Tales From The Mansfield Road: The Leeds Mail

by Frank E Earp

The Nottingham to Mansfield Road, – A60, Mansfield Road, – is considered to be one of the oldest continuously used roads in the Country. It was once a part of an ancient route connecting London to York. We must not imagine this as a super highway, like the modern M1, but rather a series of linked ancient, pre-historic track-ways, which eventually developed into roads.

From leaving Nottingham’s medieval town gate, the old road travelled almost due north through the wilds of what was once Sherwood Forest. The importance of this road is confirmed by records in the Domesday Book of 1068. Here it is referred to as, ‘the road towards York’ and is declared as being a ‘King’s Highway’. Such roads were governed by Royal Decree, with their own laws, one of which forbade ‘ploughing or the making of a ditch within two perches of the road’, (33’ – 10 m) on pain of a fine of £8, – around £5,000 in today’s money.

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The Mansfield Road Today as It Leaves Nottingham
Credit: Geograph

The compliance of this law meant that all of the early settlements within the Forest, – like Arnold, – were built well back from the road, with their own connecting tracks. This made it a lonely and dangerous road to travel for the individual. However, there was some comfort along the route in the form of ‘The Hutt’, – opposite Newstead Abbey gates, – a landmark still familiar to today’s traveller.

The Hutt was built sometime in the 12th century as a garrison for ‘men-at-arms’ to guard the highway through the Forest. It was one of seven such ‘Huts’ built in the seven Royal Forests. It became a gathering point for solitary travellers to wait until there were sufficient numbers, before continuing their journey together through the notorious and aptly named Thieves Wood.

Before the advent of the ‘turn-pike’ road in the 18th century, the Mansfield Road remained a sandy ill-defined track, deeply rutted with the passage of carts and waggons pulled by teams of oxen or horses. Maintenance of the road was patchy and was carried out at the expense of the local landowners.

From Nottingham, the road followed much of the route it does today, except in the district of Ravenshead, where until 1785, it passed via Papplewick, through the grounds of Newstead Abbey re-joining the modern road just past Larch Farm.

A document relating to a ‘Perambulation of Sherwood Forest’ made in 1218 by the Knights and Free Tenants of Nottingham, provides a good description of the route. The precession is recorded as starting on Trent Bridge and proceeding through the town via Stanstrate, – Stoney St. Exiting through the north gate of the town walls, – around the modern entrance to the Victoria Shopping Centre; – it climbed Gallows Hill to village of Hwitstan, – close to the junction of Mansfield Road and Mapperley Road.

Hwitstan was a Foresters village, complete with its own chapel dedicated to St. Michael. Here too was the White Stone, – from which the village takes its name. The stone was one of the ‘great guide stones’ which marked the route through the Forest. The name and locations of three of these still survive to this day. The other two being; ‘The Robin Hood Stone’, which stood close to the road in the grounds of Newstead Abbey, and ‘The John Martyn Stone in Mansfield’.

The next part of the route is recorded as being over Red Hill, via the ‘rubeam rodam’, – red road. Red Hill did not have the modern ‘cutting’ through it and presented a considerable obstacle. Because of the state of the road from this point on, it was considered necessary for those uncertain of the route to take a guide. For this purpose the Guide House was built on the Nottingham side of the hill, as a residence for the guides.

By the 17th century, the state of British roads prompted the introduction of ‘Turnpike Trusts’. These were bodies set up by individual Acts of Parliament, to maintain principal roads by the application of tolls. This was the beginning of the gated toll roads known as ‘Turnpikes’. However, Turnpikes did not begin to make much of a difference until the 18th century.

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Good example of a Turnpike Trust
Credit: schoolshistory.org.uk

In 1785, Mr Palmer of Bath, – a Mail Coach proprietor, – was trying to speed up the mail between London and Leeds. However, the Nottingham to Mansfield part of the route proved to be problematic due to the poor state of the road. Palmer’s efforts resulted in the passing of the Mansfield Turnpike Act in 1787.

Despite its poor state of repair, the Mansfield Road in the 1700’s was a busy highway. The ancient building known as the Hutt had become a ‘Coaching Inn’ and there were a great number of taverns, inns and ale houses on the short section of road through Arnold to Red Hill.

A familiar sight along the road was the Leeds Mail. Four and six horse coaches with names like; – The Champion, The Royal Hope, The Old Robin Hood, The Express, The Brilliant, and The Rapid, – departed from Nottingham for Leeds, twice daily at 6 am and 6 pm.

It was not just the state of the road which made the route difficult to travel. Bad weather, particularly snow made matters worse. On Friday 8th April 1709 the snow was so deep that the coach was unable to leave Nottingham and the mail was sent on by horse-back rider.

The number of coaches traveling along the road meant that it was necessary to stable horses at regular intervals along the route to enable a change of team and rest tiered horses. The 11th Feb 1772 was a bitterly cold day and the snow lay thick on the ground. Two men, Thomas Rhodes and John Curtis were leading a team of 6 horses back to Mansfield. At a point on the road somewhere around The Hutt, one of the men spotted a splash of scarlet against the white snow. This proved to be the jacket of a half frozen soldier lying in a deep snow drift.

Mail coach in the snow.

Mail Coach in the Snow.

Rhodes and Curtis managed to revive the man, unharnessed a horse, set him upon it and slapping its flank set it galloping off towards Mansfield. But the two Samaritans had committed a fatal error. They had unwittingly set the man on the lead horse of the team and with their leader gone the rest proved difficult to handle.

The soldier arrived safely in Mansfield and making a full recovery managed to tell his tale. However, his rescuers, Rhodes and Curtis manage to struggle on a matter of a few hundred yards before collapsing. Both were later found frozen to death on the spot where they had fallen. One left a widow and eight children.

Even by the early 1800’s the weather could still prevent the mail from getting through. On Friday 28th Jan. 1814 the Leeds Mail left Nottingham at its usual time of 6pm. By 9.30 pm. The snow was so deep that it had travelled barely 8 miles. At a point just passed Seven Mile House, the outside passengers were about to go inside for the night, when one of their number spotted a body lying by the road. It proved to be that of a 70 year old man called Allison. He had walked from Mansfield that morning and returning home was overcome by a storm. Allison was revived by the passengers, but the coach was now axel deep in snow. Allison and his rescuers spent the night at a nearby farm, whilst the coach was forced to return to Nottingham.

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About nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam

Originally formed in 1965 to try to save or at least record before destruction the cave sites continually discovered during the major redevelopment of the City that took place in Nottingham in the 1960′s. Almost every day new sites were unearthed and destroyed before anyone was notified; last thing they wanted was someone telling them to stop what they were doing; TIME is MONEY. The word HIDDEN in the Team’s title is because a lot of what was being invisibly lost in the redevelopment was our early history in the caves, they are under most, if now all, of Nottingham. In the 80’s and 90’s the Team conducted with the help of Dr Robert Morrell and Syd Henley, research and work on Nottingham’s history, folklore and local archaeology. The Team published quarterly magazines on their findings. The Team lapsed for a few years after the death of Paul Nix who was the team leader for thirty plus years. The Team has reformed and is now back working on Nottingham local history. On this blog you will find a series of history, folklore and archaeological related articles and information. Most of the material published will be specifically related to Nottingham/shire local history.
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