Sunday, 21 May 2017
Historic Coaching Inns of the Great North Road - Roger Protz
I'm a sucker for old inns and I don't mind admitting it. The anticipation of approaching, the resolute beauty of the exterior and, crossing the threshold, the palpable sense of history as I join the ranks of patrons that have enjoyed the hospitality within the self same walls through centuries past.
All human life has frequented inns through the ages, from paupers and beggars to kings and queens, from murderers and thieves to bishops and knights of virtue, itinerant traders, drovers, servants, writers and politicians, each seeking companionship, solace, sustenance, warmth and rest according to their needs. Inns have been court rooms, prisons, breweries, brothels, meeting rooms, places to plot, plan, philosophise and ponder life's mysteries, as well as providing inspiration and material for playwrights, poets and authors. The stories their walls could tell are many and varied, from joyful and jubilant to morbid and melancholy with every emotion inbetween. This is what I find so fascinating about them, this is why I love them and this is the reason I visit them. For me, surprisingly, a good beer is a bonus, and whilst not essential it often means that I spend longer soaking up the atmosphere than I had perhaps intended.
When CAMRA sent me this book to review I had a feeling of both anticipation and trepidation. The subject matter had obvious appeal, but I wanted to be taken on a journey of imagination along an ancient road, touching on history enough to peak my curiosity, while also providing just enough of a contemporary review that I'd long to explore these places for myself. A tough ask maybe, but fortunately this, on the whole, is exactly what this book delivers.
Those of you that have read some of the many books that Roger Protz has written will be familiar with his narrative style and he sets the scene and historical context that lead to the rise and demise of the coaching inn, before setting off from London to Edinburgh on a journey that follows the old Great North Road, similar in the most part to the route of the A1/A1M, but taking in the towns and cities that the modern road now bypasses so as not to inconvenience today's road users. The chapters are written in stages so that it isn't a monotonous list of inns, and these are interspersed with jolly asides on subjects relating to coaches, highwaymen (and women), and road builders, as well as providing guidance to other places of interest in the area of each stop. It's clear to see that this was a genuine journey and an enjoyable one at that.
As you would expect in a CAMRA book the beer available in each is mentioned, but this is more in passing rather than a dominating factor, and it's not only real ale that gets a nod, although it is most certainly available in every inn that has an entry here. I would have liked a signpost to other coaching inns in the area that don't carry cask beer but that is purely a personal indulgence and in no way a criticism, it just means that I'll have to do a little background reading if I visit these places so as not to miss out on an historical gem.
I confess to have already visited many of the inns written about here, the Dukes Head in Highgate, the George in Stamford, the Angel and Royal in Grantham and the Olde Starre in York being particular favourites, and am pleased that I feel the same about each as Roger does, finding his insights both interesting and insightful.
If this book has a fault it is that, for me it doesn't go deep enough into the area and history of each place and how it related to the coaching era but this isn't really it's purpose, and that I find some of the picture placement a little confusing as the inn exterior tends to be shown at the end of the piece next to the following entry. What it does provide however is enough of a starting point to pique your curiosity should you have any interest in coaching inns, historical buildings, or are just in search of a beer related diversion.
This isn't the definitive book on the subject, at some 192 pages you would not expect it to be, but it is the ideal book to pack in your glove box or back pack should you wish to set off on a journey of discovery into this country's past and the history of beer and travel.
Historic Coaching Inns of the Great North Road by Roger Protz is published by the Campaign for Real Ale Limited and is available through CAMRA books with a registered retail price of £12.99 although with a little shopping around you should be able to get it cheaper than that. I've already mentioned that this book was sent to me for to review for free, and even though I confessed my love of inns in my opening sentence if it was awful I wouldn't have hesitated in saying so. It's not, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.