Mile­stones in life

Mile­stones have been mark­ing our roads since the reign of the Ro­mans and are a me­mento of trav­ellers past. Matthew Den­ni­son tells their story

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Once a trav­eller’s friends, mile­stones are a re­minder of a lost world, finds Matthew Den­ni­son

‘A Ro­man mile­stone lists the ti­tles of the Em­peror Hadrian more promi­nently than the news that only two miles re­main to Ratis

In many parts where ways be doubt­ful,’ Mathew Si­mons noted of the English coun­try­side in his Di­rec­tions for English Trav­illers of 1635, the equiv­a­lent of sign­posts were to be found. not quite ev­ery­where, how­ever, and it wasn’t un­til 1698, in the reign of Wil­liam III, that parishes na­tion­wide were re­quired by law to place guide­posts at cross­roads.

Some of those guide­posts re­main to­day— short, stone pil­lars in­di­cat­ing dis­tances in miles to the near­est towns and vil­lages. Among the more pic­turesque fea­tures of Bri­tish road­sides, they are known as mile­stones, a term first coined in 1746.

Later mile­stones in­clude those that were ei­ther made of metal or con­structed from stone with metal let­ter plates and the term it­self has en­tered the ver­nac­u­lar. It has come to in­di­cate a key event in life’s jour­ney, one’s per­sonal ‘mile­stones’.

A pro­lif­er­a­tion in road sig­nage is one of the less-re­marked upon fea­tures of the 18th cen­tury. Through­out the Ge­or­gian pe­riod, road trans­port in­creased as a re­sult of na­tion­wide growth in man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­tries and bur­geon­ing over­seas trade. With it arose a need to move both fin­ished goods and raw ma­te­ri­als swiftly.

Charles I had spear­headed a postal ser­vice in the same year that Si­mons’s Di­rec­tions was pub­lished: its ex­pan­sion in the next cen­tury and a half lay be­hind the in­tro­duc­tion of the first mail coach, in 1784. How­ever, as any­one who has ever looked at con­tem­po­rary im­ages such as James Pol­lard’s The Mail Coach in a Thun­der Storm on New­mar­ket Heath will know, road qual­ity con­tin­ued to be atro­cious.

Suc­ces­sive 18th-cen­tury gov­ern­ments dis­dained to pro­vide pub­lic fund­ing for any­thing ap­proach­ing an up­grade, but they did in­sist that lo­cal trusts pro­vide mile­stones at ev­ery turn­pike and, from 1773, guide­posts (which, be­ing taller, were more eas­ily vis­i­ble to coach and car­riage driv­ers and their pas­sen­gers).

To­day, whereas wooden guide­posts have per­ished, mile­stones still sur­vive from Som­er­set to Finch­ley, Lam­peter to Machyn­l­leth—about 9,000 of them from the 20,000 miles of roads that were once marked in this way, ac­cord­ing to the con­ser­va­tion group the Mile­stone So­ci­ety. The his­tory of the mile­stone, how­ever, pre-dates 17th-cen­tury leg­is­la­tion. It was the Ro­mans who in­tro­duced dis­tance mark­ers to the first English roads, orig­i­nally placed ev­ery 1,000th dou­ble step. Mile­stones of this sort once en­abled Ro­man Bri­tons to tick off the 22 miles of their northerly jour­ney from Catarac­toni (Cat­t­er­ick in north York­shire) to Vi­novia (Binch­ester in Co Durham).

Travel in­for­ma­tion may not have been the only pur­pose—per­haps not even the pri­mary pur­pose—of such mark­ers. A Ro­man mile­stone dis­cov­ered near Le­ices­ter lists the ti­tles of the Em­peror Hadrian more promi­nently than the wel­come news that only two miles re­main to the trav­eller’s des­ti­na­tion, then called Ratis. Ro­man mile­stones ev­i­dently dou­bled up as means of dis­sem­i­nat­ing key po­lit­i­cal mes­sages, no­tably the po­lit­i­cal al­le­giance (espe­cially fol­low­ing a change of regime) of the gov­er­nor, ur­ban com­mu­nity or mil­i­tary unit re­spon­si­ble for their erec­tion. Ro­manBri­tish mile­stones of this sort com­mem­o­rate em­per­ors from Ca­rau­sius, ‘Em­peror of the north’, to Con­stan­tine the Great. Of the more than 100 Ro­man mile­stones that still re­main to­day in the UK, most sur­vive in re­mote ru­ral lo­ca­tions. none erected af­ter the reign of the 3rd-cen­tury Em­peror Flo­ri­anus in­cludes dis­tances to the trav­eller’s des­ti­na­tion. The mile­stone’s hey­day proved brief. Changes in modes of trans­port and their speed ac­count for its de­clin­ing for­tune from the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury. Of­ten low in height and marked with small-scale let­ter­ing, mile­stones were ideally suited to those trav­el­ling on foot or slowly. The pop­u­lar­ity of the rail­way and, later, the invention of mo­torised road trans­port ef­fec­tively called time on th­ese his­toric mark­ers. The rail­ways dealt a body blow to an old-fash­ioned road net­work that had been char­ac­terised by turn­pikes and tolls and ad­min­is­tered by turn­pike trusts. Rail trans­port con­trib­uted in large mea­sure to the bank­ruptcy of a num­ber of th­ese trusts. With their demise—and the trans­fer to county coun­cils of the re­spon­si­bil­ity for main­tain­ing roads in the Lo­cal Govern­ment Act of 1888—dis­ap­peared their le­gal re­quire­ment to erect mile­stones. Later, the ubiq­uity of cars in­spired new road build­ing and the en­large­ment of ex­ist­ing roads. Mile­stones were ei­ther left be­hind, on by­ways su­per­seded by newer, wider, faster routes, or else cleared out of the way of road ‘im­prove­ments’. To­day, of the nine mile­stones once recorded on the turn­pike road from Farn­ham to Guild­ford in Sur­rey, only one re­mains. Three other turn­pike roads con­verged on 18th-cen­tury Farn­ham, from Odi­ham, Bagshot and Alton. Th­ese, too, re­tain a sin­gle mile­stone each, on Farn­ham’s out­skirts. De­cline isn’t nec­es­sar­ily fall, how­ever. For the ea­gle-eyed trav­eller— on foot, horse­back, bi­cy­cle or even in a car—mile­stones re­main a me­mento of trav­ellers past on Bri­tish lanes and by­ways.

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