THE evening traffic is building up on the A40 at Gerrards Cross and further along the road Beaconsfield is getting busy again.
Lockdown may not quite be a thing of the past, but there’s plenty of hubbub ahead of the weekend when restrictions are finally being further relaxed.
Funny thing is, this is a road that’s been busy for centuries. It’s just hard to visualise what it must have been when the route was bustling with stagecoaches, carts and wagons.
These days we jump in our cars so casually for a trip to the shops – but getting about wasn’t so easy or comfortable in the days of horse-drawn transport.
Looking out from the trees on Gerrards Cross common on a sunny day, it’s hard to conceive that highwaymen once hid here, preying on stagecoaches heading to and from Beaconsfield’s busy Old Town.
It’s only when we watch a period drama that we perhaps think what life must have been like from the 17th century onwards, when stagecoach services were established and coaching inns along main routes like this were bustling with life.
Beaconsfield and High Wycombe, Tring, Amersham and Aylesbury were all thriving hubs of the stagecoach age, with passengers from London heading out through Uxbridge to Oxford, Banbury and beyond – as far as Worcester, Shrewsbury and Wales.
In the heyday of coach services as many as 20 might come by here in a day – providing rich pickings for highwaymen along the route and good business for the coaching inns of Beaconsfield like the White Hart and Saracen’s Head.
Standing in the woods at Gerrards Cross common, it’s hard to image what a scary journey this would have been in centuries past, as Clare Bull recalls in her article for the Beaconsfield & District Historical Society.
“Despite the advent of the ‘flying coach’ most travellers chose to break their journey by staying in one of the many coaching inns in Beaconsfield.
“Travellers must have been glad to reach a place of safety, as well as comfort. Whether coming from London or Oxford they had to get here through some of the most notorious danger-spots in this country.
“On the London side, Gerrards Cross Common was one of the highwaymen’s favourite haunts.
“From Oxford, the steep climb out of the marshes of the Wye Valley up the hill to Holtspur – much steeper then than now and badly surfaced – presented ideal conditions for attacks on slow-moving coaches with tired horses.
“The wood through which the road passes just before reaching Holtspur is still known as Cut-Throat Wood, and The King’s Head at Holtspur had a reputation as one of the marauders’ favourite haunts.”
It’s odd how we tend to harbour romantic illusions about these criminals – many of them vicious thugs whose exploits became the stuff of legend for later generations in the same way that Robin Hood became a folk hero.
Louise Allen, author of the 2014 book Stagecoach Travel, might have a vested interest to see the best in such figures as Dick Turpin and the dashing Frenchman Claude Duval, given that two of her ancestors were hanged at Aylesbury for highway robbery in the first half of the 18th century.
But she is unequivocal about her own antecdedents: “So, were these two handsome masked men on flashy black stallions, setting ladies’ hearts a flutter as they relieved the gentlemen of their coin? I very much doubt it – from what I can establish of these two, and their circumstances, they were probably an unpleasant pair of muggers out for what they could get and unscrupulous about how they got it. ”
Although it seems likely that even the famous Dick Turpin was a violent thug who tortured victims and inn keepers, Victorian readers loved the tales of daring raids and escapes, and were delighted by the legend of how Claude Duval was said to have gallantly spared the possessions of any pretty lady prepared to dance with him. He was immortalised in a painting by Frith, but it didn’t stop him being hanged at Tyburn in January 1670, aged 27.
Clare Bull has colourful tales to tell of Duval’s fair day exploits in Beaconsfield and he certainly had his female admirers. His epitaph begins: “Here lies Du Vall: Reder, if male thou art, Look to thy purse: if Female to thy heart. Much havoc has he made of both: for all Men he made to stand, and women he made to fall.”
With hundreds of coaches heading out of London for destinations all over the UK and more than 100 coaching inns in the capital itself, it’s not surprising that the lawless roads outside the city were tempting places for robbers.
On heaths and commons and in woods and forests from Hounslow Heath to Windsor Forest, there was good reason for wealthy visitors and courtiers to worry; lurking in the thick undergrowth of Maidenhead Thicket or Windsor Forest might be the worst of their nightmares – including the most famous highwayman of all, Dick Turpin.
Maidenhead was a busy coaching stop and the Bath Road to Reading was one of the busiest roads in the country, with many escape routes through the Thicket, where highwaymen flourished until the early 1800s.
Many hostelries were associated with the most prominent rogues of the period, including the Dew Drop Inn in Burchett’s Green, which was said to have had an underground room where Turpin would hide his horse Black Bess in an emergency.
He was also rumoured to have used the Olde Swan Inn at Woughton-on-the-Green as a base, and legend links him with the George in Wallingford and Hind’s Head in Bracknell too. His ghost is said to haunt the roadside hamlet of Stubbings (while Duval is said to haunt the Holt Hotel at Steeple Ashton in Oxfordshire).
But even Turpin was finally caught: he was imprisoned in York and was later hanged and buried there in 1739.
With no national police force to clamp down on robberies, by 1713 it was said that ‘almost every coach running between London and Oxford was robbed’. The same year saw the hanging of the notorious Jack Shrimpton from Penn while another notorious gang of three brothers from Burford also suffered gruesome deaths – and may even have been the original “Tom, Dick and Harry” of the popular saying.
Tom and Harry Dunsdon were hanged at Gloucester in 1784 and their bodies brought back to Shipton-under-Wychwood and gibbeted from an oak tree. Dick Dunsdon is thought to have bled to death after his brothers had to cut off one of his arms to free his hand which became trapped in a bungled burglary.
The last man to be condemned to death for highway robbery locally was tried in 1800 for holding up a coach at Beaconsfield and stealing thirty shillings; he was hanged at Gallows Road, Aylesbury.
It was the end of an era; turnpike roads and toll houses had already curtailed the activities of the highwaymen and soon railways would make travel around Britain faster, more comfortable and a great deal safer.
Never again would worried passengers have troubled nightmares about being made to “stand and deliver” – or forced to dance at the roadside with a dashing French highwayman!