This summer, through my last two blogs here at Austen Authors, Let’s Travel, and Passing Through the Tollgate, we have been traveling from Hertfordshire via the public stagecoach. Our destination is Derbyshire (and you know what pot of gold awaits us there, right?), a journey of 103 miles. Along the way, we’ve seen faster private coaches, mail coaches and almost everyone one else, except wagons and farm carts, pass us by on the road.
We’re weary, hungry, and dusty, and so looking forward to stopping at an inn for some sustenance and rest. The coachman has assured us he will find us the best inn. There shouldn’t be any difficulty in finding an inn. A well-heeled, well-pursed traveler who arrives by boat to a port town, if he or she is not met by friends, will have no difficulty finding a place. The innkeeper himself would personally meet the boat or carriage and persuade the travelers, by seizing passengers’ overcoats, and lead them to his inn.
No landlord greeting us at the turnpike leading to town? No problem. We can find it. A town’s inn is often the most important buildings in the town, with the entrance to some inns heralds by an ornate, triumphal arch.
No triumphal arch? Look for inn signs, which are usually enormous in size, with usual names like Dragons, Red Lions, Swans, but if we’re lucky, we may get to stop at the ‘Sugar Loaves and Peacocks,’ or ‘The Ship and Shovel,’ or ‘The Bull and Mouth.’
(Actually, for the ex-Catholic schoolgirl in me, I want to stay at the ‘Virgins,’ the ‘Maid’s Heads,’ or ‘St. Peter’s Finger’–all real names of inns, btw.)
It is nearly dusk, but our stagecoach zooms past the ‘Oxford Arms.’ (Though the real Oxford Arms in the photos below was located in London, for our fictional purpose, we’ll pretend it’s located somewhere in our journey).
These wide archways often lead into the inn yard surrounded by tiers of galleries. (Here’s an 1875 photograph of the Oxford Arms coaching inn in Warwick Lane, London, a year before it was demolished. The subsequent public outcry made it a landmark in galvanizing the public conservation movement of historic buildings. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was formed a year later, in 1877).
“That’s one of the Posting Houses,” Miss Bates says (We forgot about our loquacious travel companion, haven’t we?). “Such a grand establishment only entertains quality people who posted in their own carriages or in post-chaises. Our apothecary, Mr. Perry, is thinking of getting a carriage himself. And Mrs. Elton’s brother—”
“Look, the mail coach stopped there,” we interrupt, having heard ad nauseam about Highbury residents on the trip, we’re sick of them. Mail coach passengers, if they are genteel enough, are welcome at Posting Houses, but not us stagecoach passengers.
Behind the mail coach, a gentleman riding a horse enters the George’s yard. We recognize him as the newly disowned and impoverished Mr. Edward Ferrar of Sense and Sensibility. He is unaccompanied by servants, which may not bode well for his chance to get accommodation at a grand establishment like the Oxford Arms, for they boast they only serve quality. Yet, his countenance shows no sign of regret. Hmm. There’s an anticipatory gleam in his eyes. Per chance he’s riding to Barton Cottage to ask for Miss Elinor’s hand? We wish him well and want to tell him that, soon, never fear, he will be re-owned again by his well-pursed mother.
Another few miles and yet we pass by another inn. This time, we turn up our noses and do not bother to complain. An inn for wayfarers and waggon passengers is not for us. As weary as we are, we have standards. As stagecoach travelers, we are on a higher rung of society’s ladder.
At last, coachman stops the coach at a decent inn, with an arch entrance that, though modest, appears triumphant enough to please us. The landlord comes out to the coach and greets us personally, a good sign. He must have recognized we have a touch of quality amongst us (praise be Miss Jane Fairfax!). Rotund and rubicund men these innkeepers may be, as proprietors of a good size inns, they are men of substance. They rank above tradesmen of the town, you see.
Quality people like Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley traveling in their own carriages or post-chaise always are offered private sitting-rooms to dine in, and sometimes mail-coach passengers if they were genteel enough people, but for us, it’s the common dining-room. Even Miss Fairfax and Miss Bates do not request private room, for they are well aware that stage-coach travelers who order private rooms would be considered ‘giving themselves airs.’ Though it galls some of us, we know our money is not equal to Quality’s money (never mind that these Quality gents and madams don’t often pay their bills—but that’s another blog topic.)
Soon, a set dinner is laid before our company—’rosbif’ (as raw or as well-cooked as you wish), vegetables steeped with soot and killed in boiling water, and copious amount of brown water we are assured is coffee. But, since we are hearty English folks and not those fancy-tongue Frenchies, we do not complain, do we?
After our meal, we are shown to our rooms. We scratch ourselves and fervently hope our bedmates that night, whoever they are, would not snore or, worse, hog the vermin-infested linens.
What? You didn’t know that it’s not unusual for total strangers to share rooms or beds at inns, even good inns? You thought all those Regency novels you’ve read which had the hero and heroine sharing a bed at an inn is a contrived plot device used by authors with no imagination?
Think of it like traveling overnight on your twenty-first-century ships or trains. You share cabins and compartments, don’t you?
Hmm. We might get lucky. We’re near Derbyshire. Who knows, broken-hearted Mr. Darcy, on his way back from Hunsford, may be forced to stop here (let’s say his carriage has a broken spring). Tramps that we are, we would willingly offer to share our bed with him, right? There, we’ve struck the pot of gold!
As for me, after nearly two months of near-constant traveling, the pot of gold will be sleeping in my bed for the next few weeks with constant, reliable internet connection and my beloved writing office nearby.