by Marie-Louise Jensen
I posted last month about the slowness of wagons on narrow rutted roads in the 18th Century. There was another form of transport that was far quicker and less affected by the poor roads. All over Britain trains of pack horses carried loads of goods from city, countryside or coast to city.
Pack horses were much faster than wagons and for this reason were more suited to transporting fresh goods that would spoil on the journey. In the early 18th century, London was growing fast and food and raw materials needed to be brought in from all over the country.
There was a pack horse train for example, that travelled down every night from the North of England with fresh fish. Trains of pack horses carried fruit and vegetables into the city from all over the country. And from the West Country came a continuous supply of wool to be processed in the city.
All these goods were ideal to be transported by packhorse, being small and relatively light. Bulky and heavy items were better suited to wagons.
The pack horses could avoid the worst of the ruts, not get stuck in the mud like a heavy wagon, take shortcuts and they could also evade the new tollgates that were springing up all over the country, by simply leaving the road for a spell, which the wagons couldn't do, making pack horses cheaper.
It amazed me to find that pack horses were so widely used in the UK and until so recently. I should have guessed, of course, from the number of pubs called the packhorse. I live in the wool-producing West Country and there's one pub with that name within walking distance.
Gradually, the improved roads and the new four-wheeled carts, not to mention canals, put them out of business. But until the mid-18th century they were very much in use.
It was impossible to resist including the pack horses in Runaway once I found out about them, so my character Charlie gets a job with a packhorse train which travels between London and Bradford-on-Avon.
She and her employer (a woman - I checked, and there really were a few women known to have been working the packhorse trains, sometimes dressed as men for protection) walked beside the horses with a stick, one at the front of the train, one at the back and used voice commands to direct them. The horses knew the route by heart and would speed up as they got closer to the inn where they were to be quartered that night. Their stabling would be booked, including feed, at convenient inns on the route, depending on how long the journey was.
My research taught me wisdom such as 'a badly tied pack ruins a horse quicker than bad roads' and a lovely collection of words that have now long ago passed out of the language, such as 'sirsingles' and 'wantyres' which were part of pack horse harness, the wantyre being the strap that fastens around the horse's tail to help secure the load. They are still in the OED with a wide variety of possible spellings.
It must have been quite a sight to see the packhorse train at night. Although I can't imagine the smell was all that great!
Especially not if they were carrying fresh fish!
Well, surcingle is still a word for a item of tack. And across the Pennines there are many packhorse routes, still used as footpaths. Even in the most isolated and high places, you can find miles of narrow stone-laid footpaths, each block of stone deeply worn by generations of ponies' hooves.
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