A relic from the ‘roadhouse’ age – The Shire Horse, Littlewick Green
Tags: architecture, Bath Road, Chef & Brewer, coaching inn, England, history, Ivor Novello, Littlewick Green, Maidenhead, pub, restuarant, roadhouse, Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead, The Shire Horse
They are scattered along the highways and byeways of the United Kingdom. Many of them began as country inns or pubs, which, with the addition of stable blocks and trained ostlers, became stagecoach inns for the coaches which were the prime means of moving around the countryside before the rise of the railway (for an excellent description of travel by coach, I heartily recommend ‘Pickwick Papers, by the inimitable Charles Dickens). Although stagecoach inns were – of course – located at either end of the route, normally in the centre of a town, the intermediate inns were strung out along the route, like pearls on sparsely-populated necklace, and because their spacing depended, to an extent, on the needs of the horses, many were out in the countryside with only ‘passing traffic’ to sustain them. I have already written of one famous coaching inn, ‘The Waggon & Horses’ at Beckhampton (frequented by Charles Dickens, on his journeys between London and Bath), and that particular route – now designated the A4 – was heavily travelled by stagecoaches. In 1836, there were no less than 11 departures a day from London (plus two Royal Mail coaches) to either Bath, or the more distant Bristol. For example, ‘The York House’ coach left Ludgate Hill, London at 6.15 am, and arrived in Bath at 5.15 pm; a journey of 108 miles, with at least 8 intermediate stops, in 11 hours!
Change, especially in modes of transportation, is inevitable. The age of the stagecoach passed, and after an enduring love affair with the steam train, the British public – especially those with a large private income like Rudyard Kipling – began rushing around the countryside in the new-fangled ‘automobiles’. Quite a number of the old coaching inns became re-purposed as ‘road houses’. These catered for the slowly increasing motor trade which was roaring past their door. Indeed, it became fashionable to go ‘for a spin’ out into the country (especially on Sunday, or on a summer evening) to enjoy a meal and a drink or two at one of these establishments.
On one of my visits to the United Kingdom, I was on my was back from the West Country to London in my rental car when I felt the need for some sustenance. I had made a reservation at a small family hotel on the outskirts of Windsor (handy for Heathrow), but had reached my ‘prudent limit of endurance’ as we say, when it came to calories! Luckily, I saw a likely inn just ahead. Here you can see the very pleasant exterior of ‘The Shire Horse’, Littlewick Green, near Maidenhead, Berkshire. Littlewick Green is a small but very ancient settlement clustered around a ‘V’ shaped village green, in the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead (it is a Royal Borough because of the presence of Windsor Castle within its boundaries). The remains of a Roman villa have been excavated, locally, and the ‘wick’ ending of the name indicates that it was a Saxon trading post or market. By the way, as an aside, pleased be warned about the ‘layering’ of the languages of the various peoples who have occupied these Isles of Britain; we tend to incorporate words rather than discard them. For example, in Cumbria there is a lovely feature called Torpenhow Hill. This COULD be rendered as ‘Hillhillhill Hill’ (Old English, Welsh, Norse), just to make absolutely certain you know it’s a hill! In 940 CE, King Edmund 1st of England a grandson of Alfred the Great, and a Saxon king who was sometimes called ‘the Just’, gifted a piece of land at Littlewick Green to a member of the Royal Household. King Edmund did not reign for long, unfortunately (939 – 946), as he was stabbed to death by a banished thief. The village did have one notable resident in Ivor Novello (1893 – 1951), the noted Welsh actor, dramatist, composer; his house, ‘Redroofs’, has a commemorative ‘blue plaque’ affixed to it.
‘The Shire Horse’ is named, so I was told, after the horses which used to pull the brewer’s drays when they delivered barrels of ale to the inn. From the car park to the side of the inn it was quite easy to imagine Lord Peter Wimsy’s 1927 Daimler ‘Double Six’ 50, a V-12 drophead coupé that he referred to as ‘Mrs Merdle’, pulling in so His Lordship could enjoy a glass of ale. The flower-filled hanging baskets and neat shrubbery give a welcoming aspect to the brick-built inn, and the red signboard proclaims ‘Home Cooked Food, All Day, Every Day, Traditional Ales, Extensive Wines By The Bottle & Glass, Fully Air Conditioned’; I know that the inn stands by its claim that it uses only the best seasonal produce to make its freshly cooked food. Since it was Sunday lunchtime, and The Shire Horse prides itself on its ‘Sunday roasts’, this boded well. On entering the building, I was instantly struck by the traditional ‘feel’ of the place. Low beamed ceilings, open fireplaces and lots of ‘nooks and crannies’ to seat yourself in. The roast beef was succulent, the Yorkshire pudding light and the gravy…ah, the gravy! A glass of cabernet sauvignon completed the meal.
There is a hanging sign outside the inn which says, ‘Littlewick Green – Chef & Brewer’, and two figures, one wearing a chef’s hat and the other carrying a mug of ale. This is the corporate sign of the ‘Chef & Brewer’ chain of 135 pubs and restaurants, which are distributed around the U.K. They all focus on producing good food at a reasonable price as their main selling point, and seem to be quite successful at doing just that. Next door to The Shire Horse there was an extensive range of stables, used when it serviced the needs of the stagecoaches. For a while it was occupied by ‘The Old Shire Horse Centre’, comprising an animal farm, an activity centre and a children’s playground. Unfortunately, that has now closed, and after several attempts to regenerate some form of commercial activity on site, it has been decided that the only approved use for this piece of ‘Green Belt’ land would be a small development of 6 houses. Since I took the photograph, I think there has been a change of management at the inn, for a recent image of the front elevation shows much simpler signage, and an almost complete lack of flowers and shrubs – a pity.
The Shire Horse – a fine example of an English ‘roadhouse’.