Back to the Past with Ed Grimsdale: The town’s lost route to Aylesbury

The roundabout near Tesco Buckingham pictured by Helen Walker around 1982. Note its lack of cars! PNL-141017-141429001
The roundabout near Tesco Buckingham pictured by Helen Walker around 1982. Note its lack of cars! PNL-141017-141429001

Sue Rossforth has sent me this comment: “Thank you for the fascinating piece about stagecoaches and coaching inns.

“Please could you follow up by telling us how the coach routes changed. When I first moved here I lived in East Claydon and was amazed to learn that the Oxford Stage passed through the village, stopping at the New Inn and Kingsbridge was part of the road to Buckingham, if I’ve got that right.”

Yes, Sue, few of us realise that Buckingham’s “main” road to Aylesbury via Winslow and Whitchurch is a recent creation, being a brand-new route for a turnpike, created around 1722.

For hundreds of years, travellers to Aylesbury and London including those on the Buckingham ‘Old’ Stagecoach took a different route through East Claydon that included sections dating from Roman times and earlier. Both routes are roughly the same length, so why was the route changed?

‘Oh ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road.’

The original route was more evenly contoured; it followed rivers, meres and marshes. Because roads in those days had lumpy, bumpy surfaces and wheel and axle technology was less advanced, the older route minimised strain on wagon, man and beast: “Gently does it”.

The price paid was two-fold: that route missed out many important settlements and in times of rain and flood its feet of clay were revealed; it was nigh impassible. Buckingham was cut off from London during most winters. The route just evolved, it was not “optimised” by a team of “we know what’s best” planners.

The army still does it that way. When it moves camp, paths develop informally; those that are well used and show wear are then asphalted.

Those firm surfaces channel use and alternative routes fade from the scene.

Today’s route, on the other hand, is characterised by steeper gradients, by running along the drier ridges of hills, by being better prepared, surfaced and drained and through serving and invigorating more places along the way.

When it was planned, speculative investors were pouring money into roads, and, such men wanted highways to serve their country houses, as well. In a way, turnpikes were akin to today’s mobile phone licence auctions: hot money poured in but few got rich as a result.

‘Oh ye’ll tak’ the toll road and I’ll tak’ the free road.’

There’s plenty of evidence the old road was used as late as 1756. There were four reasons, perhaps: habit, toll-free status, out-of-date maps and a key piece of infrastructure that was absent from the new route for decades. That was a bridge over Padbury Brook; it wasn’t completed until 1741.

That explains Sue’s reference to ‘Kingsbridge’. The first itinerary to celebrate the completed “new route” seems to have been published by Thomas Jefferys in 1775. In those terms, it will be another 25 years before the AA recommends the Buckingham by-pass to those travelling from Oxford to Cambridge via Buckingham. Perhaps that would be sensible given Buckingham’s present year of chaos caused by work to add capacity to the roundabout near Tesco to aid movement in and out of… well, will tomorrow’s historians call the new estate Lace Hill or Windsor Park?