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Historic Places along the Holyhead Road

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The Holyhead Road is the most forthright highway in England. It seems to have a definite purpose and intention to get there, not incidentally, but of design. This is due to the remodelling of the Holyhead Road by Telford in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. That eminent engineer and surveyor was employed by the Government to perform this work on account of the agitation of the Irish members of the new Imperial Parliament for a better means of travelling between Ireland and London. The bad condition of the road was, in fact, an "Irish grievance."

The Holyhead, Great North, and Manchester and Glasgow roads have a common starting-point. They were measured from the General Post Office in St. Martin's-le-Grand; and they went to the Angel, Islington, to Highbury and along the Holloway Road, up to and through Highgate Archway. Thence across Finchley Common to Whetstone and Barnet. In the middle of Barnet town the Great North Road goes off to the right (or, rather, straight on), while the Holyhead Road and that for Manchester and Glasgow turn sharply to the left; proceeding through South Mimms and London Colney to St. Albans.

The distance to Holyhead is 260½ miles. When we come to the Archway Tavern, a former main route is seen going by Highgate village. That was the way of all these roads before the original Highgate Archway was cut through Highgate Hill in 1813. The old gloomy archway was replaced by the present light steel structure in 1900.

There is little enough now to remind us of the dreaded Finchley Common of yore. But still beside the road there, on the left, is "Turpin's Oak." an ancient tree behind whose huge trunk Turpin and many another of his sort are said to have lurked, ready to pounce upon any likely traveller. Travellers used to fire pistols at it, in passing, to be on the safe side of chances. Having passed North Finchley, we are at Whetstone. A stone, supposed to be the whetstone on which the troops, sent in 1745 to meet the Scotch rebels, sharpened their swords, stands by the signpost of the Griffin inn. Uphill to Barnet, past the site of the annual September fair; and then to the left in the middle of the town. Passing South Mimms, the road rises Ridge Hill and descends to London Colney, with St. Albans three miles ahead. Much beauty and a great store of interest belong to St. Albans. It stands by the Roman city, Verulamium, and takes its name from the British martyr St. Alban, who suffered in the Diocletian persecution, a.d. 305. The great abbey, constituted in 1877 a cathedral, stands on a more lofty site than any cathedral in England, 340 feet above sea-level. Interesting remains of many old inns are to be seen on Holywell Hill.

Remains of the Roman Verulamium are found at St. Michael's, a village off to the left. Here is also the ruined mansion of Gorhambury, where lived the great Francis Bacon, Viscount St. Albans, to whom some ardent admirers ascribe all the works of Shakespeare. In the chancel of the church at St. Michael's is a curious statue of him, meditating in a chair.

Four miles from St. Albans we come to Redbourne, with the Bull inn on the right, and on the left the humble Mad Tom, whose circular, double-sided sign shows on one side "Mad Tom at Liberty," and on the other "Mad Tom in Bedlam." The vagrants anciently called " Mad Toms" were half-witted tramps, licensed to beg of the charitably-disposed.

Past Friar's Wash, we come to Markyate, with the mansion of Markyate Cell beyond on the right. The curious name derives from this being the site of an ancient hermit's cell. Coming into Dunstable, we see the Norman church, formerly an Augustine Priory, on the right at the farther end of the town. The road then climbs the downs, a part of the Chiltern range. But it does not climb as once it did, for it goes through a cutting in the chalk made by Telford in 1825, to ease the pull-up for the coaches. The "spoil," or excavated chalk, was used to form an embankment for levelling up the road in the succeeding valley, on the way to Hockliffe. At this place the Manchester and Glasgow Road parts company, and goes off to the right for Woburn.

And so into Little Brickhill village, thence descending to Fenny Stratford. The church, on the left, was rebuilt in 1726 by Browne Willis, the antiquary, in memory of his father. The church, dedicated to St. Martin in honour of the father who was born in St. Martin's Lane, London, and died on St. Martin's Day, possesses six little iron carronades, like quart pots, given by Browne Willis for the purpose annually of celebrating the Day of St. Martin with salvoes. This old and primitive artillery is not now used, as the parson has on his lawn a small cannon which serves the purpose. The old "Fenny Poppers," as they are styled, are kept in the church. Oddly enough, Armistice Day is also St. Martin's Day, and Fenny Stratford can economically celebrate its local occasion with that of England in general.

To Fenny Stratford succeeds Stony Stratford. Here is the fine old Cock inn. Thence past the lodges of Easton Neston Park, into Towcester. Here are the old Talbot and Pomfret Arms inns. The last-named formerly was the Saracen's Head. In the "Pickwick Papers" there is much about the Saracen's Head, Towcester. At the Talbot the chair used by Dean Swift, a frequent guest on his journeys between London and Holyhead, was kept for many years. It is now in the Town Hall.

The road towards Weedon Beck is particularly hilly, and on Foster's Booth Hill is a granite kerb laid along the near side, to aid the pull-up for horses. All this line of road is identical with the Roman Watling Street, but at Weedon Beck that ancient way goes off to the right, and we do not rejoin it until in the neighbourhood of Wellington, Shropshire. There are barracks at Weedon, rather surprisingly; but there was once a reason for them. Alarm for the safety of the Royal Family during the Napoleonic Wars led to the building here, in the centre of England, of a Royal pavilion, as an inland refuge; and barracks for a military guard were then necessary.

The road to Daventry continues to be hilly, and so remains at the other side of that town, where it steeply descends to Braunston. The historic Ashby St. Ledgers is some three miles to the right. Here lived Robert Catesby, prominent in the Gunpowder Plot. The church and gateway to the mansion form a picturesque group. Beyond Braunston is Wil-loughby, with the Four Crosses inn, unhappily rebuilt in 1898. This was originally the Three Crosses, at which stayed Dean Swift. The landlady was uncivil to the Dean, who scratched on a window-pane the lines:

There are three
Crosses at your door,
Hang up your Wife
And you'll count Four.
-Swift, D., 1730.

In another three miles we are at Dunchurch, a pretty village. By the church is a house once the Lion inn, where the Gunpowder Plot conspirators were waiting to hear news of their enterprise when intelligence came of its failure. Dunsmore Heath succeeds to this village. In three and three-quarter miles, on the right at Knightlow Hill, is the base of a cross on a mound, where, early in the morning of every November n, certain small sums of money are paid by tenants of the Duke of Buccleuch for lands in this neighbourhood. This is called "Wroth Money." After the ceremony the Duke's steward entertains the tenants at breakfast, at the Dun Cow hotel, Dunchurch.

Hence to Willenhall and over Stivichall Common into Coventry, which for the last two Census periods has been the most rapidly increasing place in England. It is a "city" alike by ancient right and recent usage. The City of the Three Spires is picturesque, although now so striving in the bicycle and the automobile industries. The "three spires" are those of S. Michael's, Holy Trinity, and Christ churches. S. Michael's is a rival with S. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, and S. Nicholas, Yarmouth, for being accounted the "largest parish church in England." Among the many ancient almshouses in Coventry, Ford's Hospital is the tiniest and the most quaintly beautiful, with its miniature old half-timbered courtyard. As to Lady Godiva, the wife of Earl Leofric of Mercia, who freed the citizens of exorbitant taxes, everyone has heard of her riding nude through the streets, with all windows and doors shuttered and curtained, save for that whence Peeping Tom peered forth. A half-length figure representing him is seen built into the frontage of the King's Head in the centre of the city.

At Allesley one has finally left Coventry and entered again upon the open country. Meriden, the next village, is said to be "the centre of England." This pleasant place was once important in the coaching way. What is now a private mansion on the right hand, and called Darlaston Hall, was once the Royal Sussex hotel. It was the haughtiest and most exclusive posting-house on the road. As we leave Meriden we pass the village green and its ancient cross and also the National War Memorial to cyclists who fell in the Great War.

Between this and Stonebridge there was a deviation made in the road in the eighteenth century at the instance of Sir Clement Fisher, of Packington Park, who disliked seeing traffic proceeding near his mansion. He procured an Act of Parliament for the purpose; but evidently some wayfarers for a time continued to use the old road, for in the park is to be seen, beneath an oak tree, the monument to an unfortunate man who was struck dead by lightning while sheltering beneath this tree.

The road now grows suburban to Birmingham, and finally enters that great hardware town uphill by the Bull Ring. That is the oldest surviving part of "Brum." Here is a statue of Nelson, to which a patriotic townsman left a bequest yielding a small annual sum for the purpose of cleaning it. The Holyhead Road goes through Birmingham by way of New Street. There are newer streets than that, notably Corporation Street, on the right, which was made in 1874 as a result of that energetic reforming personality, Joseph Chamberlain.

From Birmingham the road traverses twenty miles of what is called the "Black Country"; a region not perhaps so black as once it was, for the coal-mining in this region is past its prime. So we proceed through Handsworth, West Bromwich and Wednesbury to Moxley Green, Bilston and Wolverhampton; locally "Wulverhampton," or, by preference, "Hampton." It is named after the Princess Wulfrun, sister of Ethelred II, who in a.d. 994 refounded S. Mary's Church and re-dedicated it to S. Peter. In this noble church in the centre of the town is a fine bronze statue of Admiral Leveson, the work of Le Sueur, the artist who made the equestrian statue of Charles the First at Charing Cross. Wolverhampton makes cycles and tinware; and it might be said that a great part of its prosperity derives incidentally from the criminal classes, for locks and keys and safes form a speciality of its manufactures.

Leaving the busy town of Wolverhampton and at the same time coming forth from the last vestiges of the Black Country, the road rises at Tettenhall, through the cutting of Tettenhall Rocks, and comes to a hamlet weirdly named The Wergs. What, it well may be asked, is a werg? There is no such thing. The place-name comes down to us through the centuries in a long series of changes. It means "The Withy-hedges," and indicates a remote, far-off settlement and enclosure amidst wild country by a hedge of withies.

We enter Shropshire from here. Away to the right is Albrighton, and then Tong, with a fine church, and near by it the cottage associated with the refuge of Little Nell and her grandfather in Dickens's "Old Curiosity Shop." Along the main road we come to Shifnal, with its picturesque old black and white houses; and then to the blast furnaces of Snedshill and Prior's Lee, evidences of the activities of Coal-brookdale. One mile and a half onwards, at Ketley railway level-crossing, we come to where the Roman road, the Watling Street, rejoins us and, passing the Cock inn, we see the town of Wellington off to the right. Away to the left the isolated hill of mountainous character, The Wrekin, rises most impressively from the plain. This great hill is dear to the heart of all true Salopians, whose old-time toast was "To friends all round the Wrekin." A little way on is the old Haygate inn, on our right, now a private residence; and farther again to the left is the village of Wroxeter, built hard by the site of the Roman station, Uriconium. Little is left of that, apart from the mass of masonry called "the old wall"; but the entrance to Wroxeter church is formed by two Roman columns.

Past Attingham Park gates we come to Atcham and the Severn. Atcham Bridge has been rebuilt recently. Shrewsbury is three miles ahead. To enter this town it is necessary, after passing the column to Lord Hill, to recross the Severn. The old eighteenth century "English Bridge" here has also recently been reconstructed, but its fine architectural character has been preserved. It leads directly into the town up the steep street named Wyle Cop. On the left is that famous old inn, the Lion, with its beautiful ball-room-one of the attractions of Shrewsbury of old.

The road leaves the town by crossing the other bridge, the "Welsh Bridge," so called because, in the words of the old books, it formed the "ready way to Wales." This leads past the ancient suburb of Frankwell, on the way to Oswestry, passing The Mount, the old red-brick mansion where the great exponent of evolution, Charles Darwin, was born. The gnarled and much stricken oak which presently comes into view beside an old toll-house is Shelton Oak, from whose branches, traditionally, Owen Glyndwr, or Glendower, watched the progress of the Battle of Shrewsbury, July 21, 1403, in which his allies were defeated. The battlefield is three miles away, with a church of Battlefield marking the site. The Severn is again, and finally, crossed at Montford Bridge. On the left are seen the bold outlines of the Breiddin Hills, crested by a monumental pillar to Admiral Lord Rodney. Thence, past Nesscliff and West Felton, we enter Oswestry. It is an historic town which has successfully abolished almost every vestige of its history.

These are the Welsh borders, and in another three miles or so Wales is entered on crossing the river Ceiriog. Chirk stands on the crest of the next rise. The Welsh call it "Castell Crogen." That black figure of English history, Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, built Chirk Castle after duly murdering the rightful owner of the soil, his ward, Gruffydd ap Madoc. In later centuries Chirk Castle came into the possession of the Myddelton famity by the more commonplace method of purchase. It is "now a seat of Lord Howard de Walden. In two miles, at Whitehurst toll-gate, the road turns left and enters the famed Vale of Llangollen, crossed here by Pont Cysylltau, a great canal aqueduct, and by the equally imposing railway viaduct. By the hamlet of Cefn we come to Vron Cysylltau. Beyond this, that ancient boundary, Offa's Dyke, is cut through by the road, at a farm called "Clawdd Offa." So we come to the town of Llangollen, which actually lies at right angles to the road. To enter it, the Dee Bridge is crossed. Great heights rise all around. The Ladies of Llangollen have conferred a certain quaint fame upon the place. They lived at Plas Newydd, on the left. The one was the Lady Eleanor Butler; the other the Hon. Miss Ponsonby. Infatuated with each other's society, they lived here, apart from friends and the world.

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Pictures for Historic Places along the Holyhead Road

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