of the guard’s “yard of tin,” and to the admiration of a motley crowd of’prentice-boys; Corinthians, still hazy in their ideas and unsteady on their legs from debauches and card-playing in the night-houses of the Haymarket round the corner; and of a frowzy, importunate knot of Jew pedlars, and hawkers of all manner of useful and useless things which might, to a vivid imagination, seem useful on a journey by coach. Away, with crack of whip, tinful, rather than tuneful, fanfare, performed by scarlet-coated, purple-faced guard, and with merry rattle of harness, to Putney, where, upon the Heath, the coach joined the
[Pg 3]“... old road, the high-road,
The road that’s always new,”
thus to paraphrase the poet.
They were jolly coach-loads that fared along the roads in coaching days, and, truly, all their jollity was needed, for unearthly hours, insufficient protection from inclement weather, and the tolerable certainty of falling in with thieves on their way, were experiences and contingencies that, one might imagine, could scarce fail of depressing the most buoyant spirits. But our forebears were composed of less delicate nerves and tougher thews and sinews than ourselves. Possibly they had not our veneer of refinement; they certainly possessed a most happy ignorance of science and art; of microbes, and all the recondite ailments that perplex us moderns, they knew nothing; they did all their work by that glorious rule, the rule of thumb; and for their food, they lived on roast beef and home-brewed ale, and damned kickshaws, new-fangled notions, gentility, and a hundred other innovations whole-heartedly, like so many Cobbetts. And Cobbett, in very truth, is the pattern and exemplar of the old-time Englishman, who cursed tea, paper money, “gentlemen” farmers, and innumerable things that, innovations then, have long since been cast aside as old-fashioned and out of date.
The Englishman of the days of road-travel was a much more robust person than the Englishman of railway times. He had to be! The weaklings were all killed off by the rigours of the undeniably harder winters than we experience to-day, and by the rough-and-ready conditions of existence that made for the[Pg 4] survival of the strongest constitutions. Luxurious times and easier conditions of life breed their own peculiar ills, and the Englishman of a hundred years ago was a very fine animal indeed, who knew little of nerves, and, altogether, compared greatly to his own advantage with his neuralgia-stricken descendants of to-day.
Still, our ancestors saw nothing of the romance of their times. That has been left for us to discover, and that glamour in which we see their age is one afforded only by the lapse of time.
No: coaching days had their romance, more obvious perhaps to ourselves than to those who lived in the times of road-travel; but most certainly they had their own peculiar discomforts which we who are hurled at express speed in luxurious Pullman cars, or in the more exclusive and less sociable “first,” to our destination would never endure were railways abolished and the coaching era come again. I should imagine that three-fourths of us would remain at home.
Here are some of the coaching miseries experienced by one who travelled before steam had taken the place of good horseflesh, and, sooth to say, there is not much in the nature of romantic glamour attaching to them:—
Misery number one. Although your place has been contingently secured some days before, and although you have risen with the lark, yet you see the ponderous vehicle arrive full. And this, not unlikely, more than once.
2. At the end of a stage, beholding the four panting, reeking, foaming animals which have dragged you [Pg 5]twelve miles, and the stiff, galled, scraggy relay, crawling and limping out of the yard.
3. Being politely requested, at the foot of a tremendous hill, to ease the horses. Mackintoshes, vulcanized india-rubber, gutta-percha, and gossamer dust-coats unknown then.
4. An outside passenger, resolving to endure no longer “the pelting of the pitiless storm,” takes refuge, to your consternation, inside; together with his dripping hat, saturated cloak, and soaked umbrella.
5. Set down with a promiscuous party to a meal bearing no resemblance to that of a good hotel, excepting in the charge; and no time allowed in which to enjoy it.
6. Closely packed in a box, “cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d, bound in,” withfive companions morally or physically obnoxious, for two or three comfortless days and nights.
7. During a halt overhearing the coarse language of the ostlers and the tipplers of the roadside pot-house: and besieged with beggars exposing their horrible mutilations.
8. Roused from your fitful nocturnal slumber by the horn or bugle; the lashing and cracking of whips; the noisy arrivals at turnpike gates, or by a search for parcels (which, after all, are not there) under your seat: to say nothing of solicitous drivers who pester you with their entirely uncalled-for attentions.
9. Discovering, at a diverging-point in your journey, that the “Tally-ho”coach runs only every other day or so, or that it has been finally stopped.
10. Clambering from the wheel by various iron[Pg 6] projections to your elevated seat, fearful, all the while, of breaking your precious neck.
11. After threading the narrowest streets of an ancient town, entering the inn-yard by a low archway, at the imminent risk of decapitation.
12. Seeing the luggage piled “Olympus high,” so as to occasion an alarming oscillation.
13. Having the reins and whip placed in your unpractised hands while coachee indulges in a glass and chat.
14. To be, when dangling at the edge of a seat, overcome with drowsiness.
15. Exposed to piercing draughts, owing to a refractory glass; or, vice versâ, being in a minority, you are compelled, for the sake of ventilation, to thrust your umbrella accidentally through a pane.
16. At various seasons, suffocated with dust and broiled by a powerful sun; or crouching under an umbrella in a drenching rain—or petrified with cold—torn by fierce winds—struggling through snow—or wending your way through perilous floods.
17. Perceiving that a young squire is receiving an initiatory lesson into the art of driving; or that a jibbing horse, or a race with an opposition coach, is endangering your existence.
18. Losing the enjoyment, or employment, of much precious time, not only on the road, but also from subsequent fatigue.
19. Interrupted by your two rough-coated, big-buttoned, many-caped friends, the coachman and guard, who hope you will remember them before the termination of your hurried meal. Although[Pg 7] the gratuity has been frequently calculated in anticipation, you fail in making the mutual reminiscences agreeable.
Clearly this was no laudator temporis acti.

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