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Restoring Exmoor's signposts to their former glory

PUBLISHED: 14:39 18 February 2019

Stuart Lawrence (top) and Mike Neville repainting a fingerpost, complete with Somerset County Council finial, near Porlock

Stuart Lawrence (top) and Mike Neville repainting a fingerpost, complete with Somerset County Council finial, near Porlock

Exmoor National Park Authority

Their very existence has been threatened on more than one occasion, but iconic moorland signposts now have a fresh coat of paint and a new lease of life, as Philip Dalling discovers

The fingerposts that have pointed the way for travellers across Exmoor for generations, standing firm against the sky at windy moorland crossroads or sheltered by hedgerows deep in the river valleys, have enjoyed a remarkable 21st century renaissance.

In recent years cuts in local authority budgets meant the familiar signposts became sadly neglected. A project to identify and restore the posts, backed by funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Exmoor National Park Authority and Somerset County Council, was launched after local communities and parish councillors began to fear for their survival.

More than 220 out of the estimated 250 finger signposts within the National Park and in surrounding villages have now been restored. The work was carried out by 100 volunteers, who contributed 2,300 hours of their time checking the condition of the posts, researching their history and painting the cast iron vertical posts and the attached horizontal fingers, with their black on white lettering bearing the names of moorland settlements.

The standardised posts first appeared in the 1920s, replacing a variety of wooden wayside markers and the milestones erected from 1760 onwards by the turnpike trusts. An increase in the number of wagons and carriages using the moorland roads meant the low-standing markers and milestones could no longer be seen from the drivers’ seats.

Project co-ordinator Charlotte Thomas reveals that the survival of the posts, which appear to be such a permanent feature of the countryside, has been threatened on at least three occasions. She explains: “During World War Two fingerposts across Exmoor were removed and stored in Barlynch Quarry near Dulverton, in a move designed to make life difficult for an invading military force.

Finials from Exmoor fingerposts awaiting refurbishment (c) Exmoor National Park AuthorityFinials from Exmoor fingerposts awaiting refurbishment (c) Exmoor National Park Authority

“Then, in 1963, the Worboys Commssion investigating the need for better signage on all Britain’s roads recommended the removal of finger signposts across the nation as a whole. In most counties and districts the signposts did in fact disappear. Fortunately most survived in the South West, with old council minutes showing that in Somerset lack of sufficient funding for modern replacements saved the fingerposts.

“It is truly ironic that in the 1960s lack of money kept the posts in position whilst, in recent times, it was lack of maintenance due to budget cuts that represented a threat to their continued existence.”

Charlotte grew up at Exford and was familiar with the signposts during her childhood. When she was appointed project co-ordinator she was able to delve into the history of the posts. The study continues, as some aspects of the story of the signposts are still shrouded in mystery.

She says: “Whilst we do know for certain that most fingerposts were taken down during World War Two and stored, it is unclear whether the same ones were re-erected or if new sets of fingerposts were commissioned. The project’s work on comparisons of the present-day posts with those visible in historic photographs raised questions as to changes in material, styles, paintwork and the actual directions given to locations.

“A key aim of the project is to work with the Exmoor Society to study local collections of historic documents, personal photographs and other historic sources, to gain a new understanding of the history of the posts and how they changed over time.”

Signposts project co-ordinator Helen Thomas with an essential cleaning kitSignposts project co-ordinator Helen Thomas with an essential cleaning kit

In addition to her historical research, Charlotte has been kept busy recruiting volunteers, organising health and safety and other training and searching out specialist crafts-people for repairs.

“We needed to find foundries with the skills and knowledge needed to make the fingers and finials, along with suitably qualified contractors able to fit these and carry out repairs. Using a mixture of modern research techniques, including an app to load results directly into a project database, and old-fashioned paper reports and photographs, the parish volunteers surveyed signposts across 23 parishes for a pilot project.

“The results revealed that most signposts needed some attention in terms of cleaning and repainting, but were generally sound. A smaller number needed more major repair, including the post at Cloutsham Gate, where only the base remained.”

Retired GP Dr Jeremy Davies from Withypool explains his volunteer role by saying: “I only initially planned to paint my local signs but I couldn’t resist doing a few more. From brambles and bad weather, to stubborn lichen and unruly livestock, there have been a fair few challenges along the way, but seeing gleaming signposts all around the National Park makes it all worthwhile.”

Charlotte now has plans to work with Exmoor National Park colleagues to develop trails and story walks. “These would be designed to really bring these historic signposts to life, so that we can all get to understand and appreciate the sort of history we can touch”, she says.

Celebrating the success of the Exmoor signpost project are, left to right, Sue Minter of Heritage Lottery Fund South West, project co-ordinator Charlotte Thomas, Steven Pugsley of Exmoor National Park, and volunteers Mike Neville and Dr Jeremy Davies.  The cake is crowned by a model of a fingerpost at Exford (Photo Exmoor National Park Authority)Celebrating the success of the Exmoor signpost project are, left to right, Sue Minter of Heritage Lottery Fund South West, project co-ordinator Charlotte Thomas, Steven Pugsley of Exmoor National Park, and volunteers Mike Neville and Dr Jeremy Davies. The cake is crowned by a model of a fingerpost at Exford (Photo Exmoor National Park Authority)

Passion for place names

The villages and hamlets whose names stand proud on the signposts of Somerset were celebrated in verse by a once-internationally celebrated and published poet, who lived in the county for two decades from the mid-1930s.

Teresa Hooley wrote a considerable amount of verse about the county. Somerset Names celebrates many of the places immortalised on the finger signposts now saved from oblivion. In the opening lines of the poem she wrote:

‘Place-names of Somerset,

Ringing down time,

Queer, quaint and musical –

Hark to their chime.

Combe Florey, Montacute,

Hatch Beauchamp, Mells,

Huish Episcopi,

Milverton, Wells’

Post priority

Volunteers who contributed to the Exmoor Historic Signpost Project came together at an event to celebrate the success of the enterprise and to consider how the posts can be managed in years to come.

Project co-ordinator Charlotte Thomas says: “The interest we had from local communities has been just fantastic. We have teams of volunteers all over the project area and a group based in Minehead form a roving team, working in neighbouring parishes.

“The event was a chance to thank all who contributed but also allowed us to look ahead and discuss the future management of the finger posts, to hopefully secure their long-term future.”

If you can contribute photos or parts that can be used to restore a signpost, email Charlotte at cthomas@exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk.

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