Somerset shows the way

Published: 27 January 2021

Somerset County Council are doing something remarkable: a major project to restore the county’s collection of picturesque signposts to their original glory, preserving them for generations to come. Somerset resident and fingerpost spotter JR offers a guided tour of some of the signs Somerset’s pioneering project has restored, and others still awaiting attention.

Somerset is a large, rural county in the south-west of England. You might know it as the place you pass through on the M5 or (even worse) the A303 to get to the seaside. It’s flat, rural, and quite isolated. For most people, the car is the main mode of transport as trains and buses are infrequent, and only serve the largest towns and villages. Some major towns such as Glastonbury (pop. 8,900), Chard (13,100), and Shepton Mallet (10,800) rely on the roads to be connected to the outside world.

The signage system used today derives from 1964's Worboys report, which aimed to update and modernise the old and patchy system that had developed piecemeal in the years since the turn of the century. Before then, rural counties such as Lincolnshire and Somerset erected fingerposts at almost every major junction between roads in order to tell motorists which roads led where and how far the distances were to major landmarks such as towns or villages.

A fingerpost near Creech St Michael awaits restoration
A fingerpost near Creech St Michael awaits restoration

Following the 1964 standardisation, most old-style signs of all shapes and sizes were ripped up and replaced. In major cities, almost none of the old signs remain. But out in the countryside, a lack of development over large areas meant that these signs might survive, unloved and uncared for. And with all old things, there comes a point where they become old enough that people start to see them not as redundant but instead as a heritage feature. This happened in Somerset: the old signposts, probably set up in the 1930s, survived to the point where people began to acknowledge them as a link to the past. 

Somerset County Council have now started a programme that aims to try and restore as many of these historic signposts as possible. They are being lovingly repainted and repaired by dedicated volunteers (an excellent example of a restored one can be seen in Kingsbury Episcopi, below).

Over the summer of 2020, I began doing more walks in the countryside around my home. As my walks went on, I noticed and began photographing more and more of the signposts that I saw. What follows, therefore, is a photographic record of a small selection of the signposts dotted across South Somerset. There are hundreds more across the county - I’ve only explored on foot a tiny region of Somerset, but have seen many more whizz by from the window during a car journey. Also included are a couple of other interesting curiosities.

The photos are in alphabetical order of location, and were taken from July to September 2020, following all COVID-19 guidance at the time. Some have been slightly edited but all allow a brief glimpse at an interesting part of Somerset's history.

It's worth looking at the map on Somerset County Council’s website just to see how many of the things there actually are. You can also see how large areas, including the area where most of these photos were taken, simply haven't been surveyed. Nobody knows how many of these signposts there are in Somerset - but hopefully, now, as many as possible will survive for another 80 years.

Comments

Mark Schueler 28 January 2021

As a proud Somerset native I didn't realise that the Somerset fingerposts were basically an oddity in the modern world!

There are fingerposts around the countryside here in Suffolk too, but they don't quite feel the same.

Richard Gordon… 28 January 2021

A super, heart-warming article. I am a Yeovil lad whose paternal grandparents came from Drayton/Langport. In 1935 My father bought his first car, a 1935 Austin 10 and we went all around Somerset. Many of the pictures show 'old friends'. I remember in the late 60's when I was driving my first car, a 1954 Morris Traveller that many such signs still carried an arm pointing to a Railway Station....particularly at Hatch Beauchamp. I live abroad now but when I return and drive in Somerset, it gladdens my soul to see these signposts. Thank you

Dawn Vowles 28 January 2021

About time too. And yes, Tony's in Somerton is very good!

Rob Westlake. 29 January 2021

Great to read of this project in Somerset. The Milestone Society www.milestonesociety.co.uk has records of these lovely fingerposts as well as our main passion of Milestones. We look forward to this project getting underway to preserve and restore these lovely heritage artifacts.
Rob Westlake - Chairman. Milestone Society.
Rww@themilestonesociety.co.uk

C King 30 January 2021

Hmmmm...
This is good and interesting, but old news. The SCC project and the associated handbook were first published in 2017.
Much good work has however been being done locally; if you were to visit the parish of PILTON near Shepton Mallet, you would find all the fingerposts are regularly cleaned and painted when required (prior to COVID-19). Indeed Pilton Parish Council recently organised and paid for a sign that had been snapped off by a lorry, to be re-made entirely from scratch (NOT a cheap process!) and re-installed. The broken sign had been taken to the Somerset County Council highways depot for storage, and in spite of numerous requests for re-instatement over several years, it was eventually found to be 'missing'. Hence the Parish Council had to act on its own initiative...

J Goodman 31 January 2021

I recently moved back to Somerset and now live by the corner where the first finger post is! I love seeing them when out walking.

Edward Callow 24 February 2021

Presumably SCC will only be working and logging those in their current area. Just down the road from me is a lovely example in our village triangle. Unfortunately, we’re now under the auspices of North Somerset Council – a unitary authority created from the demise of the Avon county – who are too busy putting up street signs with the wrong name…
Kingston Seymour Triangle

Adam Thomas 27 February 2021

I've had a great attachment to these fingerposts for many years. I would just like to add a couple of comments on this piece. Don't forget that there are many more former SCC fingerposts in the areas now under North Somerset and Bath and North East Somerset Councils, both looking great and in need of some TLC. Secondly, Somerset is NOT flat!!

S Green 18 March 2021

I used to live right next to the sign in Hatch Beauchamp, which was being lovingly restored by somebody in the village when I moved away in 2018. Great to see this being taken up, they are a really asset to our communities.

Stuart 26 March 2021

I didn't know these were being restored, so thanks for the interesting article... aslo, I cycled past the signpost pictured above at Creech St Michael the other day and there were a couple of blokes painting the post, the signs had been removed, presumably for restoration

Revd Br Edmund… 6 April 2021

A most super reminder.....We lived in New Milton, far away beyond Bournemouth, and days out after the War (petrol allowed after mum's illness) sometimes as far as Somerset, even to Longleat (so lovely and so peaceful...!) and to Bath....and those little scc pyramids on top of the signposts reminding us how far we'd come! Somebody, please press out a dye, cast new ones?!

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