It was Samuel Johnson who said “There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or Inn.” Mine host of the Bell Inn at Stilton near Peterborough, would dearly like his establishment to justify the sentiment.
To explore the Bell’s charm and mystery, we need to delve into the past. The Inn, and the village itself, thrived in an age when the High Street and North Street were part of the Great North Road, formerly the famous Roman road called Ermine Street. The Coaching Era, from the 1630’s to the 1840’s, was the period of the Inn’s prosperity. Coaches brought people and, significantly, mail. Stilton was so lucrative a posting-station its innkeepers were willing to accept without pay the position of postmaster, and even to offer £40 cash down to obtain it. When Stilton was a major posting stage, it supported as many as 14 public houses and inns.
The Bell Inn dates back to 1500 (though its origins could be even earlier, as there is a record of a local innkeeper in 1437). From 1500 to 1515 Edward Tebald and his wife Alice owned the Bell. We know that their daughter Margaret and her husband William Redehede sued her parent’s tenant for possession, but little else from those early days.
Today’s building dates from 1642, the date marked on the southern gable, and the year in which the Civil War began. It was originally built of oolitic limestone and slates of Colleyweston stone.
The architect’s plans for the 1990 restoration are, astonishingly, almost identical to the plans now lodged in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, for the work carried out in 1736. They show a similar courtyard enclosed by the projecting wings of the inn, and a mullion-windowed house, with a central carriageway in the middle of the front block.
The Bell’s main fascination, however, centres on the characters associated with it. Innkeepers, statesmen, outlaws and literary figures have contributed to the Inn’s fame. One popular tale, handed down over the centuries, has the highwayman Dick Turpin visiting the hostelry. He is supposed to have hidden there for nine weeks while hunted by the law. Surprised by a raid, he threw open the window and jumped onto Black Bess to gallop off up the Great North Road. There were also rumours of escape tunnels connecting The Bell Inn to The Angel.
Equally fascinating are the tales of more recent guests. In the early days the Great Duke of Marlborough was a notable guest. Earlier still, Cromwell’s troops were here. Cromwell himself was based at Huntingdon only 12 miles south of Stilton. In 1725 Lord Harley tasted and disliked the cheese sold at the Bell. On October 3rd 1813 Lord Byron slept there. These figures, however, did not popularise The Bell as much as the 18th Century Innkeeper, Cooper Thornhill.
Thornhill was landlord from 1730 to his death in 1759, aged 54. He is invariably referred to as the man who popularised Stilton Cheese, which was served, mites and all, at The Bell.
There has always been a degree of uncertainty about the evolution of Stilton Cheese. Thanks to extensive research done by a number of people we now have a clearer knowledge of the origins of Stilton Cheese and how the cheese evolved.
19th and 20th century texts had suggested that Stilton cheese was never made in the village and that it simply got its name because it was from there that the cheese was first sold. We are now happy to correct that version of history by stating that the village gave its name to the cheese made there, and to the Stilton Cheese we know today.
There is no doubt that this cheese and similar cheeses were being made and sold in and around the town of Stilton (now in Cambridgeshire but originally in Huntingdonshire) possibly in the late 17th Century and certainly in the early 18th Century and was known as Stilton Cheese. The cheese generally seems to have been matured for a period of time before being sold.
A recipe for Stilton cheese was published in a newsletter by Richard Bradley in 1723, no details were given either on its size or shape or for how long it was matured. We are not sure if it was a blue veined cheese but from the recipe it appears that this would have been a hard cream cheese (it was pressed and boiled in its whey). In 1724 Daniel Defoe commented in his “Tour through the villages of England & Wales” of Stilton being famous for cheese and referred to it as being the “English Parmesan”. It is clear that prior to Defoe’s visit to Stilton the cheese being produced in the area already had an enviable reputation for quality. A later article by John Lawrence in 1726 suggested that the perfect Stilton should be “about 7 inches in diameter, 8 inches in height and 18 lbs in weight.” He also refers to the cheese as the “recently famous Stilton”.
Thus, it seems that some of the cheese being produced in the area was cylindrical and of a comparable size to that being made today. The cheese gained some reputation because it was a cream cheese made with whole milk to which additional cream was added. This set it apart from most other cheeses made at that time which were made from partially skimmed milk and were considerably cheaper.
No one person invented Stilton – it evolved over time from this pressed cream cheese, which may have been blue veined, to the cheese we have today – an un-pressed semi hard blue veined cheese.
With the development of the coaching trade, the town soon became a trading post between London and Edinburgh for many commodities and it is known that one of the innkeepers in the town – Cooper Thornhill, landlord and then subsequently the owner of The Bell Inn – turned this to his advantage by first selling the local cheese not only from the Bell Inn, but to passing travellers and also into London (Historian Trevor Hickman quotes the Bell Inn was “the birthplace of Stilton cheese”). As demand for the cheese grew so Thornhill sought out new sources and, in or around 1743, struck up a commercial arrangement with a renowned cheese maker from Wymondham in Leicestershire by the name of Frances Pawlett.
It is said that she supplied cheese to Thornhill and through a co-operative arrangement got other cheese makers in Leicestershire to make Stilton cheese to the Stilton recipe. This we believe was a blue veined cream cheese. We have no firm details of its method of manufacture or appearance, but we believe that she pioneered the development of the cheese in Leicestershire. It is not clear whether the blue veining was then achieved through frequent brushing of the coat of the maturing cheese or whether the ageing cheeses simply cracked allowing some to go blue and others not. It must have been a hit or miss affair!
As demand for Stilton Cheese grew, so the production switched almost exclusively to Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire and the area around the town of Stilton began to concentrate on trading cheese rather than producing it. (Although it is likely it would still have been made privately in the area but for personal consumption) Because of its reputation as perhaps the finest cheese of its time and owing to its limited production it commanded a significant price and as a result sometimes inferior imitations were produced in other Counties – Cambridge, Rutland, Lincoln and Northampton. Nor was all of this cheese made to the established methods, being sometimes produced in nets or different sized moulds.
Cooper Thornhill and Frances Pawlett were responsible for the successful commercialisation of Stilton Cheese and the further development of a recipe that is the forerunner of today’s Stilton.
Others have a claim to playing an important role – including Lady Beaumont from the nearby Elton Hall estate who it is claimed made Stilton Cheese for her own family use in the 17th century; Mrs Orton, (a farmer’s wife from Little Dalby) is claimed to have made the first Stilton cheeses in Leicestershire in 1730; and it wasn’t till after Stilton’s fame that Shuckburgh Ashby, owner of Quenby Hall, set up a commercial arrangement to produce Stilton Cheese for sale by the owner of the Bell Inn in 1759.
However all have played their part some way or other in the development of our cheese, as too did the villagers of Stilton who were pivotal in recognising the potential market for a locally made, high quality cheese. Whether or not this cheese bore any resemblance to today’s Stilton is debatable, as at the time it would have been named as cheese from Stilton or more simply Stilton cheese. Their skills built the reputation of Stilton cheese which others subsequently built on.
The rest as they say is history. The cheese has evolved and today the cheeses are now guaranteed to be blue and produced to a legally binding recipe. There will always be grey areas and gaps in our knowledge as to how Stilton Cheese evolved from a pressed cream cheese to an un-pressed blue veined cheese and we are always eager to hear from anyone who can provide any further information on this subject in order to give us an even clearer picture.
The village of Stilton now has a four-lane dual carriageway by-pass and so it is quieter than in the days of Cooper Thornhill; but The Bell Inn is still there serving wonderful food – including Stilton Cheese – to passing travellers, and is well worth a visit for anyone interested in good food or the history of Britain’s most famous cheese “The King of Cheeses”.
Celebratory Thornhill was also renowned for his riding exploits, of which many tales abound. On April 29th 1745 he rode 213 miles from the Bell to Shoreditch Church in London, and back, and back again to London. His aim was to complete the journey in less than 15 hours and so win a wager of 500 guineas. He set out at 4 o’clock in the morning, used 19 horses, and cheered on by thousands of spectators along the way, completed the distance by 4.15pm the same afternoon. Such a feat was unequalled in his day and for many years after. Thornhill was also a man of notable business enterprise. In 1743 he purchased the Angel Inn, directly opposite The Bell and probably its major rival, with considerable property and buildings extending to Church Street for £850.00
A D Clark, who made large-scale additions to the building, succeeded Thornhill in 1759, but it was Clark’s son-in-law Henry Thornton, who followed as the Inn’s next colourful character. A strolling player before his marriage, Thornton was a “tall, portly, theatrical, convivial fellow of great effrontery”. His match with Clark’s daughter established him in The Bell Inn, but he was publicly disgraced for striking Samuel M Lawrence, Lieutenant of the Cambridgeshire Militia, who proclaimed him “to be a Bully, Scoundrel, Poltroon and Coward”.
In 1814, Mrs. Scarborough of the George Inn at Buckden, purchased The Bell. She repaired and refurbished the house and made her son landlord. The Bell continued to prosper until the middle of the 19th Century and the close of the coaching era, when it declined to the position of a minor Inn. The railways had taken hold and many North-South travellers would now by-pass Stilton altogether. The Bell tolled the death knell of a prosperous era – it’s premises being divided into several tenements.
Some villagers can recall happier days during the Second World War, when the likes of Clark Gable and Joe Louis came to the inn. They were with American Air Force units stationed at nearby Glatton (Connington) and Polebrook.
In the late 1980’s major restoration works on the impressive old Inn were commenced. Built around the old courtyard, twenty two luxury bedrooms and a conference centre were skilfully blended into the ageless stonework of this ancient Inn, combining old world charm, relaxing comfort with the most modern of facilities. The restoration work faithful to the architectural heritage was completed in 1990. Once again The Bell was established as one of the finest examples of English traditional Inns, welcoming many colourful characters of this era including politicians, actors (if you can tell the difference!) and pop groups.
Today’s owner bids you the warmest of welcomes whether to enjoy a stay, attend a conference or function or just for a drink in the Bar and hope you enjoy your visit whilst absorbing some of the atmosphere of this historic Inn.