A Cock and Bull Story

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I want to share the contents of the local treasure chest that is Stony Stratford; the place with a river, rooms and revelry, which I first encountered when I moved there in 1998.

Stony Stratford has long attracted people with its sense of community spirit and friendly atmosphere. This could be largely due to the fact that it has always played host to people travelling through and so has its roots firmly set around hospitality and entertainment.

The Great Road

On the Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire border, the old Roman road, called Watling Street, crosses the river Ouse at Old Stratford.

In Roman times, journeys through this particular area were made tricky in bad weather by (what was then) wide flood plains and marshland. So a causeway would have been formed, by laying a number of large, flat stones into the riverbed in order to raise the level for easier passage. This ford was of great importance for many travellers, as illustrated by the check-point which was established on the opposite side of the river (where Stony Stratford subsequently emerged as a town).

Watling Street was primarily a military road – one of the two great roads from London to the North. Legions passed along it on their way to and from campaigns or re-assignments to the various garrisons around the newly conquered country.

Anyone standing near the ford at Stony Stratford would have been used to the spectacle of disciplined marching cohorts of Roman infantry negotiating the river crossing, heading north or south.

Watling Street continued to be a major thoroughfare in the late medieval period. Like the Romans before them, medieval armies marched along it to and from London on campaigns in the English and Welsh regions.

The merchants and traders of Stony Stratford

Travellers may well have been delayed crossing the Ouse marshes as this was the first major river crossing since coming from London. The High Street in Stony Stratford widens on the spit of gravel extending towards the river, suggesting an early Norman street market, although it wasn’t until 1194, at the time of King Richard I, the Stony Stratford market first appeared in official records.

As demonstrated by the obvious success of the early street market, Watling Street and its important crossing over the River Ouse have, through the ages, created demand for service by travellers and pilgrims – and therefore opportunity for traders.

The earliest hospitality establishment was Grilkes Inn, which was most probably located near the south end of the bridge on the west side as far back as 700 years ago.

With the growth in the number of travellers, the number of inns began to multiply rapidly through the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The 18th Century saw the rise of the coaching trade and at its peak, Stony Stratford had over 30 stage-coaches per day passing through the town. All of these required servicing with food, livery for their horses and accommodation.

The inns thrived – this was their hayday! The sound of hooves on the cobbled street and the smell of hard-worked horses filled the air. As the coaches pulled into the town, the Ostler from the designated Inn would take care of the horses, providing hay, food, water, stabling and arranging any necessary blacksmith work. Coaches carrying mail would also stop off on their journey. The visitors would require overnight accommodation, food and ale, and any other services a traveller would need. Floods or bad weather meant that travellers were forced to stay longer in the town, which was good business for the merchants of Stony Stratford!

The Cock & Bull Hotels

The most notable of Inns amongst the town’s 50+ establishments were two hotels called The Cock and The Bull. During stops overnight, or for meals en-route, news and gossip would be passed on. Like all good stories, as they were passed on they were exaggerated and padded out as news travelled between the two Inns, and so the phrase ‘cock and bull story’ came to be applied to any such exaggerated story.

Stony Stratford became known as a stopover point for famous coaches such as the “Manchester Flyer”. An original timetable shows that the Flier left London at 8.30am, arriving in Manchester at 5.10am the next day with a 25 minute stop at the Cock for dinner.

Local legend has it that the Cock hotel is the ‘cock’ of the nursery rhyme ‘Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross, to see a fine lady upon a white horse’. The lady is thought to be Celia Fiennes, who travelled to every county in England recording her experiences in her diary as she went.

In 1742 a maid in the Bull Hotel accidentally scorched some sheets she was ironing. Having heard her boss approaching, she pushed the sheets up the nearby chimney, anxious to hide the evidence. The sheets caught light and flames raged. The fire spread quickly all the way down to the river and beyond, enveloping the whole town within billowing smoke. Following the great fire, the Cock Hotel was rebuilt with doubled capacity (40 men plus stabling for their horses).

Stony today

Although now relocated to the safety of higher ground, the Stony Stratford market still exists and the town is still home to an active and engaged business community made up of independent hotels, pubs, restaurants, retailers and service providers.

As vibrant as ever, Stony welcomes visitors with open arms and serves as a picturesque venue for many a special occasion. In 2005 the first StonyLive! festival took place and the 2017 StonyLive! is currently in the planning stages for June 2017. With events ranging from blues bands to barn dancing and barbeques and a riverside fair on the Saturday, there will be loads of entertainment all over the town:
https://www.facebook.com/StonyLive/

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