Even if no one agrees what a red fingerpost denotes, rural communities still cherish their historic signage, says Richard Webber.
They have been an integral part of the countryside’s fabric for centuries and still play a vital role in our everyday lives, despite the advent of the satnav. We’re talking about fingerposts, the collection of (primarily) black-and-white signposts at junctions.
Their sole purpose is to help us navigate our way along Britain’s complex network of roads and narrow country lanes where, let’s face it, it’s all too easy to get lost. Sadly, these items of road furniture are increasingly taken for granted and neglected, despite being a valuable part of our rural and cultural heritage.
When it comes to charting fingerpost history, there is a surprising dearth of information, although it’s claimed that our oldest known post dates to 1669, in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire. The original is kept by a local history group; a replica stands in its place.
In terms of legislation, 1697 is the first notable date in the history books when some semblance of organisation started to emerge — or, at least, that was the intention. It became a requirement for markers to be placed at remote crossroads indicating the direction of the nearest town or village.
At that time, parishes were responsible for maintaining long-distance routes between settlements, but, unfortunately, they were often forgotten and nothing more than pothole-ridden mud tracks.
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The dawning of the 18th-century saw turnpike trusts regarded as the way forward to improving the growing road network. Allowing such individual bodies to exact tolls to pay for the upkeep of roads was viewed as a way of improving travelling conditions without requiring public funding.
The fingerpost — first made of wood, then cast iron — started to be used extensively during this period by trusts, as did milestones. In 1766, the placing of the latter along routes became compulsory as a means of measurement. By recording the time taken to travel between them, speed could be calculated as the stagecoach raced through the countryside. When fingerposts were installed, they were usually set at a height to be read from horseback or a horse-drawn carriage.
Over time, various acts have helped to carve out not only the appearance, but also the use of these historic rural symbols. In 1921, the Ministry of Transport presented a blueprint suggesting a standardisation in size and colouring of the lettering.
Twelve years later, regulations stated that black-and-white capital letters should be emblazoned on a white background attached to a black-and-white post. Despite such stipulations, little national uniformity was seen, with local authorities using discretion when it came to the fine detail. The result was an intriguing array of designs still seen along the roadsides today.
The initials of the local highway authority adorn the poles in some regions and junction names — such as Molly Brown’s Corner in the Dorset village of Lytchett Matravers, close to the Purbeck Hills — are occasionally emblazoned on posts in others. Fingerposts in some counties, including West Sussex, sport the local council’s coat of arms and grid references can be seen in Dorset and parts of Yorkshire.
Design variations extended to the fingers that point towards the direction of travel. Head to Cornwall — where there are more than 400 surviving fingerposts — or east to Norfolk and chances are you’ll spot square-ended fingers. In Dorset, it will be a curved design, whereas Somerset chose triangular ends.
When it comes to colour, the lion’s share are painted in traditional black and white, but there are exceptions, including a few sporting red posts. The aptly named Red Post marks the turning off the A39 to Horner in Somerset and more exist in other counties, including Dorset.
The reason for this occasional use of red paint is unknown, but several theories have emerged over time. One states that red marks the spot where gallows once stood; another claims that red posts marked the route taken by prisoners en route to a port and subsequent deportation to Australia.
Whether or not the colour indicated a fingerpost of significance held no sway when it came to the Second World War, when the government insisted all signposts were removed in line with its anti-invasion preparations.
The posts often remained in situ, but the fingers were removed and occasionally buried at the foot. Others were collected and stored at a designated site, such as a council-owned quarry on Exmoor, until being put back in the late 1940s.
As the decades passed, decision-making moved from parish to county level and, in some instances, national level. At this point, many counties lost a great proportion of fingerposts, especially when the Department for Transport decreed them to be dangerous distractions on trunk roads and A-roads in the 1990s.
A reduction in numbers had already been seen as a result of findings from the Worboys Committee, formed to review signage on British roads. This report led to the Traffic Sign Regulations Act 1964, which effectuated changes in styles.
Some critics saw it as sounding the death knell for fingerposts, as local authorities were prohibited from erecting new ones. Councils were also encouraged to replace existing cast-iron posts with their modern counterparts. Some counties followed this advice, but many — including Cumberland, Somerset, Dorset, Sussex and Cornwall — ignored the government’s guidance.
John Woodman, cabinet member for Highways and Transport at Somerset County Council, commented on the directive to replace original fingerposts in the 1960s in his foreword to Somerset Traditional Fingerposts: Maintenance, Repair and Restoration Handbook (2017): ‘In Somerset, this advice was ignored and I for one am very glad that it was. The result is that Somerset still has a wonderful back catalogue of fingerposts, remaining as iconic landmarks in our countryside and offering a tantalising glimpse into the past.’
Further south, in Cornwall, there is also appreciation for them. ‘Spotting milestones and fingerposts started off as an excuse to go for a ride on my motorbike. Now, I’m afraid, it has become an obsession,’ jokes retired teacher Ian Thompson, a member of the Milestone Society, which aims to identify, record, research and conserve waymarkers around Britain. ‘Cornwall Council’s highways contractor, Cormac, does a good job on a very restricted budget. Initiatives are often set in motion by local individuals or a parish, too.
‘In recent years, the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies undertook a countywide survey of cast-iron fingerposts to provide a database for the council’s excellent Historic Environment Record,’ he adds. ‘Cornwall’s fingerposts are cherished by those who know them. They are part of the very special landscape.’
What does the future hold for the thousands of fingerposts still standing around Britain? A 2005 advisory leaflet issued by the Department for Transport and English Heritage did, at least, show that the Government appreciated the value of traditional fingerposts, recommending that all signs should be retained in place and repainted every five years.
Since then, however, budget cuts have increased the financial pressures faced by councils, which have to rely more and more on community groups and even individuals. The Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Partnership, for example, recently launched the Fingerpost Project, through which it hopes to encourage ‘fingerpost champions’ to restore and save the 700-odd examples that still exist in the county. It seems likely that we’ll see an increasing number of counties turning to such schemes to help preserve our rural signs.
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