29 July 2018

Bow Bells mileposts

Number 43 is in the centre of Uckfield

I think many people will have heard of the Bow Bells, the bells on the Church of St Mary-le-Bow in London’s Cheapside: you can’t call yourself a true Cockney unless you were born within earshot of those bells ringing. But I wonder how many people know that the Bow Bells also have a part of play in measuring road distances.

On the old main road south from London to Lewes, the distances were once measured from the church door of St Mary-le-Bow, and mileposts – decorated with bells and marking the miles from the London church – were placed alongside the route so travellers knew how far they had journeyed, or had still to journey, if they were travelling towards London.

The Public Sculptures of Sussex website reports that the mileposts lining much of this road – now the A22 and parts of the A26 – are thought to be the longest sequence of mileposts in England, though sadly many have been removed, lost and/or stolen.

Photo © Peter Jeffery
(cc-by-sa/2.0)
geograph.org.uk/p/4541557
The mileposts were commissioned around 1754 by the Union Point to Langney Bridge Turnpike Trust, which was responsible for the maintenance and smooth running of the coach road. The posts were mostly made of cast iron and show a varying number of bells hanging from a bow – perhaps originally they all had five but some have eroded over time – dwindling in size from the top of the milepost to the bottom. 

At the top of the post, above the mileage figure, most of the posts show a single black dot (as shown in my photographs, of numbers 43 and 53) but those in the area around Halland, the 44 to 54 mileposts, have a buckle (as shown in the photo at right, by Peter Jeffery, used under a Creative Commons licence, as credited).

The buckle represented the Pelham family who were local landowners involved in financially backing the turnpike’s extension southwards in the 1750s. The Public Sculptures website again:

In 1356 at the battle of Poitiers a local knight Sir John Pelham together with Sir Roger de la Warr captured Jean the King of France, [and] because of this Sir John was given the King’s belt buckle as a badge of honour. This badge can be seen on many churches and buildings in the area around Laughton showing the influence and power of the Pelham family.

The number 53 milepost in my photograph is actually a replica from a museum in Lewes and, as the sign alongside explained:

Bow Bells milestone, Lower Dicker, Sussex.

This is a cast iron replica of a milestone from a series on the turnpike from Uckfield to Langney Bridge prior to 1810 and marks the distance of 53 miles to London.

The original of this post should bear the Pelham Buckle, intended as a mark of respect for this family and found on all mileposts situated on their land. In this case the buckle has been replaced with the more usual dot.

So far I have only photographed two of these historic mileposts, though I’ve seen a few more whilst travelling along that road, and I’ve managed to track down the location of several others that I hope to photograph in the future.

I find these physical reminders of Britain's history incredibly fascinating and hope they continue to be preserved (and not stolen!) for future generations to appreciate.