The history of Stilton is bound up with the history of the Great North Road itself.
The road was built by the Romans as a major route to the north, probably following much of a more ancient trackway. A few miles to the north of Stilton were several important Roman settlements and the area is replete with archaeological evidence of Roman life. The well in the courtyard of the Bell Inn is believed to be Roman in origin.
After the Romans left, an Anglo-Saxon settlement grew here on what is now Fen Street and Church Street. This became an important trading point for fish, eels & wildfowl caught in the nearby Whittlesea Mere (then southern England’s largest lake) and sold into the Northamptonshire uplands.
The stagecoaching era
Up until the railway age, the Great North Road remained a major artery – at one time over 40 stage and mail coaches a day passed through Stilton.
There are staging inns all the way along its length but, because Stilton was a day’s horse-ride from London, it became an important overnight staging post. A thriving community of farriers, ostlers, inn-keepers and blacksmiths soon developed. By the early 19th century Stilton had more than 12 inns and stabling for over 300 horses.
Many famous – and infamous – people have stopped in Stilton during their travels. In 1722 Daniel Defoe wrote of being offered a spoon to eat the mites in the cheese! The notorious highwayman Dick Turpin is also reputed to have made a hasty escape from the Bell Inn by leaping from an upstairs window.
The coaches brought prosperity until the advent of the railway destroyed the coaching trade, and the more or less simultaneous draining of Whittlesea Mere put an end to the fishing and wildfowl trade. Stilton reverted to an agricultural settlement. The dozen or more inns dwindled to four.
In the 20th century, the growth of motor transport revived Stilton’s fortunes. Inns, cafes and garages flourished. By 1959, however, the busy High Street had become a bottleneck. The A1 was re-routed around Stilton and the passing trade disappeared overnight. Even the Bell Inn fell derelict.
Although Stilton has never quite recovered its former prosperous bustle, it has become a thriving community of a different nature. In 1983 the Bell was restored to its former glory and the old staging inns now serve guests from near and far.
New housing has grown the population to five times what it was in the 1930’s, with residents commuting to Peterborough, Huntingdon, Cambridge or further afield. The great highway that once brought employment and wealth straight into Stilton now provides its villagers with easy access to these things over a wide area.
A journey north along the Great North Road in 1939. Look for Stilton at 3:49.
What would the Romans have made of this?