Activities & Articles

Historic society helps preserve distance marking milestones

( Extract from the magzine HIGHWAYS AUGUST /SEPTEMBER 2012     www.highways-mag.co.uk   )

Alan Reade of the Milestone Society explains how these historic road markers are being preserved with the help of highways authorities

The Turnpike Trusts set up by Acts of Parliament mostly in the 1700s were the then political answer to the dreadful state of most of the UK''s main roads at that time. The up-keep of roads had previously been the responsibility of the Parish through which the road ran and all able-bodied men were press-ganged to work several days a year for this purpose.

In many cases the work was not properly organised with a result that other than in a dry summer it could often take more than 3 days to get from Shrewsbury to London and travellers had a very good chance of getting bogged down and being attacked by bandits along the way.

 As with all road building schemes before and since, the turnpikes started with a flourish and great strides were made as a result of the flattening and straightening of routes, improvement of drainage and surfacing (often to the gravel-on-stone specification of John Loudon McAdam) and the setting up of gates where tolls could be collected to pay for the capital works and on-going maintenance.

Buoyed up by their popularity and success, the Trustees soon looked for ways of increasing revenue. The tolls were regulated to a fixed charge per mile, and one bright idea was to tell travellers that it was, say 10 miles to Worcester when iit was actually 8.

MS Marking distanceTo stop this little earner the government made the Trusts install milestones, properly set out 1,760 yards apart with principal mileages clearly shown. The stones had to be reasonably substantial and well set into the ground to prevent fraud.

Although most Turnpike Trusts were dissolved in the mid-1800s when long¬ distance traffic went to the new canals and railways, many of these milestones and the later cast iron mileposts remain lurking in hedgerows particularly along routes which have not been widened or straightened in 20th century improvements. These way markers are now around 200 years old and are remarkable historical survivors which can be found in almost every part of the country. The most likely people to know about them of course are the local Highways Authority teams while going about their routine inspection and maintenance duties.

Unfortunately some milestones (particularly metal mileposts) get stolen and turn up on e-bay or in antique centres, but the majority of losses are the result of damage in road traffic accidents or by hedge cutting machinery, the stones often being invisible to tractor drivers in the long grass. The bits of stone or broken cast iron then get dispersed, swept up and disappear. The key to the survival of the remaining milestones is the awareness and diligence of the Highways

Authority teams and their individual actions in locating and looking after them including, where necessary timely recovery of broken items for restoration and replacement as time and budgets allow.

The Milestone Society was founded in Shrewsbury in 2001 by a small group of like-minded people with archaeological heritage and County Council backgrounds. Now covering the whole country, members have spent the last 10 years systematically searching for and logging all of the remaining milestones and way markers up and down the land. Local county representatives have formed strong personal relationships with Highways Authority staff and their (changing) maintenance contractors and have produced easy-to-access digital data including schedules with locations and thumbnail photographs so that thefts or damage can be pin-pointed and followed up as soon as possible.

Milestones are seen by the Milestone Society not as relics to be preserved in aspic in some musty museum or hidden in a private collection. Neither are they considered a significant danger to the traveling public. They are best preserved in, or close to their original locations where passers-by and tourists can, if they care to look (subject to common-sense safety considerations) find and enjoy them.

Many old milestones are "Listed Buildings" and the Highways Agency has recently confirmed its commitment to a Memorandum of Understanding between HA and English Heritage endorsed some years ago which sets out the joint responsibilities of each party to the repair and maintenance of historic roadside way markers. The development of a management plan by HA in this context is on-going.

As road maintenance budgets inevitably get squeezed and local contractual arrangements change and become more demanding, the Milestone Society aims to give "back-room" practical assistance to Highways Authorities, including repair maintenance and replacement advice where it reasonably can to raise awareness and help keep this stock of "secret" heritage artefacts largely intact and in place for the benefit of future generations.

To make contact with the Miestone Society, go to www.milestonesociety.co.uk  or telephone John Atkinson on 01299 832338.

MS before and after