THE twin villages of Lynton and Lynmouth were, like so many other British resorts, including Torquay, "discovered" during the Napoleonic War, when the elit, having the French resorts closed to them, began to explore their own country. Gradually the lovely scenery in the district became famous and Lynton attained the distinction of a small town.
In 1890, Lynton was hit by electricity, having acquired the largest installation driven by water power in England. This is all the more amazing when it is realised that it was 1882 before a few private residences in London had installed the "new" invention. Even then four years were to pass before some of the streets of the capital were electrically lit.
When the town began to attract the attention of the outside world, the only form of communications was by horses and carriers' wagon, and improvement in this connection was slow. By 1850, there was a twice-weekly omnibus service to Barnstaple, and a little later the era of the coaching days was ushered in, the glamour of which is usually associated only with main routes, as for instance London to Brighton. But there was a romance about the North Devon routes which have a story of their own - a story which continued until the era was usurped by a "new-fangled" invention,which in time also ran its course (the Lynton-Barnstaple railway).
The peak of the coaching days in the area was about 1880, and unlike the larger towns, the transitory period between the carriers' cart, the omnibus and then splendour of the real coaches was indeed short. The two main coaching routes were the Lynton to Barnstaple and the Lynton to Minehead, and they were then busy indeed. The Jones Brothers owned and ran the coaches on the Barnstaple route and Baker and Langdon had the monopoly of the Minehead route. Neither trespassed on the ground of the other, for while they were the days of keen competition, there was also a spirit of "live and let live".
In the season there were three return services each day, leaving Lynton at 8 a.m., 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., and the trip was punctually accomplished in three hours. The four-horse teams drew the coach with 24 passengers and baggage, but it was often necessary for a fifth horse to be used to pull the vehicle up Loxhore Hill. In the winter, a three-horse bus and the mail cart kept communications open and anyone who sees the route to-day with its fine macadamised roads, can easily realise that in the coaching days it could have been no mean feat to complete the journey under wintry conditions. In spite of that it was very rarely that the coach, and particularly the mails, failed to get through.
The fare to Barnstaple was 6s. single and 7s. 6d. return for the outside passengers, and an extra shilling for those who enjoyed the luxury of inside travel or the box seat. The station was opposite the church, and on the Barnstaple route alone 50 horses were used, half of which were stabled at Lynton. Beautiful creatures they were, too; Sussex light draught animals, which were great favourites locally.
The vehicles, like the horses, were always beautifully turned out. Glistening coachwork, brave colours, Royal Arms on the door panels, and the guard resplendant in uniform with his "yard of tin" - it must have been indeed a brave sight. Every coach had its name and its own special following among the travelling public. The names Royal Mail, Glen Lyn and the three-horse Tantivy are (1952) still remembered by the older residents. The horses were always changed on the inward and outward journeys at Loxhore.
The drivers were grand characters, a trait which has always been outstanding amongst men who work with animals the world over. They are remembered as masters of their craft, jovial, tough and with at least one thing in common - a fine sense of humour. They were a splendid team - John Baker, Tom Willis and George Moon to mention a few. John Baker afterwards became stationmaster at Chelfham when the Lynton railway opened.
There was one driver who, during a journey, would suddenly stop and call to his guard, "Have a look at the king bolt below. I'm not too happy about it!". The guard would duly examine underneath the coach, and pronounce all well. A few minutes later the driver would again stop, and crawl underneath the vehicle to reassure himself. While the passengers waited, a great deal of banging and swearing would emerge from beneath the wheels, and at last the driver himself would slither into view, still swearing. In his hand was a much-worn king bolt, and the verbal attack he made on his colleague, who he accused of endangering the lives of his passengers, would turn the air blue. In a fine frenzy, he would continue that but for his (the driver's) vigilance they might all have been killed. The guard looked crestfallen, the passengers relieved, and each in turn slipped a coin into their "saviour's" hand. Only a very few intimates knew that the worn king bolt had been in the driver's greatcoat all the time! It was a lucrative trick that could be played quite often in the season.
Then there was the famous appeal made to the passengers as a steep hill was approached. "Perhaps all the younger ladies would like to walk up the hill to help the poor 'osses." It was an appeal which invariably brought every female between the age of fifteen and eighty down from the coach, to struggle up the hill on foot. On a never-to-be-forgotten occasion one "amazon" refused to descend. She had paid her fare and she was going to ride! Entreaty, cajolery and compliments all failed. So the coachman tickled up the horses who created a brief commotion, so that the coach slipped back downhill for a few yards. The obstinate lady screamed but her entreaties of "Let me down. Let me down!" only brought from the driver, "No, you old B.. - you wouldn't move just now, and I'm danged if you will now!"
Of course, all the horses had their names and idiosyncrasies, and one Buller, a leader, was apt to stumble and go down on his knees. The driver on one occasion recalled him by shouting, "Now, now, Buller, Lent is over and past!"
They were grand days and grand people, but with the opening of the Lynton/Barnstaple/ Railway in 1898, the coach services on that route came to an abrupt, and almost overnight, end.
There was still very heavy traffic on the Minehead route, and right up to 1913, when some 30 horses were employed, the coaches ran to make connection with the London trains. The journey took three hours, and the coaches, Lorna Doone, Katerfelty and, later, Red Deer, were driven by William Vellacott, Edward and Tom Baker, John Curtis, Georgie Chugg, John Hussel and Noel Carey. The last named became a driver on the Cliff railway.
In all the years it operated (and even in winter the coach ran once a week) only once was the route impassable. Sometimes in rough weather, it was necessary to make a detour, but generally the coach got through. Two extra horses ridden postillion were hitched on at Lynton to get each coach up Countisbury Hill, but the average motorist is still amazed that horses were able to pull a heavy vehicle plus ten to twelve hundredweight of luggage up the incline at all.
Mr. E.E. Porter, who was the last owner of the coaches, well remembered the record occasion when no fewer than 104 passengers had to be conveyed to Minehead for one London train.
The old coachmen say that the coaches had their faults and differences, as have their successors, the motor car. In this respect, the Red Deer was a terror for swaying. The Lorna Doone on the other hand, which was built at Lynton, was the best of them all, and for years after it was taken off the road, was on view at the Lynton bus station, where it proved an efficient collecting box for local charities. Eventually, in 1949, Mr. Porter sold it to an antique dealer, and in turn it was purchased by some Redruth businessmen. Kept in the Market House of that Cornish town, it has been used for carnivals and other special occasions. Still road-worthy and in sound condition, it has only fallen from grace in one respect, for it is now pulled by a tractor instead of by its four fine horses. We pride ourselves on our modern achievements, but few modern-made vehicles will still be in working order 70 years from now.
There were other regular services too. On the Ilfracombe trip, Sam Colwill, Tom Copp and Tom Hussel presided over the "ribbons" on the vehicles, Benita (with its fine team of greys), Tally Ho and The Foresters. David Arnold, William Vellacott and William Delbridge drove on the Dulverton/Lynmouth route.
Another "old-timer" who, at 84 years-of-age (in 1952) can still tell tales of the open road, is Ambrose Ralph, who has been engaged with horses all his life, but drove private parties rather than public service vehicles. He got married when earning sixteen shillings a week, and later thought himself well off when his wages were raised to one pound. Tips were good though, and for teaching a gentleman to drive four-in-hand, he once received a tip of eight pounds!. It was from Mr. Wills, the tobacco magnate. In those days a party would hire a coach to take twelve people and which would cost them four pounds, and it was a delightful way of spending a day.
When 12 years-of-age, Ralph drove the luggage cart which followed the Lorna Doone on its first trip. In his early days, there was a farm and a few thatched cottages where Cavendish Place now stands, and in the stables of the Castle Hotel were dozens of horses. A set of specially made shoes for the animals in those days cost two shillings.
Another of his earliest memories (he was a lad of about 9 then) was seeing an old character, Mrs. Arnold, sitting by the Lyndale Hotel, hiring ponies and donkeys to carry visitors up the hill to Lynton.