TRANSPORT AND TRAVEL
‘Journeys are very perilous,’ said Quilp, ‘especially outside the
coach. Wheels come off, horses take fright, coachmen drive too fast,
Dickens, as we have seen, travelled to London by coach, and for just over a decade after his arrival from Kent in 1822 the mail coach was unchallenged as the fastest and most glamorous form of transport. As sleek as greyhounds, these vehicles could travel at up to 16 miles an hour. To us this naturally seems unremarkable – a bicycle can easily go that fast – but to anyone seated high on the roof of a speeding coach, clinging to their hat in the slipstream and watching the team of straining horses ahead, hearing the rattle and jingle of wheels and harness, the braying of the guard’s horn and the crack of the coachman’s whip, the experience was highly exhilarating. It was little wonder that small boys dreamed of becoming coachmen, or that rich young men in the Regency period made a hobby of taking over the reins and doing the driving themselves.
The mail coaches were one of the wonders of Britain and were admired by natives and foreigners alike, as well as by those who operated them (one coachman called them ‘the most perfect system of road travelling the world has ever seen’).
They were part of a transport structure that was certainly faster, better organized and thus more efficient than that of any other country in Europe. They had been established only in 1784, so that barely four generations of