Milestones and turnpikes
One of the old arterial roads of England, the Great West Road, now the A30 linking London with Cornwall, runs through Camberley. It dates to at least the Elizabethan era and was originally made of dirt or gravel and was narrow as it crossed the heathlands of Bagshot and Frimley. At what is now known as the Jolly Farmer roundabout – alas the pub closed in 1996 – the road forks, the other part being the road to Portsmouth, now known as the A325.
Travel was precarious in the 16th to 18th centuries, the heathland providing perfect cover for highwaymen who pounced on unsuspecting travellers and coaches. One of the most prodigious pliers of this dubious trade in the Surrey heathland was one George Davies, a farmer, whose career as a highwayman spanned around 40 years in the 17th century. So successful was he that his wife, who bore her husband 18 children – he must have had plenty of time on his hands – was reputed to pay “any considerable sum in gold”.
Inevitably, all good things must come to an end and Davies was caught and hung, supposedly on the gallows situated at Gibbet Lane which intersects the London Road (A30) and the Portsmouth Road (A325) nearby. His reputation lived on and the original pub, just to the north of the London Road, was called the Golden Farmer in his honour and the pub sign bore a picture of him. It was only in 1823 that its name changed to the Jolly Farmer and in 1879 it moved to its current location.
At its height some thirty coaches a day trundled their way down the Great West Road and many public houses sprang up to provide accommodation and food and drink for the travellers and places for the horses to be changed or watered and fed. The increase in traffic generated demands for better and safer roads and in response many of the major roads in and out of London were put under the control of Turnpike Trusts during the early part of the 18th century. By 1800 there were some 1,000 trusts.
Their responsibilities were enshrined in legislation. In particular, trusts were required to erect milestones showing the distances between the major towns on the route. The Trusts were able to charge users tolls for the privilege of using the road and some were allowed to charge extra in the summer to cover the cost of watering the surface to prevent the fast-moving coaches from throwing up excessive amounts of dust. Users were required to travel on the left and take care not to damage the roads.
Both the Great West Road and the Portsmouth Road in our area fell under the control of the Bedfont and Bagshot Turnpike Trust and ten of their milestones are still to be found in situ in Surrey Heath, although one is under repair having been damaged during some building work. In what is now Frimley one is to be found opposite Frimley Park Hospital on the Grove and another at Golf Drive on the Portsmouth Road. A third is to be found at Gibbet Lane.
What did for the flourishing coach industry was the development of the railways and, in particular, the decision to route the major lines to the south and south west through Woking in 1839 rather than through Bagshot and Camberley.
Still, if you look around, there are still vestiges of the golden days of coach travel.