The Golden Age of the Stagecoach

Staging inns were established along the Great North Road to enable the coaches to change horses and their passengers to recover from the rigours of the journey. To the south, the next staging point was Buckden; to the north, Stamford. But Stilton was a full day's journey from London, so it became a busy stop-over location.

Of the dozen or more staging inns up and down High Street and North Street, the two most important ones were the Bell Inn and the Angel. The Bell is the older of the two, but the Angel opposite was considerably bigger; it once had three stories and occupied the entire corner site. Competition for passing trade was fierce!

The most notable of the landlords of the Bell was Cooper Thornhill, a larger-than-life individual of whom many colourful stories survive. He was an important corn factor in the region and an accomplished horseman; apparently, he once rode to London and back non-stop for a wager.

Although the coaches may have been the most impressive traffic up and down the Great North Road, by far the majority of travellers were individuals driving carts or on horseback. Outside the Angel can be seen a mounting block, which was one of many set up between Stilton and Grantham in 1708 by a Mr Boulter, a local commercial traveller who was rather stout and had difficulty getting on and off his horse!

The magnificently restored Norwich Mailcoach arrives outside the Bell Inn, recreating the atmosphere of Stilton’s heyday as an important overnight staging point.
Photo: Paul Biggins

The Stilton Tunnels

Local tradition had long spoken of mysterious tunnels below the centre of the village. Various implausible explanations were claimed but of evidence there was none. However, when the corner site opposite the Pump was cleared for development of the block of flats, excavations broke through into a solidly built, brick-lined rectangular tunnel about two metres square.

Research found that the mysterious tunnels had indeed existed and were actually sewers, serving the many stable blocks for travellers’ horses. The sewer system discharged at a point close to the current line of the A1(M), from where local farmers would remove the manure to spread on their fields. Over time, after the tunnels fell into disuse, they had been filled in to support the increasing weight of traffic and strengthen the foundations of the various buildings.