Barnet was the gateway to the North, back in the 19th century, over 150
coaches would pass through the town every DAY. Here local historian and
author Richard Selby takes you on a fictional coach journey to the top
of the hill.
spiked my face and blurred my vision and neither the brim of my hat nor
the high collar of my cloaked coat kept it from running down my neck.
I held on to a rail for dear life as the coach lurched and swayed over
the rutted track and I took no solace that the other nine passengers perched
perilously across the roof were just as miserable.
bruised my back on the sharp corners of a trunk or one of the cases which
shared the spine of the coach and I had to steady myself by locking my
feet under other luggage which had been strapped to its sides. The coach
was dreadfully overladen and perilously top heavy. My shoes had been soaked
in soggy mud and I shivered in the dampness. The journey had been tiring,
although we had been gone from Holborn for only two hours. An average
of about five miles an hour was to be expected in those conditions and
at least I was not walking to Barnet.
of the road users stepped aside into the bushes to avoid the mud which
splashed around the horses' hoofs and from the great wheels.
I looked past the driver and saw steam rise from the labouring animals.
Their backs were a lustre of sweat and rain and their odour filled the
We had not stopped at Whetstone for the gate had been opened when the
keeper heard us coming. Our guard had sounded his distinctive tarantara
when three furlongs distant which gave the gatekeeper at least two minutes
to don his cloak. All of us apprentices recognised the particular calls
of the coaches. The Mail Coaches horned authoritative fanfares for they
had a time schedule to uphold. Woe betides their drivers who let a precious
minute be lost. We were only riding on a stage coach which would get to
its destination when it could.
lay in dark pools and puddles for despite the road having been metalled
with block some years previously ruts had been worn through the surface
and were full of sludge. We never knew just how deep they were until the
wheels sank to their axles. However, the coachman deliberately drove us
through the well-worn tracks, for to miss a furrow would have meant that
the coach would ride up on one side and probably upturn us. There were
ladies trying to retain some modicum of modesty and bearing beside me.
They, likewise, had chosen to pay half fare for the topside ride. Those
who could afford to ride inside, four men that day, were being thrown
about a claustrophobic cabin. We considered ourselves lucky that we were
Despite the rain there was nothing as exhilarating as that kind of journey.
Sometimes the coachman would let me take the reins, and that was a treat
with all four horses responding to my left hand. My right held the whip
and occasionally I used it to spur the charges ahead. But that day all
I could think about was staying in my place.
coach slowed to cross tracks as the bulk of a covered waggon appeared
ahead. It too was making for Barnet but its journey was very slow. The
waggoner walked beside its train guiding the leaders along the road. As
we passed them I counted eight heavy horses linked in pairs struggling
to grip the mud. Each step of their way was laboured as they sank to their
fetlocks in the mud-filled ruts. They were caked in layers of filth and
their burden seemed more than the load they hauled.
The wagon probably carried a dozen tonnes and I wondered what it was that
Could it have been building materials or foodstuffs? I let the thought
fade as the coach returned to its original tracks with much rocking and
noise. The springs holding the carriage above the axles were of leather
and steel so they screeched loudly as they stretched to their limits.
When another coach approached from the other direction we came to a halt
and the coachmen exchanged tidings. It was quite four minutes before ours
was reminded of his purpose by a shout from within and we continued. Each
of us gave greetings to the passengers on the opposite vehicle with much
hat touching and waving of hands. They were delighted to hear that Trafalgar
had been won as we called the good news across the road.
hamlet was before us but we had first to negotiate the decline of Pricklers
Hill. We passed Underhill House and descended again towards the cottages
which lay below the next climb into Barnet. It would have been nightfall
before we arrived but I held an introduction to a Mrs Scarbody who owned
the Queens Head in Hadley. She would find me a bed for the night if I
could afford no other, and I was ready for her hospitality. The coach
rolled down into the yard of the Lower Red Lion where two of our passengers
alighted. I helped to throw down their portmanteaux and other luggage.
coachmen checked that an additional team was available and ostlers brought
a pair from their stables already harnessed for attaching to our leaders.
The guard shouted out a warning to us to hold on and the coach, now with
six horses, was led out for the procession to Barnet.
The train was led by the ostler from the Red Lion riding astride the front
pair and we proceeded at his pace, which in all honesty was not much slower
than the journey we had so far endured. On my previous visit no spare
teams had been available and the most nimble of the passengers had been
made to walk the hill.
incline steepened and the horses strained more than they had in the past
ten miles. They had coped well with the climb to Islington and had overcome
Highgate Hill without flagging. Their passage through Finchley Common
had been a drag and I was full of admiration at this, their final challenge
of the day. I wondered just how many teams would need to be linked to
the wagon which we had passed fifteen minutes previously.
The hill took a few minutes to ascend but the lights of the town
lay ahead of us, and I began to anticipate the hot meal and a glass or
two of ale. The tower of the church was silhouetted against the last colours
of the evening sky which had begun to show through the breaking clouds.
Slowly, ever so slowly, our coach approached the houses, cottages and
inns. Most of their chimneys exuded smoke which hung in the damp, windless
air. The rain had eased but the road remained slippery despite the surface
of the hill having been prepared in a proper manner, and plentiful hay
had been strewn to soak up the mud and manure. Our way was blocked by
a lone cow but the leadsman gave it a kick and it returned down a side
alley. The bulk of Middle Row divided the road as it widened. Inns and
taverns, alehouses and shops were around us when we reached the brow of
the hill and we stopped for the spare horses to be unhitched.
those who ride with us to Biggleswade,” shouted the coachman, “be
in the yard of the Boar’s Head at seven of the clock. That is in
one half hour, if you please."
I glanced at the clock on the church and wondered if it chimed the hours.
Thankfully I was not to be continuing my journey until the morrow.
We dismounted and I watched to see where my fellow passengers retired.
The gentlemen from within stretched their legs and walked into the Kings
Head. Moments later liveried boys ran out to collect their luggage. I
nodded farewell to my companions and stepped out on to the High Street
as the coach was led through the arch of the Boar’s Head. I looked
around to recall my memories for it had been awhile since I had ventured
this way on my journeys home to the Midlands and I intended to spend the
evening with acquaintances that I had met on an earlier visit.
There was a pennant hanging bedraggled from the mast on the church tower.
The stones in its graveyard stood worn and ready to fall, and the few
that had toppled were already overgrown with the briars of neglect. The
town was old and the houses were an assortment of design and purpose.
Cooking pots within teased my nose with vapours which escaped through
seemed to tunnel themselves between the overhanging timbers of adjacent
houses, down which I spied goats tethered amidst sleepy hens in the yards
Hearty laughter turned my head to the open door of an ale-house through
which I could see the flames of the hearth adding warmth to its patrons’
fellowship. “It is good to be here again,” I remember saying
to myself with an air of blissful recollection, and in heady anticipation
stepped out towards Hadley.
The foregoing account is an imaginary journey to Barnet at the start of
the nineteenth century. However it would indeed have been as romantic,
for the details are correct as far as records tell us.
Barnet Hill was not an easy route to travel until it was straightened
and smoothed out in the 1820’s, but it lay on the Great North Road
and just before the divide of the roads at Hadley. The town was a staging
point where the horses were changed; a place where passengers could alight,
rest and take refreshment in their journey north, or freshen up before
the final stage into London. Barnet abounded with establishments solely
for the replenishment of man and beast and this book is their story
Richard Selby wrote the popular “Barnet Pubs” Out Now