Just give me a sign
Country Life UK|October 27, 2021
Even if no one agrees what a red fingerpost denotes, rural communities still cherish their historic signage
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.

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 (‘Milestones in life’, January 2, 2019). 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.

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