How Norfolk’s milestones are being restored to their former glory
12:54 09 August 2014
Who’d have thought there’d be a place for old-fashioned milestones in our wired-up, satnav-ed, interactive world?
But there is - and Nigel Ford is the man who’s proving it.
The retired window cleaner is often to be seen, on his own, or with his small team of helpers including his wife Jennifer, carefully rescuing our ancient milestones from decades of neglect to bring them back to life.
Drive along the B1108 from Norwich to Watton, for example, and you’ll see the fruits of their handiwork on the verge, the black letters picked out on a dazzling white background and looking as pristine as the day they were first put up to guide coachmen or weary walkers hundreds of years ago.
There’s something rather lovely about these simple and useful objects, something which reminds us that the tarmacked, modern roads we speed along in 2014 were once much humbler tracks. The milestones’ continuing existence connects us to generations long gone.
Now, almost six years on from the day that Nigel restored his first milestone - one opposite Barford Hire on the B1108 - the project has grown to bring in local communities, and even royalty.
The Prince of Wales took a keen interest in the resoration of the milestone at Anmer, even painting two of the Roman numerals during the stone’s restoration and relocation.
Those pictures and many others feature in a delightful new book, Moving Miles: Restoring 60 of Norfolk’s Milestones With The Help of Children, Royalty and Hard Work, which Nigel and his wife Jennifer - an enthusiastic supporter of the restoration efforts - have written to raise for funds to bring more of these gems back to life.
It was a letter which EDP which inspired Nigel to head out from his Hardingham home, armed with scrubbing brush, spade and Sandtex paint, to see if he could bring new life to these half-forgotten stones.
His interest was sparked when he noticed a milestone at Bawburgh, near Norwich, that had been damaged by a flail cutter.
His letter to the EDP saying what a shame it was resulted in him being contacted by the Milestone Society, whose members have an interest in the history and preservation of these fascinating roadside artefacts.
Nigel joined up and began his mission to restore as many milestones as he could to their former glory. Retirement in June 2010 finally gave him the time to devote to his campaign. “It’s blossomed ever since,” he said.
Milestone is a generic term, which also includes mileposts made of cast iron, as well as the more traditional stone (some are even made from both materials). About 9,000 milestones are thought to remain in the UK.
There are 360 milestones in Norfolk, roughly half the number there were a century ago. Many date back to the mid-1700s when turnpike roads were the fastest mode of travel.
Nigel and his team have now restored more than a third of them. Each can involved up to six to seven hours’ work.
Firstly, though, you’ve got to find them. “Every so often you come across them - we even found one in a pig sty the other week!” Nigel said.
Some just need a lick of paint. Others are in a sadder state, overgrown, broken or forgotten, lost and embedded in ditches. Many are buried or lost in a jungle of nettles and brambles, only coming to light when a mower, flail or hedge-trimmer hits them.
The story of milestones
The Romans were the first people to have an extensive system of milestones. The shortage of hard building stone in Norfolk means that it is unlikely there were any in the county - wooden markers were probably used instead.
Milestones received a boost by order of Parliament in 1767 when all turnpike trusts - who ran toll roads - were obliged to put them up to help travellers.
At the height of the turnpike era, there were 20,000 miles of roads in the country with milestones. In Norfolk about half the milestones were put up by the trusts.
In 1888, the new county councils were given responsibility for main roads and rural district councils for minor routes. They set up some milestones of their own - 35 still survive in the county.
Many milestones were removed or buried in the 1940 invasion scare. Many were collected together in a Norwich council depot which unfortunately took a direct hit in a 1942 air raid.
The Milestone Society was established in 2001 to ‘identify, record, research, conserve and interpret for public benefit the milestones and other waymarkers of the British Isles’.
If the milestone is damaged, then Nigel has to call in a stonemason to put things right. Otherwise, it’s a question of clearing away the undergrowth and cleaning off algae and mud before repainting. The lettering is picked out in signwriters’ enamel for extra durability.
Sometimes the stones have to be dug out and carefully relocated to a safer place on the verge, away from the risk of being clipped by passing traffic.
Norfolk County Council owns the milestones as a ‘heritage asset’, but gives full support to Nigel and his team, whose community spirit are so important particularly at this time of public austerity.
Nigel has been delighted at how often villagers, schools and local businesses have wanted to get involved once they realise about ‘their’ milestones. “It’s encouraging about how many have really taken them to heart,” he said. “It’s their heritage and they want to treasure it.”
One of the great unanswered questions about the markers is who made them. Apart from the occasional enigmatic initials we know little about their makers. That Anmer milestone is a particularly important one, as it has a date on it: 1764, together with the initials ‘JC’. As it happens, Nigel thinks he has found the identity behind the initials - James Coldham, of Anmer Hall - but such identification is rare.
Nigel has spotted similarities between clusters of milestones and the metal mileposts - “You can follow a different stone mason across the area” - but trying to narrow down who created them is a task he’s not going to take on any time soon. “That’s one for someone else!” he laughed. “I have my hands full with the nitty-gritty of the restoration.”
So, the big question - why should we care about milestones? “It’s just nice to have them around,” Nigel said. “They give us the ‘feelgood factor’.”
And another reason, I’d suggest. They are the heritage of ordinary folk going about their daily business, and a reminder when our lives were defined by how far it was to the nearest market town, whether on horseback (for the gentry), on a cart (for the farmer), or on foot (for the labouring classes).
Now, thanks to Nigel and his team, they have a firm foothold back in our busy, ever-rushing modern world. And they’ve made it that tiny bit better and a bit more human as a result.
Moving Miles: Restoring 60 of Norfolk’s Milestones With The Help of Children, Royalty and Hard Work, by Nigel and Jennifer Ford is published at £14.99 and available from Jarrold’s and other local bookshops. Nigel and Jennifer will be launching their book and talking about their restoration efforts on Tuesday night at Jarrold’s Book Department (6pm for 6.30pm). Tickets £5 available from Customer Services, Floor 2 or call 01603 661660.