One of England’s oldest and most famous coaching inns
The Bell Inn is one of the oldest and most famous of the former coaching inns on England’s historic Great North Road. The beautiful building dates from the 1600s or earlier and has long been considered an icon of a bygone age.
Its most famous custodian, an eighteenth-century entrepreneur, was the greatest horseman of his generation. His most remarkable achievement was completing a ride between Stilton and London three times non-stop, a total of 216 miles, in under 13 hours. Afterwards he was lauded nationally as The Stilton Hero. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, The Bell was renowned as a posting house where 100 or more horses were routinely stabled to meet the needs of long-distance riders and fast coaches making their way against the clock along the Great North Road.
The inn was famed for its extraordinarily large and ornate hanging sign, which projected out into the road, and for its reputation as the place to buy the best of a locally distinctive and much-sought-after cheese that became known throughout England as Stilton. But the story of The Bell Inn is also one of survival. After a management collapse in 1814, the inn was reduced to occupying only half of the historic building. Decline continued from around 1850 when the railways wiped out most of the long-distance traffic on the Great North Road, seriously diminishing the roadside hospitality trade.
It didn’t recover until the advent of motor traffic, which expanded rapidly from the 1920s. However, poor safety standards on the road through Stilton resulted in many fatal accidents, leading to the village’s increasing reputation as a death trap. The opening of a by-pass in 1958 saved lives but decimated Stilton’s hospitality trade once again, ultimately causing The Bell to be closed in 1964. Not until the 1980s was it brought back to life by visionary entrepreneurs who rescued it from dereliction, restored the entire building, and reopened it to meet the needs of the modern market.