Milestones — ‘How far is it to…?’
Guy Smith looks at Dorset’s varied milestones
Published in December ’07
A group of milestones which shows the diversity of designs to be found within the county
As the pace at which we live our lives increases, our needs change; once indispensable objects are needed no more. Amid the rush of modern life those people or things that cannot keep up are left by the wayside – literally in some case. Milestones, once essential components of the nation’s transport system, have lain redundant beside Dorset’s roads for well over a hundred years, anachronisms of a slower time that are rendered all but invisible by the sheer speed at which the world about them passes.
It was the Romans who first marked distances, erecting cylindrical stones every thousand double-step paces (1618 yards) along their roads. The word mile is derived from the Latin word mille meaning ‘thousand’. About sixty Roman milestones remain in Britain today, one of which may be seen close to the A35 at Stinsford near Dorchester (although some doubt its authenticity). Following the Roman withdrawal from Britain, it took another thousand years for the next generation of markers bearing information for travellers to appear and this was a result of the emerging postal system. In 1660 the General Letter Office had been established. Charges were calculated according to distance and although the 1760-yard statute mile had been introduced in 1593, the length of ‘miles’ still varied alarmingly across the country – 2600-yard miles were not uncommon in some parts! A system of accurately measured mile-markers was essential.
So was a decent road network. Financing such a transport system was quite another thing. The government’s solution was to introduce the ‘turnpike’, a road paid for by the levying of tolls at a series of gates. Constructed by ‘turnpike trusts’, these new roads were unpopular with many but were a marked improvement on what had gone before them. Turnpike trusts were required to mark miles and thus a network of standard miles was quickly established nationwide.
This milestone at Winterbourne Abbas was eventually rescued after a couple of years in the ditch
The earliest milestones in Dorset were ordered by the Poole Trust in July 1757. Over 250 subsequently appeared beside Dorset’s roads. Most were hewn from Purbeck or Portland stone although later cast-iron varieties also exist. The vast majority of Dorset’s milestones are fairly plain in appearance, having pointed, semi-circular or rounded tops. Stones erected by individual trusts tended to be unique to that trust. Ten cast-iron ‘stones’ (technically termed mileposts) near Sherborne share a design found nowhere else in Dorset. However, similar examples of these classical capped stones can be found in Somerset and Wiltshire. Some milestones had later cast-iron plates attached to them or were subsequently altered. Poole Trust’s stones, for instance, were in 1778 ‘new faced, lettered and figured’ at a cost of £2 12s 0d. The Maiden Newton Trust paid £2 3s 0d in 1850 to have its 43 milestones re-lettered and painted.
The information on Dorset’s milestones tended to be presented in a uniform way. Distances were given in miles, half-miles and quarter-miles. Elsewhere in the country, other imperial units were used, such as furlongs, poles, yards, feet and eighths of a mile. Early on, Roman numerals were used and five such examples survive in Dorset to this day.
An example of Roman numerals on the back of a milestone
The coming of the railway eventually consigned the turnpike system to history. The last Dorset turnpike trusts were the Blandford-Poole and the Blandford-Wimborne routes, which both closed in November 1882. The turnpikes themselves became the responsibility of the County Council and its District Highway Boards and, not long afterwards, milestones ceased to be used as directional or distance markers, being superseded by taller posts which were deemed more suited to the county’s increasingly swift traffic.
John Tybjerg is the co-ordinator of ‘The Dorset Milestoners’, the Dorset branch of the Milestone Society. In April 2000 he read an article about milestones by Mervyn Bedford in the DailyTelegraph. ‘I remember looking out for milestones as a boy in Essex,’ he recalls. His interest in the subject was revived and, having spotted a milestone near his home, he attended a meeting held at the Black Country Museum in Dudley and organised by Mervyn Bedford in May 2001. From this meeting the Milestone Society was formed with the aim of identifying, recording and conserving milestones nationwide.
Another ‘before and after’ story, this one in Shaftesbury
‘My main interest has been in finding them,’ John explains. Although the Dorset Milestone Survey had located only 115 milestones, a later search conducted by Sue Dean had increased that figure to about 190, and this without really touching on the eastern part of the county. Using 1890s OS maps, John Tybjerg and fellow Dorset Milestoners searched about forty routes and managed to locate a further fifty stones. On some routes (for instance the A354 between Dorchester and Blandford) near-complete sets of milestones still exist. John Tybjerg thinks it unlikely that any more will be found on turnpike routes, although he does concede that there would be many more milestones waiting to be discovered on some of the county’s lesser-known routes because turnpike trustees were prone to experimentations; several routes were tried between Salisbury and Blandford, for example. Those that fell into disuse remain now as minor roads or tracks. ‘I know of two stones,’ John says, ‘that are in the middle of fields on one old route to Salisbury!’
The location of many milestones means that their surveying can be a precarious business although ‘common sense and a yellow jacket’ have kept John Tybjerg in one piece up to now. ‘There were about ten milestones that I photographed from my car,’ he admits.
Establishing the age of milestones has proved difficult, since few are engraved with a date. One at Highcliffe is marked 1769 but this is one of only two in the county to bear such an inscription. Milestones are today the property of the Highways Department of Dorset CC or, on main trunk roads, the Highways Agency. Both organisations are, thanks to the Milestone Society, aware of the need to preserve these roadside antiquities. In the east of the county many have been cleaned and re-painted, while a stone close to Winterbourne Abbas has recently been retrieved from a stream and re-set beside the A35. About fifty milestones in the county are now listed, while some have been moved to safer positions near their original locations. The biggest threat to milestones today is the tractor mower, and in some parts of the country theft can also be a problem. Yet after years of neglect, milestones are finally emerging from the shadows, there to see for anyone who takes the trouble to look.
[John Tybjerg and the Dorset Milestoners can be reached on (01425) 470906 or at firstname.lastname@example.org]