01 May 2015

It’s a sign: England, part three

I am blessed with inquisitiveness. I don’t recall being the child who always asked ‘Why?’ but I have become the adult who very often asks ‘What is it?’. When I come across something I don’t know anything about, don’t understand, or find interesting or unusual, I’m always motivated to investigate.

$-type symbol on gravestones
So, when I saw how frequently this symbol – what I had visually imagined as the ‘triple dollar’ sign – appeared on the gravestones of the local churches, I had to investigate further. (As a genealogist, I have something of a fascination with graveyards.)  

Of course, it’s got nothing to do with money – all these folks weren’t memorialising the fact that they’d been wealthy during their lifetimes. Rather than a ‘triple dollar’, the symbol is made up of the three letters I, H and S superimposed one upon the other, and the letters abbreviate the Latin phrase In hoc signo vince. This translates as ‘In this sign you will conquer’ and refers to a vision experienced by Roman General Constantine. His sighting of these words, and a vibrant cross, above the sun were interpreted as a positive omen for a forthcoming battle so he had the ‘Chi Rho’ symbol painted on his soldiers’ shields. Constantine won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge against Maxentius to become supreme ruler of Rome, and Christianity was subsequently legalised in Rome though, interestingly, Constantine himself wasn’t baptised until on his death bed.

Country Landowners Association Farm Buildings Award
I found this sign while exploring some of my favourite paths in and around the estate at Arley Hall. Starting in the early 1970s the Country Landowners’ Association (now renamed the Country Land and Business Association, though still using the abbreviation CLA) ran a biannual Farm Buildings Award scheme ‘to recognise excellence in farm buildings, structures which give the farmer what he needs to run his farm business easily and efficiently, but which also blend with the surrounding farmstead and with the countryside itself’ (as reported in the Glasgow Herald, 20 February 1987).

In the 1990s, when the trend for converting old farm buildings to non-agricultural and residential use really took hold, the scheme’s name changed to the Countryside Buildings Award, reflecting the fact that there had been ‘more entries for the conversion of old farm buildings to new uses than for the erection of totally new farm buildings’.    

The scheme changed again in 2002 to the Country Land and Business Association Farm and Rural Buildings Award Scheme – a bit of a mouthful! – and the last mention I found of it was in 2008, when it had morphed into the Rural Buildings Award Scheme. So, what fascinates me about this one small sign, located at the Arley Moss Equestrian Centre, is how it gives a small indication of the evolving uses of, support for and attitudes towards traditional and modern farm buildings over the years.

Old AA sign at Lower Whitley
The Automobile Association (the AA) was formed in London in 1905 by a group of like-minded motoring enthusiasts, initially with the aim of championing ‘the cause of the motorist and particularly to help motorists avoid police speed traps’ – my emphasis, their anti-police intentions! 

By 1939, the AA’s membership had mushroomed to 725,000 and, as well as providing trusty patrolmen to fix that pesky broken-down vehicle and producing guide books advising which hotels to stay at during your long car journeys, the organisation had erected thousands of direction, village, roadside danger and warning signs. The village sign shown here, found at Lower Whitley in Cheshire, was probably erected more than 80 years ago and, like others found scattered throughout Britain, is a wonderful salute to the AA’s contribution to British motoring. I particularly like its emphasis on ‘Safety First’!

Milestone near Great Budworth
Amazingly, although almost every old man-made construction in and around the village of Great Budworth is heritage listed, this milestone is not. The original milestones were actual stones, laid by the Romans to mark every one thousandth double-step, their way of calculating distance. The Latin for thousand was mille, hence the word ‘milestone’. Though one thousand Roman double steps equated roughly to 1618 yards, the eventual British standard measurement for a mile was 1760 yards.

This particular milestone dates from 1896 and is made of cast iron. According to the Milestone Society, it is one of around 9000 waymarkers that still survive in the UK, though many thousands more have been lost to thieves, collisions with car, destruction by hedge-cutters, or removal during the Second World War in order to baffle the Germans if they invaded. The notion of reaching a significant point along the road has, of course, led to our more modern idea of a milestone as an important event or stage in life, progress or development.

Fingerposts in north Cheshire
Another common waymarker to be found in the UK is the fingerpost (also known as a guide post.). These post were usually made from cast iron or wood, their poles were painted in black and white, and the fingers showed village names and the distances to them painted in black on a white base.

Although the earliest still-existing fingerpost in the UK, near Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire, dates from 1669, it wasn’t until the Highways Act of 1766 and the Turnpike Roads Act of 1773 that fingerposts on turnpike roads were made compulsory. Following the introduction of the standardised Traffic Signs Regulations in 1964, local councils were initially encouraged to remove traditional fingerposts like those shown here. Luckily, many did not, and the existing old-style waymarkers are now recognised for their historic value and, supposedly, maintained by the local councils. I think the Cheshire Councils need a little reminder of their responsibilities!

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