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1887: A London to Brighton trip on the 'Old Times' coach

Updated: Jul 4



London to Brighton by coach in winter, and such a winter as we are promised. This is a bold announcement and calculated to startle the weak kneed brethren, one of whom observed, “ Ah, I soon get tired of that!” But then he knew not the Old Times coach, nor the redoubtable Selby, with his enthusiastic supporters; for certain it is that wherever and whenever this coach is announced to go, go it will in spite of everything. It has braved the winter storms of many years, and on some occasions may boast of making better time than the trains.

In the heavy snowstorm of January last it started at the appointed time with Messrs Dixon and Selby the only occupants, and before very long these gentlemen could hardly be said to possess a hand or foot between them, and not a yard of the road was visible. But they puddled along somehow, and turned up at Hatchett’s in due course in the evening all right.

Still, St Albans and Oatlands Park are not exactly the same as Brighton, and this journey will scarcely be accompanied in bad weather without considerable wear and tear of horseflesh. But it is wonderful what horses will do if properly and judiciously handled, for there is a grey which works at the near wheel has regularly done his day for nine years, and he looks sound as a bell of brass.

Another veteran, also a grey, was years ago called “the old horse” - he is now called the colt, and an artful old customer he is; he knows his business right well. It is amusing to watch how he comes back the instant the break is touched, and jumps into his collar again the moment it is let off.

But to hark back. On Tuesday the Old Times started with a good load of choice spirits, at least in front, and to judge from the peals of laughter from behind they were a jovial crew also. “Selby up to his games,” said one! But Selby is generally up to his games, and some of his stories should be taken with a grain of salt. He usually finds a way out though, for by and by he delivered himself thusly: “Now, this is called Hog’s Hill; a Mr Gammon lived here, and he married a Miss Bacon.”  “Really?” Queried a doubtful soul,” well that's as it was told to me, don't you know.”

James Selby c1880

Tooled out of town by Mr Dixon, who handles the ribbons in a workmanlike manner, down Piccadilly, Grosvenor Place, Buckingham Palace Road, over Chelsea Bridge, we are soon at Clapham Common, and marvel at the amount of building going on. Turning a sharp corner, we leave the common behind.

More building, half the road up for gas pipes, and here we are treated to a charming bit of courtesy on the part of an intelligent Britisher, who must needs pull out his cart and proceed at a snails pace to meet the coach where it was impossible to pass. A a sharp pull up, of course, for the lumbering vehicle was too ponderous to go for; but the idiot richly deserved the double song across his shoulders for his stupidity might have resulted in an accident.

The Horse and Groom Streatham, is the first change, dispatch is the order of the day, and in double quick time the coach is bowling away again, Mr Dixon still to the fore. This time it is two chestnuts, a grey, and a brown. One man wicked enough to cover it his neighbours goods looks admiringly on the off leader. Head and tail up, good back, well ripped up, it's beautifully turned quarters, life is a kitten, indulges in a bit of dance to start with and then settles to work like a great Northern express.

It is a merry pace, for they are all good ones, handy withal, for soon a very neat bit of driving may be seen. Going for the country, consequently the same way as the coach, is a small procession of market wagons. Just where these have to be passed on the offside, there stands a milk cart, then a coal wagon standing half across the road after the manner of coal wagons, then a pony chaise, said pony kicking up his heels vigorously to do honour to the occasion; beyond all these a brewer’s team turns the corner, and immediately behind that we are slap on top of a steam roller.

The corkscrew business was accomplished very neatly, but to many ambitious whips it would have been a case of dire confusion if not utter grief. There is an unconscionable amount of tramlines this way; enough and to spare through the town, but here is a second addition through the everlasting Croydons.

How many Croydons are there? East Croydon, West Croydon, South Croydon, New Croydon, and there may be some more hiding round the corner. The fresh team may now be seen waiting at the Windsor Castle, Purley Bottom.

The short time it appears since the last change shows that over this stage the pace has been a “cracker”. It is a bright, bracing day, and a certain individual, of more retiring habits than the rest, meekly inquires if the coach lunches here. “Next change but one, “ says the evergreen Selby, whereupon the individual of retiring habits retires within himself, a deep gloom stealing upon his wan features. But everything comes in time, and at 1.40 the coach pulls up at the Chequers at Horley. Our friend makes a dive at the risk of his neck, and bounds, three steps at a time, up to the old hostelry to make running while he can. It is an excellent lunch.

Everything good, well cooked, and well served, and it is soon a case of all hands to the mill.

“Nothing in this world can last”, and so the lunch dispatched, the merry horn proclaims the time to start afresh. Cigars are lit, tongues wagged more freely than before, and more beauty is discerned in the colouring of the landscape. As if to impress more forcibly upon us the time of year, there in the distance is a pink coat jogging home, approaching nearer we see a good bay horse, a man riding well, very pretty bit of colour with the russets, yellows, greens, and browns for background, here is another man in sober black. Who are they? “The Surrey Stag”, we are told; so we return to “thoughts of ‘unting”, as Mr Jorrocks would say. Ah, here is a funny little place! Good gracious! Two people creeping on all fours and lie down - for surely it would be impossible to stand up right? There is the new team, so we will just pop in and investigate while they change.

But at the moment up the road on the right there appear huntsman, hounds, whips, with a fair cavalcade of horsemen, and these naturally turn away further attention to the house, except to dash it down in lightning strokes into the sketch book.

Our near-wheeler forgets for the moment that he has just done a rather tiring stage, for it occurs to him as a suitable and fitting occasion to caper about on his hind legs, and manifest a general inclination to make a bolt of it. Away they all go up the very road we are presently to travel, so Mr Thoughtful keenly scrutinises the fresh team to see how many hunters are in it, for if by any chance hounds should dash across the road under the leaders noses it might be "muckle din and mickle wool". They scoured away, however, on our right, and we only saw them again in the distance.

Cuckfield is the next change and here at the Talbot cups of the refreshing beverage are temptingly laid out. The ladies indulge therein, but the men with one accord gravitate towards the bar. There is the horn! "Clamber up; sit fast; for the Old Times does not loiter by the way. Down the steep street, then Cuckfield Park, “Rookwood” on the right, in 40 minutes we sight Friars Oak, the last change.

There is a team! Talk about bone substance, there it is; and it is all wanted, with metal into the bargain, for this stage begins with a hill, a regular radical, very long and steep, altogether beyond a joke with a full load and road decidedly holding. However, they tackle it with a will, but they reek a bit before reaching the top; then it is all easy going right into Brighton.

The daylight now begins to fade, and the man in red comes along and lights the lamps as the coach is running, two on the panels, two on the neck, and a footboard lamp, a brave show, and thus we clatter into the town, spin along the Kings Road, and draw reign at the Old Ship, where an admiring crowd is waiting to receive us, with The Wonder, Mr Rumney’s coach from Arundel, due at the same time.

J. S.



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