26 January 2015

It’s a sign: England, part one

Signs are another of my enthusiasms. Obviously, they can be useful and informative – they point the way, they warn of hazards, they welcome you to town, they try to sell you things. There are whole vocabularies of signs we learn to recognise from quite a young age (road signs, for example) and those that are essential for our well-being (safety signs in the workplace). These signs are usually regulated and painted in specific recognisable colours but other types of signage are multi-coloured and jazzy and just plain fun.

I’ve blogged before about signs that have caught my eye and my imagination, in Peruin Cambodia and in New Zealand. Here are some I’ve noticed during recent months living in England.

Hale Village sign
There are many pretty village signs here in England and the one marking the entrance to the lovely little village of Hale, in Merseyside, is a perfect example. It’s attractive and colourful and, though not physically accurate – the tower of St Mary’s Church doesn’t actually loom over the small cottages next to where local giant John Middleton lived, the sign advertises the town’s attractions in a much more subtle way than a huge neon sign. I’d definitely recommend a visit to this delightful town – you can read more about things to see here

Within Way, Hale
Let’s stay in Hale for a moment longer as that is where I photographed this intriguing street sign. According to one of the village’s websites (for some reason they have two) this road leads down to the old ford crossing of the River Mersey and was the route used by the army of Prince Rupert during its Civil War operations.

And, according to Ernest Broxap’s 2005 publication The Great Civil War In Lancashire, 1642-1651, ‘The ford at Hale was for a long time the principal pass over the Mersey between Liverpool and Warrington. It ceased to be generally used about 150 years ago; but almost within living memory horses were taken over by this way for hunting in Cheshire.’

The ford is no longer usable, of course, and it seems the name ‘Within’ may actually have its root in the word withy (or withe), the name for a strong flexible willow stem used to make things like baskets and fences.

Milepost on Trent and Mersey Canal
We move on to a different waterway now, leaving behind the River Mersey and heading to a section of the Trent and Mersey Canal near Northwich. The canal weaves its way through the English countryside for 93 miles, running from Preston Brook in Cheshire to Shardlow in South Derbyshire, and all along its length you can find mile posts like these, designed to inform passing river traffic of the distances to the canal’s start and end points.

The original cast-iron posts were made in the early 19th century to a standard design, with a circular post and embossed inscriptions on the faces of the moulded head, all painted in distinctive black and white. The post maker’s name and the date are shown on a quatrefoil on the front of the post – and here we have a little mystery. The milepost shown at left above (located near Marston, inscribed ‘Shardlow 84 miles, Preston Brook 8 miles’) appears as Grade II listed on the English Heritage register of protected structures, where it is described as showing ‘R&D Stone 1814’ for the maker’s details. In fact, as you can see in my photo, the details are ‘T&MCS 1977’, which seems to indicate that this is not the original milepost and that it was replaced by the Trent and Mersey Canal Society in 1977. The photo at right shows one of the originals, made in 1819, which sits two miles further along the canal, near Barnston. (I have emailed English Heritage to advise them of the change.)

200 sign on River Weaver at Dutton Locks
Staying with the theme of signs alongside waterways for a moment, here’s an intriguing sign I spotted recently while walking part of the Weaver Way, a trail than runs, as the name implies, alongside the River Weaver and the Weaver Navigation (the manmade parts of that waterway).

I was walking the section from Acton Bridge to Dutton Locks (for photos of that walk, see here) and found this sign beside the towpath just past Dutton Locks. Luckily, Colin Edmondson, the historian for the River Weaver Navigation Society, was able to provide me with some information about it. As I suspected, the concrete post marks ‘200 yards to a lock or swing bridge. Once a boat had passed the post, it was assured of its correct place in the queue. The first mention of them came in the rule book for 1853’:

A post placed at a distance of 200 yards above and below each lock. Vessel first coming within such distance shall have priority over any other vessel passing in the same direction. No vessel to moor within 200 yards of any lock, bridge or weir unless loading or unloading.

Colin believes the signs we see today are more recent replacements for the original posts, and probably date from the 1920s or 1930s. My sincere thanks to Colin for providing these fascinating details.

Cows and 40
“You have how many cows?” I know, I know. The number has nothing to do with the cow sign – it’s indicating the maximum speed limit for the following section of road – but the placement of the two signs together just tickled my fancy.

The cow sign is a fairly common sight in Cheshire where dairy-farming is now the dominant industry. As reported by DairyCo on their website, in 2010/11 22% of the UK’s milk production came from the Midlands, and Cheshire was the 4th highest milk-producing county, recording 742,479 litres. And I’m sure everyone’s heard of Cheshire Cheese, which may well be the oldest recorded named cheese in British history  it was reported in Thomas Muffet’s Health’s Imrpovement that dates from around 1580. 

House-name signs
In my Antipodean ignorance, I have always assumed that house names were somewhat pretentious, an affectation, particularly when attached to less valuable properties (‘Oaktree Manor’ attached to a cosy cottage, for example), or a frivolity (‘Dunroamin’ for the home of a settled retiree). In New Zealand that may well be the case but not here in the UK.

Though the Britain follows the standard, common in most English-speaking countries, of numbering houses in a street to facilitate postal and other deliveries (e.g. ’25 Frog Lane’), it is also quite common for properties to be identified solely by their name, especially in smaller towns (thus ‘Waterview Cottage, Frog Lane’). And this system also prevails in locations where there has been infill house construction subsequent to the numbering of the original houses in a street – it seems that it’s easier than renumbering the whole street or using the rather cumbersome method of adding a, b or c to a house number.

It seems an eminently sensible solution to me and, when you can buy such pretty house-name signs as these two examples, who wouldn’t rather have a name than a number?