BEFORE the 15th century roads were in a very poor state, writes ARTHUR R NICHOLLS. For most, the only way to travel was on foot or horseback. Some of the gentry might have a private carriage but travel in them was uncomfortable and potentially dangerous.

The ponderous carriers’ wagons with their wide wooden wheels coped better with the ruts, mud and rough surfaces. They transported goods and could take passengers but were slow, expensive and uncomfortable. The gentry shunned them, not willing to mix with the unwashed.

The establishment of the turnpikes brought improvements and Kendal became a major route centre. Mail coaches came in 1784, speeding the transport of the mail from London to the provinces and disseminating news. In their distinctive red and black colours they caught the imagination of the public, thrilled by the glamour of their speed. The mail coach introduced the concept of strict timekeeping, so much so people in villages along the way set their clocks by them.

Stagecoaches dated from about 1600 but were rarely seen until the late 18th century, gradually reaching their peak in the 1830s. The name ‘stagecoach’ derives from their travelling from stage to stage along the road, stopping at inns to change horses and allowing passengers to alight for food and rest from the bumping and lurching of the coach with its primitive springing. Stagecoaches were painted in bright colours, usually bearing the name of a prominent place on its journey or a suitable title – ‘The Bristol’, ‘The Union’, The Royal Pilot’.

It was speed, even though the average was little more than 12 miles an hour, which attracted the most attention. ‘The Flying Machine’ began running in 1763 from Kendal to London drawn by six horses and taking a week on the journey.

Despite its advantages, coach travel was not as comfortable as might be imagined. Passengers could ride inside, usually cramped in their voluminous clothing up to three a side, or could ride outside perched on the top of the coach, or beside the coachman; young bloods would sometimes take over the driving.

Even in good weather, riding outside had its hazards, especially in bad weather. Passengers could arrive at the inn thoroughly soaked by rain. A record tells of a coachman in winter being lifted down from his seat literally frozen stiff! Breakdowns were frequent and attacks by footpads or highwaymen were not unknown. The guard carried a gun for protection and a horn which he sounded loudly to warn the proprietor of the inn and the ostlers to be ready to serve the passengers and change the horses. The stagecoaches had to stop at the turnpike gates and pay the toll but were opened to let the mail coaches pass through without stopping. All other traffic had to make way for them.

The end of the stagecoach came very quickly with the advent of the railways in the 1840s.