Taking a ticket to ride from Honiton
PUBLISHED: 07:00 03 December 2017 | UPDATED: 12:40 05 December 2017
Travel is an integral part of Honiton’s history; stagecoaches, toll gates, railways and roads have all helped develop the town. Steve Jennings took a journey through time.
Honiton has often been regarded as the centre of East Devon’s travel network.
A few miles from the M5 motorway and situated on the A30 London to Cornwall trunk road, the town is an established and popular thoroughfare, and has been since the era of the stagecoach. Added to that are the strong rail links to the capital and beyond.
The first recorded stagecoach to pass through the town was in 1766. In its prime, 13 mail and passenger coaches passed through the town every day with Honiton proving popular thanks to its location and the many coaching inns and taverns offering food and beds for the weary travellers and stabling for their horses. In the heyday of the stagecoach it is said that 130,000 horses were employed to deliver the royal mail nationwide.
But travelling on a stagecoach was as expensive as it was uncomfortable. A Honiton resident would pay 26s for a fare to London outside the coach facing the elements. A ticket inside the coach and out of the rain would cost £3; far too high for the vast majority of Honitonians.
In the eighteenth century, the quality of the roads in East Devon were poor; bumpy and dusty in summer and a mud bath in winter. There had been little improvement – if any – since medieval times. A journey to the capital would take two days at best, with one Honiton lady reporting a trip that lasted six days! Incomprehensible in modern times.
Eventually turnpike trusts were set up to force travellers to pay for using roads to fund road improvements. Honiton Turnpike Trust was formed in 1765 and by 1855 was responsible for fifteen toll gates covering 50 miles. The most famous of these is one of the few with gates still standing today, those at Copper Castle at the top of Kings Road. These are still viewed by the many thousands of travellers who use the A35 into the town. The gates are further apart these days as the road was widened to cater for increased traffic.
In the west end of Honiton stood the Exeter Road Toll House, near what would be more commonly known as Turks Head. This provided a highly lucrative revenue stream for the authorities contributing £1,500 per annum in its prime. Attached to the very recognisable building that has since traded as a B&B, this also had a weighbridge to check carriages were not exceeding limits.
Elsewhere, there was a toll gate at the now demolished Holyshute House in what we now know as Monkton Road, located on the busy Taunton to Honiton road. But not all toll gates were attached to impressive buildings like those mentioned; the Bramble Hill Toll, again in the west of the High Street, was nothing more than a hut for the toll keeper to shelter from the rain. There were also gates at Northcote Lane, Clapper Lane and Dowell Street.
Toll gates were, understandably, unpopular with travellers with many trying to avoid paying by diverting their coaches through fields and farmyards, often with unhappy endings! Even the locals were becoming dissident as it was deemed the tolls pulled business away from the town. Add to that unease created from tales of corruption and perceived poor management of the funds raised.
However controversial, the tolls worked and roads rapidly improved and, by 1826, the journey time from Honiton to London was around 17 hours. Still hardly a stroll in the park; this had an adverse effect on tourism which simply dried up.
As the main coaching road from London to Land’s End was now a major route, it became a popular place for highwaymen in the 18th century, with Wiltshire particularly notorious. Often romanticised in books and on screens, these were ruthless criminals who robbed travellers on the road with the best known being Thomas Boulter - who was likened to Dick Turpin - who entered into partnership with James Caldwell, an ale-house keeper. Such a living could prove lucrative for these rogues of the road. Well, until capture of course. Boulter and Caldwell were just two of many to face the death penalty and were hanged on August 19, 1778, in Winchester.
But the development of railways effectively killed the days of the stagecoach and had a hugely positive effect on the people of East Devon. In 1853 plans were announced to extend the Yeovil Junction to Exeter line through Honiton and the town’s original railway station was opened seven years later in 1860. This prompted huge celebrations in the region. Now any Devonian could visit the capital from Honiton in four and a half hours at affordable prices!
But the construction of the rail line was not without issues, particularly the mile-long tunnel to the east of the town through the Blackdown Hills with the soft sand proving difficult to tunnel through and subsequently there were frequent collapses delaying progress. The project was eventually completed using thousands of men, hundreds of horses and millions of bricks.
The impact on the local economy was enormous; the visitors returned in their droves, new inns and businesses opened in the town and even new industries appeared, like lace and pottery.
The original station was a fine building and, for about fifteen years, there was a second station in Honiton called Roundball Halt. Opened in September 1906 and demolished in early 1921, this was about half a mile from the main station handing soldiers easy access to the rifle range at Roundball Hill. It was never intended for civilian use nor advertised in timetables.
With railways dominant and local councils now assuming responsibility from turnpike trusts for road safety and development, the tolls were abolished on June 2, 1910, prompting thousands of locals to turn out and cheer loudly when the mayor made the announcement.
But this was far from the death of the road for domestic and business use of course. The railways were subject to much criticism from the general public; perceived poor management, lengthy delays and extortionate fares the primary discussion points. It has to be said similar to many of the criticisms levied today!
Added to this was the rise of the motor car which became far more affordable for the working man.
In 1951, there were two million cars registered on the roads of Britain, a figure that rose by 250 per cent to five million during the next ten years.
As well as the significant loss of rail fares from domestic users who returned to the roads, road haulage proved cost-effective commercial competition for the railways who appeared to be in some disarray during this period. Then came the Beeching Review of 1963 with an objective of stemming the large losses being incurred while reducing the rail subsidies necessary to keep the network running.
The report identified 2,363 stations (55 per cent of the national total) and 5,000 miles of railway line (or 30 per cent of route miles) for closure. Protests raged, which protected some stations and lines, but the vast majority of the planned cuts happened. As part of this, the original Honiton station was pulled down and replaced with the more modern single story building of today.
With the region becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination the huge increase in road travel brought traffic chaos to Honiton in the 1950s, especially during the six weeks of the summer holidays. Huge numbers of vehicles would merge from the A30 and A35 in the east of the town with only the High Street to carry them through to Exeter and beyond. The busiest period being Saturday mornings when it was common for a car journey through Honiton from east to west to take over two hours!
As a result the town simply had to be bypassed and a brand new dual-carriageway around the town was funded in 1962. If this was music to the ears of the average townie the proposal prompted huge protests from owners of local businesses – particularly the food and drink outlets - who were concerned that they would lose income if the traffic was rerouted.
Eventually the works started near Monkton, with a new three-lane improvement down to Honiton where the old road formed a slip road for the A35. The new 2.2-mile dual-carriageway bypass opened in early December 1966 at a cost of £984,000. There were some interesting historical finds whilst building work took place. Fossils and bones were found highlighting that, about 140,000 years ago, Honiton was the home of large deer, oxen, elephant and hippopotamus. And some of these remains are on display in the Honiton Museum.
Further road relief came with improvements of the nearby M5 motorway when the short section between Junctions 27 and 29 was built by Devon County Council between 1967 and 1969. This eventually became part of the M5, accessible a few miles from Honiton via the A379 at Dowell Street.
And further improvements in the ’90s saw the A30 dualled between Honiton and Exeter, where it merges briefly with the M5. But this work made national news as environmental protestors tied themselves to trees and mechanical vehicles to disrupt building. For locals the nightmare of sitting in static traffic for hours at Fairmile straight are now a distant memory.
These days a steady, non-disrupted car journey from Honiton to the M25 motorway surrounding London takes two hours and a train journey from Honiton to London Waterloo three hours. With Exeter airport also developing at a fast rate it has never been easier to live and work in East Devon and retain close, affordable links to the nation’s capital and beyond.
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