Traditional traffic direction signs, or 'fingerposts', are a cherished feature of the English countryside and suburbs. But many are threatened by neglect and decay. Where they survive, they are found in a wide variety of regional and local designs, helping to reinforce local distinctiveness. The oldest fingerpost, in the Cotswolds, dates from 1699. English Heritage has joined forces with the Department for Transport (DfT) to call on local authorities to retain, repair and reintroduce fingerposts where appropriate.
The call to save fingerposts is contained in a Traffic Advisory Leaflet entitled 'Traditional Direction Signs', launched in 2005 by DfT in partnership with English Heritage, the Countryside Agency and CPRE (the Campaign to Protect Rural England).
Members of the public who are concerned about the condition of a fingerpost, should contact the local authority and speak to either the Conservation Officer in the Planning Department or the Highways Engineer responsible for traffic signs.
Philip Davies, English Heritage Planning and Development Director (South), said: “Fingerposts are not only attractive in their own right but have become icons that are important to national as well as to rural identity. They enrich the countryside wherever they are found and enhance local character which is so important to local communities. Traditional direction signs are an integral part of the character of the English countryside and suburbs. They are part of the world-famous image of England that so many visitors come to see and enjoy. Many still survive, but are in urgent need of repair and restoration.”
The Traffic Advisory Leaflet calls for fingerposts to be regularly maintained by local authorities’ highways departments and, where appropriate, reintroduced as part of Village Design Statements, Parish Plans and the Quiet Lanes initiative. It suggests they compile registers of fingerposts in their area and that local community groups or amenity societies could help carry out audits of their number and condition. It also suggests that restoration and repair work could help to support local jobs and craftsmanship.
Funding could form part of the maintenance bid in the Local Transport Plan. The Local Heritage Initiative, a programme run by the Countryside Agency and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Nationwide Building Society, could also provide some funding for the restoration of existing fingerposts as part of projects looking at wider heritage issues in the community.
Chris Dashper of the Countryside Agency said: " The Local Heritage Initiative and its partners, the Heritage Lottery Fund and Nationwide Building Society, value community involvement in caring for our local heritage and features such as fingerposts can contribute to a sense of place and local identity, which in turn promotes community well-being."
Paul Hamblin, CPRE’s Head of Transport Policy, said: “Although individual road signs may appear unobtrusive on their own, the cumulative impact of inappropriately designed road signs on the character of the countryside can be immense. Locally distinctive signs, such as fingerposts, can play an important role in helping to reduce the number of signposts needed and preserving local character. Local authorities should do all they can to ensure these valued features are retained, restored and reintroduced wherever possible.”
No one knows how many traditional direction signs still exist. Some have been listed because they are particularly elaborate or unusual, but this in no way diminishes the value of the rest.
Fingerposts were widely used by the 1740s when turnpike trusts were encouraged to mark every mile, and in 1766 this became compulsory to help stagecoach and mail services keep to timetables.
In 1773 the General Turnpike Act required trustees to erect signs informing travellers of the distance to the nearest town, and often to London. In the 20th century the earliest signs were erected initially by cycle clubs followed by the Automobile Association (AA) and the Royal Automobile Club (RAC), but with the Motor Car Act of 1903, the government passed responsibility for the provision of all traffic signs to local authorities.
In 1921 the Ministry of Transport provided a model for direction signs which recommended standard 2.5 inch black upper case lettering on a white background and specified that the name of the authority should be incorporated into the design.
Although based on a common model, local authorities had considerable discretion over the design of posts, arms and finials and this led to a rich variety of local styles which reinforced local character and identity.
Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall boast red posts with white lettering, the origin of which is unclear, whilst others carry finials in the form of discs, rings, balls and pyramids marked with county names and sometimes map grid references.
Following criticism of the inadequacy of the 1933 traffic signs system, a review was carried out in 1961 which resulted in the 1964 Traffic Signs Regulations. This specified a new standard national style based on a mixed case font. Local authorities were encouraged, but not forced, to remove traditional fingerposts and existing pre-1964 signs remain lawful to this day. However, it was not until the 1994 Traffic Signs Regulations, that it was made legal to install new fingerposts.
Copies of the leaflet are available in hard copy from English Heritage Customer Services on 0870 333 1181.