Stagecoach trip back in time

DID stagecoach passengers ever view their journeys as being as humdrum and mundane as modern travellers think their bus, train and plane trips are?

Recent talk of highwaymen and horse-drawn transport raised a few additional questions about life on local roads 250 years ago.

Apart from the risk of highway robbery, what was it actually like to take the stagecoach through Beaconsfield, Amersham or Tring back in the day?

Most towns along main roads boasted one or more coaching inns, often in a prominent position and acting as a focal point for the town’s main activities. And both Amersham and Tring museums have plenty of additional detail about the scale and nature of the local businesses.

TRANSPORT HUB: La Belle Sauvage Inn, Ludgate Hill by J C Maggs, mentioned by Dickens in The Pickwick Papers. Coaches left from here to destinations all over the country, including Windsor and Maidenhead PICTURE: The British Postal Museum & Archive

Just as in more modern times a dozen London railway termini have served different parts of the country – so that we still hear distinctive West Country accents at Paddington, those from Scotland, the north-east and Yorkshire at King’s Cross and those from Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow at Euston – back in the day more than 100 London stagecoach inns offered services fanning out across the country.

As Greg Roberts explains in his fascinating Wicked William blog, the coaching inns with the biggest stables, such as the Golden Cross in Charing Cross, offered the widest selection of destinations, although most concentrated on specific routes – like the Blue Boar Cellar at Aldgate, which relied heavily on Essex trade.

NEW ARRIVALS: a coach and horses at St John’s Gate by John Charles Maggs, 1880
PICTURE: Museum of the Order of St John

He writes: “Inns sited near important industry or London markets such as Smithfield will place greater emphasis on waggons or carts with much less traffic by stagecoach.

“Some inns are owned by the same businessmen. The Swan with Two Necks, the Spread Eagle and the White Horse all belong to William Chaplin.

“Chaplin is ahead of his time in regard to corporate branding because all coaches have livery relating to the specific inn from where they operate. Thus it is common to see coaches with either a two-necked swan, a white horse or an eagle emblazoned across their rear.”

Outside London, coaching inns usually had an imposing entrance doorway leading to the interior of the inn, with an inner courtyard wide enough to allow a coach to turn round. 

HOME FROM HOME: the White Hart was one of the smaller coaching inns in Beaconsfield

Surrounding this, or in the driveway leading to it, were rows of stabling with accommodation above for ostlers and drivers of stage wagons and carriers’ carts, and sometimes an inn owned its own meadows to provide an ample supply of fodder.

The Tudor period had seen the development of the road coach, but the earliest ones had no brakes, careful handling of the horses being the only way to keep the coach at a steady pace and control progress over inclines. On very steep hills passengers had to step down and walk.

Faced with other obstacles such as deep ruts, potholes and flooding, together with foul weather and stray animals, early passengers had to cope with more than their fair share of drama and discomfort.

ROUGH RIDE: an array of open wagons at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Stagecoaches took their name from the term ‘stage’, the distance between stops along a route. The aim was to convey fare-paying passengers and the first route, from Edinburgh to Leith, started in 1610. But with coaches making slow progress on primitive roads, coaching inns soon began to spring up to provide teams of fresh horses and sustenance for coach passengers, including overnight stops on long journeys.

In the earliest days, it was too precarious for passengers to sit on top, but later designs included two seats behind the driver and two over the luggage box at the rear; outside travellers needed to be aware that it was prudent to stay awake to prevent toppling over the side.

Towns like Beaconsfield, Tring and Amersham were ideally placed to pick up a share of the flourishing business, and in the reign of Charles I, Buckinghamshire had more carrier services a week from London than any other county.

Some of this traffic would have gone to High Wycombe, some to Stony Stratford via Hertfordshire and some passed along the Misbourne Valley en route for Aylesbury, with the ‘Carriers’ Cosmographie’ of 1637 listing four London inns where the Aylesbury carriers lodged.

STAGING POST: the Crown Hotel in Amersham Old Town

There were a dozen pubs in Amersham and a trio of important coaching inns – the Griffin, the Swan and the Crown. By 1737, two stagecoaches were passing through the town daily.

Numerous accounts of life on the road survive. But Dickensian-style tales of poor food, unpleasant fellow passengers and dishonest drivers or porters have to be balanced against more rose-tinted accounts of long lavish lunches in cosy inns en route.

If the earliest stagecoaches were expensive, unreliable, uncomfortable and beset with dangers, by the late 18th century, many main roads had come under the control of turnpike trusts and conditions had begun to improve.

GOLDEN AGE: John Charles Maggs’ portrait of the Bath Mail Coach
PICTURE: The British Postal Museum

The period from the first royal mail coaches in the 1780s to the 1840s and the coming of the railways is now known as the ‘Golden Age of Coaching’, familiar to us today through sentimental Christmas card scenes of snow-covered stagecoaches arriving to a hearty welcome at a coaching inn.

Many of these portraits were the work of John Charles Maggs (1819-1896), a Bath-born artist who specialised in such scenes and who captured the atmosphere of the ‘golden age’ that was to last until the 1840s when the railways killed not just an industry, but an entire way of life.

Over in Amersham, while the railway boom spelt disaster for many towns which had grown up with the coaching trade, there was an alternative source of employment thanks to the success of the brewery taken over by William Weller in 1771 which employed half the male population of the town by the end of Victoria’s reign.

When Weller’s sold up in 1929 they owned 142 licensed premises in Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Middlesex including local houses like The Kings Arm, Eagle, Chequers, Saracen’s Head and Wheatsheaf.

BREWERY EMPIRE: the King’s Arms was one of more than 140 once owned by Weller’s

Although the first turnpikes dated from the 17th century, main routes from London were tumpiked early in the 18th century, increasingly funded by the levying of tolls on certain kinds of traffic – particularly wheeled vehicles, horses, and cattle going to market.

During this period road surfaces improved and turnpike roads were often straightened, widened, and given gentler curves and gradients.  Stagecoach construction also evolved with the fitting of better brakes and suspension, allowing speeds to increase from around six to eight miles per hour, inclusive of stops. The advances meant a journey from London to Manchester which would have taken days in 1750 could be completed in 26 hours by 1821.

Small toll houses provided accommodation for the gate keepers, with side windows angled to give views of approaching traffic from both directions and a board attached in a prominent position displaying the table of tolls.

TABLE OF TOLLS: the Wycombe toll house was rescued and re-erected at COAM

One of the few toll houses to survive of those once scattered across the county is one of five that once dotted the Buckinghamshire stretch of the A40, the road from London to Oxford, Birmingham and Worcester.

The section from Beaconsfield to Stokenchurch was turnpiked as early as 1719 and there were gates at Denham, Red Hill, Holtspur, High Wycombe and West Wycombe.

The Denham gate opposite the Dog and Duck was demolished in 1931 and the Red Hill gate near the 18th milestone in 1929. The Holtspur gate was at the north end of the road from Hedsor, the West Wycombe one at the junction with the Princes Risborough road. The gate in High Wycombe was by the 29th milestone and was dismantled in 1978 and re-erected in 1983/84 at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, complete with toll board.

Turnpike tolls ranged from a penny per person or horse to sixpence for carts, waggons and coaches. Mail coaches, the army and local labourers on foot were allowed to use such roads free of charge.

But stagecoach fares were expensive and only the well off could afford this form of transport: in January 1836 the coach operator Joseph Hearn & Co advertised ‘The Despatch’, an “elegant and light four inside coach” operating on the London to Aylesbury route.  It left the King’s Head Aylesbury at 7am and travelled down the turnpike road through Watford to arrive at the King’s Arms in Holborn shortly after midday.  Fares were 12 shillings inside and 7 outside. 

Coach and horses were smartly turned out in the livery colours of their owners, or in the case of the Royal Mail coaches, in red, although this was changed to blue in 1833, supposedly as a compliment to King William IV.

COLOUR CODED: a Bristol-London mail coach from 1800 PICTURE: The British Postal Museum

When the Post Office started using stagecoaches in 1784, they became the most important vehicles on the road.  By the 1830s and 1840s, the nightly departure of the mail coaches from the General Post Office in St Martins-le-Grand was one of the sights of London, but by 1846 it was over, replaced by the new, faster railway services.

On the passenger services there was increasingly fierce competition between rival coach proprietors, the exotic names conjuring up images of distant towns and cities: The Expedition to Banbury, King William and Britannia to Kidderminster or Leamington, arriving early in the morning in Tring with a distinctive bugle call.

Or what about the Dispatch – driven for 40 years by the same man, James Wyatt – or the Old Union from Buckingham, the Good Intent or the Young Pilot? The Express to Maidenhead or the Wonder to St Albans?

It was only appropriate that after Beaconsfield Services opened at Junction 2 on the M40 in 2009, Wetherspoons should in 2014 name their Hope & Champion pub there after two such services: the Hope, which carried passengers to Warwick, and the Champion, which ran to Hereford.

The stage and mail coaches were a driving force of the industrial revolution. They stimulated road improvements, brought news to remote areas and accurate timekeeping to villages, and gave employment to thousands.

But the end was in sight once the railways started to flourish. Stagecoaches from London to Birmingham were withdrawn in 1839, followed by Bristol in 1844 and Plymouth in 1848.

The last mail coach in the Midlands ran out of Manchester in 1858 though services continued in those areas the railways were slow to reach, like Cornwall, Mid Wales, the Peak District and far North of Scotland.

The routes and towns all remain and many of the old coaching inns survive, but the popularity of rail travel soon meant that the age of the stagecoach was well and truly over, memories of those difficult journeys consigned to historical journals and the pages of Dickens and Austen.

END OF AN ERA: Night Coach by John Charles Maggs

For more about coach driving, the working life of a coach horse and Royal Mail services, see the local museum websites in Amersham and Tring. For more information about stagecoach travel, see the Wicked William blog by Greg Roberts.

When robbers ruled the lawless roads

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.

STAND AND DELIVER!: highwaymen once hid out on Gerrards Cross common preying on stagecoaches passing to and from Beaconsfield 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.

TRAVELLERS’ REST: the White Hart in Beaconsfield was one of the town’s smaller coaching inns

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.

PLACE OF SAFETY: the Saracen’s Head, where Oxford coaches stopped to change horses

“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.”

DANGEROUS DETOUR: travellers risked their lives on the quiet lanes around Holtspur

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. ”

GENTLEMAN OF THE ROAD?: English artist William Powell Frith (1819-1909) depicts a group of highwaymen led by Claude Duval holding up the carriage of Lady Aurora Sydney on a heathland road where a young woman is made to dance with her captor PICTURE: Manchester Art Gallery

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.

RICH PICKINGS: La Belle Sauvage Inn, Ludgate Hill by J C Maggs, one of dozens of busy coaching inns in the capital. Coaches left from here to destinations all over the country, including Windsor and Maidenhead PICTURE: The British Postal Museum & Archive

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.

UNDERGROUND ROOM?: the Dew Drop Inn at Burchetts Green

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.

VULNERABLE VISITORS: John Charles Maggs’ portrait of The Old White Hart, one of at least eight coaching inns in Bishopsgate which provided rooms and board for wealthy guests arriving in the capital or returning to the country. PICTURE: The British Postal Museum & Archive

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!

Museum reopens for 2019

The Chiltern Open Air Museum reopens for the 2019 season this weekend with a living history event focused around World War I.

On Saturday, the museum marks English Tourism Week by officially opening its completed WWI Nissen hut to the public.

Over the weekend. costumed re-enactors will show the Tommies would relax on the home front and what weapons and kit they used when fighting.

Nurse and chaplain re-enactors will demonstrate how they supported the troops on the front line and back home.

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Visitors can take part in a poppy trail and dress up in WWI officer and nurse costumes.

On Saturday, there will also be the opportunity to chat to the museum team about educational visits, group visits, experience days, weddings and events at the Museum.

The event is part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project to rebuild a WWI Nissen hut on the site to commemorate WWI in the Chilterns and to tell the stories of local war heroes.

The museum is open from 10am to 5pm on Saturday and Sunday and entry this weekend is by donation.

For more detail about the work of the museum see our History In The Making feature or visit the museum’s website.

Nights round the campfire

THERE’S an almost primeval pleasure about cooking over a campfire that appeals to all ages.

No one knows that better than David Willis, whose bushcraft courses and other outdoor events encourage families to get out into the woods and reconnect with the natural world.

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We meet at his Buckinghamshire base, an 18-acre expanse of private woodland near Little Chalfont where Winnie the Pooh and Piglet would feel very much at home.

Owned by a builder friend, this provides David with a base camp for bread-baking and wood whittling, foraging and other outdoor adventures for families, small groups and corporate clients.

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It’s  quite a change of direction for someone who spent 30 years as an IT consultant, but at 58, David is showing no signs of missing the corporate world. In fact it has been a welcome opportunity to rediscover the simple pleasures that played such an important part of his childhood.

As a boy, he  loved being outdoors and would spend many happy hours exploring the local woodlands, building camps with his friends. As father to two sons, those camping experiences were fun to share with the family too – and today he is clearly getting just as much pleasure helping other people recapture some of those lost childhood experiences.

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“There was woodland at the end of our garden and as a young boy still in short trousers, this provided a wild place to play,” he recalls in a blog posting about his childhood. “A child of the 60s, I found my own amusement. There were a few large trees that were great for climbing, balancing on limbs, that would no doubt now send many parents racing in, to save their children from any potential harm. I’d happily play there in the trees for hours, only to be called in when it was time for dinner.”

Nowadays he delights in guiding families on woodland walks, showing children how to light a fire and cooking over an open fire, perhaps helping to restore people’s confidence about coping in the great outdoors.

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Genial, enthusiastic and immensely knowledgable about his natural surroundings, his invitation to families and corporate clients to escape from their computer screens and mobile phones and get back to nature is clearly one that resonates with his guests.

More than 1,000 people have joined him for his woodland wanders, learning about a variety of things on the way – from recognising different trees to appreciating the uses made of different types of wood and the delights of foraging.

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“It’s a very primal thing,” grins David. “There are half a dozen different ways of lighting a fire.”

Guests needn’t worry about having to hunt, trap and enviscerate cute woodland creatures though. Although he has spent time in the army – he joined the Royal Engineers as a teenager and spent six years as a surveyor, serving in Belize – there’s nothing military or survivalist about his courses.

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He launched this outdoor events business back in 2010 after years of studying bushcraft and leadership skills, culminating in a year-long course with John Rhyder’s Woodcraft School in West Sussex, which he enjoyed immensely.

Teaching experience with the Scouts was consolidated through trips abroad – like a visit five years ago to spend time with Maasai tribes in Kenya’s Rift Valley, which confirmed the pleasure he gets from imparting knowledge to young people.

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When he was growing up, he learned through play – building structures and making things, then improving them when they fell down or broke. Those practical skills are still in demand today as a new generation of woodland adventurers learn how to tie ropes, erect hammocks, light fires and make shelters. They might even end up making bows and arrows.

“It’s great just generally for mental health,” says David. “It does everyone a lot of good to be outdoors.”

These events are all about pitching in and getting involved, so even as we speak, the flour, yeast and water is being mixed so that we can try our hand at bread-making.

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It may not be the most sophisticated of kitchens and the woodsmoke is swirling everywhere, but we make a decent fist of kneading a couple of small loaves that can be baked in David’s Dutch oven while we discuss the relative merits of hornbeam, burch, cherry and larch wood.

A local lad, David and his friend started to cycle further afield as boys, exploring Black Park and Burnham Beeches before his family moved to the New Forest for a while,  helping to cement his love of wild places and woodland surroundings.

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So is it the solitude, the sound of the birds, the grounding in nature, the safety of a home-made shelter among the trees that makes this feel like home? Probably all of these reasons, he confirms.

He’s clearly never happier than when rustling up a tasty meal over a campfire, especially if it means having the chance to share the skills needed to enjoy living the outdoor life to the full.

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Our bread is beginning to rise rather impressively and tastes divine. The lamb kebabs take only minutes to cook and are equally delicious, all the more so for being speared on hand-whittled sticks and rotated over the roaring fire. Ah, simple pleasures.

But then this sort of experience is at the heart of David’s woodland events, which can be tailored to suit all ages, abilities and tastes.

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From rustling up tasty campfire treats to wood-whittling skills and uncovering the magic of trees, he runs a variety of day and longer courses both here in Buckinghamshire and further afield, while his own thirst for adventure has seen him travelling as far away as Namibia to spend time with the bushmen of the Kalahari.

The learning never stops it seems – although the same might be said for his visitors, as they lap up his wisdom on how to make nettle risotto, which berries are poisonous or which trees are best for warding off witches…

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Go down to the woods

To find out more about David’s bushcraft courses, including whittling and woodcraft, campfire bread baking and The Art of Fire, or to arrange private family or group sessions, visit his website.

David’s free guided family walks (booking required) are the first Sunday of the month. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

To see David in action, see the Sorted Food Youtube channel

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High cost of waste crime

NEVER pay a man in cash to take your household rubbish away – it could cost you a fortune (and a criminal record).

That’s the message from Buckinghamshire waste enforcement officer David Rounding after an upsurge in fly-tipping incidents across the county.

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COSTLY CRIME: David Rounding probes a dumping incident near Burnham

He believes many householders still don’t realise the consequences of allowing rogue waste collectors to dispose of their rubbish.

More than a third of those prosecuted in the county over fly-tipped waste are people who claim to have paid someone else to get rid of their unwanted household items. But David warns that cash payments to strangers are a recipe for disaster.

It’s a trend that has been fuelled in the past couple of years by so-called “Facebook fly- tippers” offering cheap waste collection services.

“People don’t seem to realise they could face a substantial fine and end up with a criminal record because they have allowed someone to get rid of their waste without checking them out,” he said.

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WASTE DETECTIVE: enforcement officer David Rounding

The legislation makes it a crime not only to actually dump waste but also to fail to show a “duty of care” in arranging for waste to be disposed of.

So if your property ends up being dumped in a country layby and can be traced back to you, it’s you who could end up in court.

The surge in rubbish dumping across the country cost taxpayers £57m in 2017-18, a rise of 13 per cent on the previous year.

Local authorities in England deal with a million fly-tipping incidents a year – and in Buckinghamshire that translates to six a day on average, costing £500,000 in clean-up costs.

Much of the rubbish comes from households in nearby London boroughs like Hillingdon or local conurbations like Slough and Uxbridge – and since 2015, there has been a growing industry of criminal rubbish collectors advertising their services via social media sites like Facebook.

In May the Local Government Association highlighted the problem was on the increase. A spokesman said: “Small-scale criminals are attempting to undercut legitimate services by offering to take household rubbish away cheaply. But often they are just dumping items on other people’s land or in public. People should avoid using these services as they are driving the problem.”

David Rounding says a further irony is that many of the criminals are not even charging “cheap” rates.

“We have seen householders being charged hundreds of pounds for someone to take their rubbish away – sometimes two or three times the market rate. But in Buckinghamshire the ten recycling centres are free to use for household waste,” he said.

Families moving to new-build homes may be easy targets if they don’t know the area or how easy it is to dispose of their rubbish. They can also be targeted by fly-tippers on the look-out for bulkier items like sofas or beds which can be easily loaded into a Transit-style van or pick-up.

As many as half of local residents are thought to be unaware that they have a duty of care to dispose of their unwanted stuff correctly and can be fined or prosecuted if their rubbish is subsequently fly-tipped.

Cllr Martin Tett, the LGA’s environment spokesman, told the Telegraph in May: “Fly-tipping is unsightly and unacceptable environmental vandalism. It’s an absolute disgrace for anyone to think that they can use the environments in which our residents live as a repository for litter.”

David Rounding believes a simple ban on cash payments would go a long way to solving the problem and keeping law-abiding residents out of trouble: “If your rubbish ends up in a layby in Buckinghamshire, we will be asking you how it got there. We suffer from more fly-tipping than many councils and we will prosecute.”

He points out that the council has saved £3m over the past decade through its zero-tolerance approach, because the cost of clearing fly-tipped waste is so high.

“People using someone they have only met through Facebook face a much greater risk,” he warned. “Don’t pay cash – pay online or with a cheque. Ask to see the firm’s waste carrier permit. Legitimate companies won’t mind giving you’re their name or registration number.”

What is fly-tipping?

Fly-tipping is the illegal disposal of household, industrial, commercial or other ‘controlled’ waste without a waste management licence. The waste includes garden refuse and larger domestic items such as fridges and mattresses.

What are the penalties?

Fly-tipping is a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to £50,000 or 12 months’ imprisonment if convicted in a magistrates’ court. The offence can attract an unlimited fine and up to five years’ imprisonment if convicted in a crown court. There are also a number of other possible penalties, including fixed penalty notices of up to £400 and seizing a vehicle and/or its contents because of suspected involvement in fly-tipping.

To report a fly-tipping incident to David and his colleagues, visit the county council’s web page or the Fix My Street website.

Fresh case for the waste detectives

The Beyonder meets waste enforcement officer David Rounding on Buckinghamshire’s front line in the war against illegal dumping

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DIRTY WORK: David Rounding investigates a fly-tipping incident at Burnham

AN IDYLLIC single-track lane in the middle of the Buckinghamshire countryside sounds like an unlikely place for a crime scene.

But it’s surprising what goes on in our leafy rural backroads – and for David Rounding there’s sadly nothing out of the ordinary about the location of today’s investigation.

Responding to a tip-off from a concerned local, we’re standing in a small layby on a backroad near Burnham studying a pile of debris dumped at the side of the road.

It’s pretty standard household stuff – a sofa, bed, rug and other assorted bits and pieces. Infuriatingly, it’s less than half a mile from a household recycling centre where the items could have been unloaded legally for nothing.

Instead, they’ve been dumped here – spoiling the sylvan setting and posing a headache for South Bucks District Council, who will now have to clear up the mess. But David’s on the lookout for clues – and is not disheartened.

The waste enforcement officer is part of a small team employed by Buckinghamshire County Council – and he has quite a few weapons in his armoury that can help him solve this latest unpleasant ‘whodunnit’.

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FRONT LINE TROOPS: waste enforcement officer David Rounding

“When I started out it was really, really hard to prosecute,” he recalls. But times have changed – and for the past 15 years Buckinghamshire has led the way in the war on illegal waste dumping.

When David took up his job here in 2003, dumping was at a record high and rising, with more than 4,000 incidents a year across the county. By 2013 that had been reduced to under 1,500, partly as a result of an upsurge in prosecutions resulting in substantial fines, compensation payments and even jail.

Sadly fly-tipping is on the rise again – back up to more than 3,000 cases a year locally and costing taxpayers across England more than £57m.

Like other shire counties around London, Buckinghamshire is seen as an easy target because of good transport likes and easy access via the M40 and M25 to deserted country lanes like this one – the sort of idyllic country setting seen in so many episodes of the Midsomer Murders TV series.

From selfish householders leaving mattresses or fridges and rogue traders unloading tyres and plasterboard to criminal gangs dumping waste on an industrial scale, an increasing number of fly-tippers are littering fields, woods, roads and verges with unsightly piles of rubbish like this one.

For nature lovers and local residents taking a ramble or walking their dog, this sort of eyesore raises strong emotions. More than 11,000 fly-tipping cases – six a day on average – have blighted the local countryside in the last five years, costing tax-payers £500,000 a year in clear-up costs.

But it’s not all bad news, and as David Rounding launches his latest investigation, there’s a definite spring in his step.

After starting his career in Halifax he was working for the Environment Agency in 2003 when the various councils in Buckinghamshire first got together to combat the fly-tipping menace.

They realised that proper enforcement of the law was an invaluable deterrent and in the 15 years since the county council and four district councils launched their anti-fly-tipping campaign – ‘Illegal Dumping Costs’ – David and his fellow investigators have successfully prosecuted more than 600 fly-tippers.

As with most crime, a handful of individuals can cause a disproportionate amount of damage to the environment – and in serious cases prosecution can result in imprisonment, as well as hefty fines and compensation awards.

Don’t be fooled by the remote locations, either – in recent years hidden cameras have increasingly helped the team catch the criminals in the act.

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REPEAT OFFENDER: John Keenan dumped waste across Buckinghamshire

Like Letchworth builder John Keenan, 33, who was convicted in 2017 after CCTV twice caught him dumping waste from his tipper truck in local villages. Four other incidents of fly-tipping in rural Buckinghamshire and west Hertfordshire were traced back to him and work done by his company in and around London.

Keenan pleaded guilty to two counts of fly-tipping and four charges of failing in duty of care regarding waste he had produced. He was sentenced to 16 weeks’ imprisonment, suspended for 12 months, and ordered to pay costs totalling more than £4,700.

The cameras are a welcome boost for the enforcement team, who have seen detection rates improve.  “We are becoming better and better at convicting people. If the evidence is there, we will get them to court,” says David. “Since 2010 we have been averaging more than one conviction a week, and they each pay around £1,500 in fines and costs.”

Signs at dumping hotspots advertise the surveillance cameras but a succession of fly-tippers still get caught out. But CCTV accounts for only 40 per cent of the team’s convictions. Eye-witnesses account for another 20 per cent of convictions, with sharp-eyed members of the public equally keen to help catch the criminals spoiling their environment.

There aren’t many things which ruffle David’s composure, but he does get a little irritated by some of the myths which surround fly-tipping – like the claim that fines don’t get paid and costs aren’t recouped.

Last year alone, the team achieved 72 convictions and court-awarded costs of more than £75,000 towards the councils’ clean-up and legal costs, he points out.

“If you look at the evidence the fines and compensation costs do get paid,” he insists – and on top of that there’s the estimated £3m savings made over the past decade because of not having to clear dumped waste and send it to landfill.

Armed with the sort of evidence his team can gather, the net cost of a prosecution may be only around £300. But while nearly two thirds (62%) of fly-tipping convictions are for the act of dumping, the people who produced the waste can be prosecuted too for failing their duty of care if they do not ensure their rubbish is being disposed of legally.

David believes this is something many people may not realise, which could lead to someone unwittingly facing a heavy fine and a criminal conviction after paying someone else to get rid of their unwanted household items.

And he warns that cash payments to strangers are a recipe for disaster. It’s a trend that has been fuelled in the past couple of years by so-called “Facebook fly tippers” offering cheap waste collection services.

The waste detectives have become experts at finding clues to identify the source of dumped rubbish. And although David recalls late-night raids and dawn swoops with police when known dumpers have been caught red-handed, it is the sifting of rubbish for clues which he excels at and which brings 40 per cent of convictions.

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SMALL PRINT: David’s team are expert at sifting through rubbish for clues

The enforcement team works closely with Thames Valley Police, which can make it easier to trace a vehicle’s movements when a crime has been committed – and there’s close co-operation in more serious cases involving crooked commercial operators and even organised gangs.

Other crimes can also result in waste being dumped in rural areas, from professional shoplifters disposing of incriminating evidence to drugs stashes and paraphernalia from cannabis farms.

Another worry is an upsurge in more serious waste dumping by organised criminal gangs, and David’s next call is to visit a council site in High Wycombe where lorryloads of waste were dumped – the latest in a series of such incidents across Buckinghamshire in recent months.

Such large-scale, serious or organised dumping is investigated and potentially prosecuted by the Environment Agency, but their resources are hard-pressed and such crimes are on the increase, so David is only too keen to provide any practical help he can.

Clamping down on the criminals is also good for legitimate waste carriers, he points out, who potentially lose millions in business. But although the short-term profits may be tempting for lazy criminals, David is keen to make sure the prosecutions count.

One man was fined more than £1,000 for adding to rubbish which had already been dumped at the roadside by someone else. In January a Slough man was fined £2,200 for dumping 19 sacks of rubbish in Fulmer, and last month a Calvert Green man was fined £2,000 for dumping boxes near Aylesbury.

There have been a number of other successful prosecutions, as David has highlighted on his Twitter account.

“They might think the money makes it worth the risk but they can serve up to five years in prison, and we have jailed a few,” he points out.

To report a fly-tipping incident to David and his colleagues, visit the county council’s web page or the Fix My Street website.

Council hails litter ‘heroes’

MICHEELE

VOLUNTEER litter pickers in Kidderminster have been hailed as local heroes by their district council for organising a series of litter picks around the town.

More than 300 members of the Facebook group Keeping Kidderminster and Surrounding Places Clean have been getting out and about their local streets and neighbourhoods picking up litter and disposing of it in litter bins around the district.

The idea stemmed from local teacher Michelle Medler’s new year resolution to pick up a bag of litter a day while walking her dogs – and mushroomed into a community supported by hundreds of volunteers.

Michelle said: “I’m amazed at how many people care and want to make a difference, which is great to know, and the positive comments from the public make it all worthwhile.”

After launching the group in January, she was surprised to see it grow into a 400-strong group after she initiated a number of communal litter picks in different parts of the town. Membership has since doubled to more than 800.

She soon won plaudits from councillors and council officers too. Youngsters and retired pensioners have been among the groups taking part – and Wyre Forest District Council, which has street cleaning reponsibilities in the area, praised Michelle and supplied volunteers with litter pickers, high visibility jackets and gloves, as well as advice about safely disposing of any dangerous items they came across.

Cabinet member for operational services Councillor Rebecca Vale said: “It is truly remarkable to hear about the positive impact these volunteers have had and I’d like to thank every one of them. We spend a lot of time, effort and money cleaning our streets – this just goes to show what a huge difference we can make to the look and feel of the district by working together.”

The Kidderminster model is one The Beyonder is keen to explore further. Beyonder editor Andrew Knight said: “The Kidderminster group are doing an amazing job and seem to have a real community spirit. They can also see the impact they are having on making the town cleaner – and it’s great that the district council has been so supportive.”

The Beyonder is carrying out a local audit before deciding how to pursue its anti-litter campaign in the Chilterns. It is in the process of contacting local parish, district and county councils to find out more about existing waste collection activities across south Buckinghamshire from Marlow to Beaconsfield, Gerrards Cross, Chalfont St Giles, Chalfont St Peter and Denham.