by Lynn Atterebury
The Brighton coach coming down Cuckfield Hill. from The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News of 22 August 1874.
The Romans used to tramp the road to Brighton, or rather to Pyecombe on the South Downs, where the route out of London joined the east-west thoroughfares linking Chichester, Stanc Street and the old settlements of Lewes and Pevensey. It began where so many Roman roads met, at London Bridge, and made its way through Croydon, Godstone, Felbridge and then across the Weald through Ardingly, Burgess Hill and eventually to Pyecombe where numerous trackways led down to the coast. Later another, shorter, route developed that took the traveller out of London via Clapham, Mitcham, Sutton, Reigate and Povey Cross.
It was not, however, until 1696 that the new road was made that can really be regarded as the progenitor of the present Brighton road. It was a causeway for horsemen, constructed in Surrey between Reigate and Crawley which later, in 1755, was operated as a toll road for all traffic. This was the first of the toll gates on the Brighton road, and the last to remain in regular use.
Borough High Street used to be the old starting point for journeys to Brighton, but after 1749 the new bridge at Westminster became a more convenient place to begin. On May 1,1791, the first Brighton mail coach service was established, and by 1826 as many as 17 coaches ran between London and Brighton. The coaching era gave way to steam and the railway; then came the motor car. The Motor Car Club celebrated the age of the car with a procession to Brighton on November 4,1896, Emancipation Day, as it became known, when the law requiring a red flag or lamp to be carried in front of the vehicle was abolished.
The event was the inspiration for the Veteran Car Rally from London to Brighton held each November. During the Regency period the White Horse Cellar or Hatchett's in Piccadilly were popular starting places for journeys to Brighton. It was the Prince Regent, later King George IV. who was the town's greatest patron. The Prince first visited Brighton on September 7, 1783, and by 1787 had had a house built for himself which was gradually transformed into the Royal Pavilion. Brighton became the place to go to. the place to be seen in and the place to talk about. But it was not just a matter of getting there; it also mattered how quickly the journey could be completed.
Prince sets record
Appropriately enough the Prince Regent set the first records. On July 25, 1784, he rode from Brighton to Carlton House, London and back in 10 hours. A month later, using a phaeton drawn by three horses harnessed in tandem, he set another record by leaving London at lam and reaching Brighton four-and-a-half hours later. Coach operators vied with each other to provide the fastest journey, the record being set up by Charles Harbour, who drove the Red Rover coach to Brighton in 3 hours 40 minutes on February 4, 1834. In 1880, in an attempt to revive coach travel. Jim Selby drove the Old Times coach from London to Brighton and back in 7 hours 50 minutes.
The 19th century marked the beginning of a new age of discovery, during which the limits of human strength and endurance began to be explored. The first athletic clubs, Thames Hare and Hounds and. Black heath Harriers, had been established by 1869, and so, too, had the first cycling clubs. Predictably the Brighton road became the venue for feats of athletic prowess.
The first recorded run on the Brighton road was on January 30, 1837, when two professional runners, John Townsend and Jack Berry, set off for Brighton from the Elephant and Castle. Townsend triumphed with a time of 8 hours 37 minutes. In 1868 Benjamin Trench is reported to have walked from Kennington Church to Brighton and back in 23 hours for, as was common in those days, a heavy wager.
A walking race organized by Polytechnic Harriers on April 10, 1897, marked the beginning of more controlled and better authenticated events, and it was won by Teddy Knott in 8 hours 56 minutes 44 seconds. A Polish competitor carried a revolver in his pocket, in case he should be attacked by wolves. The race started from the Polytechnic in Regent Street, some distance from today’s starting place on Westminster Bridge.
The Brighton road has been run, walked and cycled. Beds, prams and wheelbarrows have been pushed along it to raise money for charity. Athletes from all over the world have come to do battle with it indeed, it is probably the most sporting road in the world. Perhaps, nowadays, its appeal IS waning. Not because it no longer presents a challenge, but because it has been overrun by the motor-vehicle, suffocated by the stifling, smelly fumes from the traffic, and depressed by mile after mile of lifeless, soul-destroying dual- carriageway. Yet there will always be those who will want to run and walk and cycle the Brighton road.
Others, like the 12.000 cyclists who each May ride from London to Brighton, may choose to abandon the traditional Brighton road in favour of a new route. This is not very direct, nearer 60 than 50 miles, but it is quiet and pretty, and there is no hurry and not much traffic. It is a pleasant relaxing day out in good company travelling through the lanes and they can still get to Brighton as quickly, or as slowly, as the Prince Regent did in 1784.
Source: Illustrated London News, 2 November 1982
Photo taken by the author c1970 of the Veteran Run on the A23 heading north towards the Warninglid crossing (no flyover then).
Video 'London to Brighton Veteran Car Run 2017 - Cuckfield' posted on YouTube by 'the Ford Collection' https://youtu.be/pKzrhWtVbfw
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.