Visitors to Edinburgh today typically arrive either by plane or train – and, for the record, bringing a car to Edinburgh is generally to be considered a terrible idea! - but these means of mass transit are historically very new, and for a long time the vast majority of people simply wouldn't have had the time or means to be able to undertake travel beyond the locality in which they lived.
Add to this that many towns and cities were protected by defensive walls, and often charged a fee for people to enter – the poorest people of these places simply wouldn't have been able to afford to leave, as was the case in Edinburgh. It's remarkable to think that before the rise of railways in the 1830s and 40s, a majority of Edinburgh people would have spent their entire lives within the confines of the city walls.
But for those who could afford to travel – and had the need to do so – the seventeenth century saw the rise of stagecoach services across the UK.
The first public coach service in Britain launched in 1610, and connected Edinburgh to Leith, at that time an entirely separate town just a few miles to the north-east.
By 1658 there was a regular coach service connection London and Edinburgh. It ran fortnightly, and cost £4 to make the journey - equivalent to over £400 in modern currency. (Mail coaches ran more frequently to carry goods and messages between the cities.)
At that time, travelling between the two cities could take anywhere from 10 to 14 days on average, with overnight stops along the route – hence the 'stage coach', travelling in stages to change or rest the horses.
In 1712 an Edinburgh to London service was advertised as being able to "perform the whole journey in thirteen days without any stoppages [ie. unscheduled interruptions] (if God permits), having eighty able horses to perform the whole journey". This service left Edinburgh on Mondays in winter and Tuesdays in summer (to allow an extra day/night for bad weather), rested for the whole day of Sunday, and reached London the following Friday. It cost £4.10s.
It wasn't until 1734 that a weekly passenger connection between London and Edinburgh was announced, but either it suffered from lack of demand or simply couldn't make the journey in good enough time because by 1760 the service was back to just once a month.
Wealthier people might have paid for a private coach to make their journey, but a monthly service gives an indication of how many people had need of (and could pay for) a public service at that time.
Glasgow, with its shipping interests, had developed a service which connected the city to London in just 10 days by the 1770s, and Edinburgh could be reached from London within the same amount of time towards the end of that decade.
Once arrived in Edinburgh, visitors would be accommodated in coaching inns which existed primarily to serve this purpose. Some would be found in the Grassmarket, but a popular one on the other side of the city was the White Horse Inn, which stood just off the Royal Mile at Holyrood and had historic connections as a royal stable house – it was named for one of Mary, Queen of Scots's favoured horses.
The street nearby at that time was known as Watergate, as it afforded access to a supply of water from which the horses would be refreshed, and not far away was the start of the Great North Road, the main route which connected Edinburgh to London along the length of the east coast, itself based on the line of the old Roman route. Today that road is London Road, and it joins almost directly to the A1, which is turn becomes the M1 motorway, which leads straight to the heart of London – the historic route is still the most direct road connection between these two national capitals.
The White Horse Inn stood on what is today White Horse Close.
With the rise of railways in the 1830s the boom in faster transport options meant that travelling by horse drawn vehicle was no longer the optimal method of making journeys, especially between distant locations. Sending goods, mail and passengers by train was a faster and more efficient option, and the effect was immense – suddenly the means of travel was more available (and affordable) to ordinary, working people, and with the age of steam came the rise in the notion of holidays. For the first time people could travel for pleasure, and coastal destinations in particular became popular with families who otherwise spent their lives in dark, industrial cities.
The last mail coach from Edinburgh to London ran on 5 July 1847, and thereafter mail was sent by rail instead, and passenger travel by stage coach decreased rapidly around the same time.
Find out more about White Horse Close on a customised city walking tour, or my self-guided Close Encounters audio trail option.
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
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