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Time of the signs

Dorset’s fingerposts are making a spirited comeback reports Susy Varndell

A traditional fingerpost complete with finial and original curved fingers at Amen Corner, Gussage All Saints

A traditional fingerpost complete with finial and original curved fingers at Amen Corner, Gussage All Saints (image: Colin Varndell)

Here in Dorset we are incredibly fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the country with such a variety and wealth of natural features as well as interesting man-made structures. Both contribute to the decidedly unique appearance of Dorset’s landscape and rural heritage. Fingerposts are one of Dorset’s rather quaint relics from the past, which have developed into being iconic symbols of the county in the present. These fingerposts, along with narrow lanes, overgrown hedges, beautiful flower-filled verges, bridges with distinctive signs and redundant red telephone boxes, all contribute to Dorset’s unique charm and character.
The fingerposts are a legacy of the initial road system. They were widely used during the reign of the turnpike roads when turnpike trusts were encouraged to label every mile to help stagecoach drivers keep to their schedules. Later, in 1773, the General Turnpike Act made it obligatory for trustees to put up signs informing the traveller of the distance to the nearest town. Later again, as a result of the 1903/4 Motor Car Act, responsibility for the provision of fingerposts was given to individual local authorities. Posts were therefore designed and erected by local authorities throughout the land. The Ministry of Transport recommended a design but it was left up to individual councils to make the final decision, which meant that there was a wide variety of local styles. Dorset created its own distinctive and unique finger post design, which add to the local character of a place, but are now, in certain places, in danger of being lost, forever.

A small selection of the huge array of Dorset's fingerposts

A small selection of the huge array of Dorset’s fingerposts

The fingerposts are constructed with a central metal post with a number of white wooden pointers or fingers, originally with curved ends but more recent ones with pointed fingers. The fingers are fixed to the post by means of a metal collar. The destination on the sign is in black, individual, upper case metal lettering, together with the mileage. These letters are then affixed to the white curved (or pointed) finger. On the top is the white metal roundel or finial, which looks much the same as a sign for a London underground station, on which the name of the junction is displayed on the horizontal bar.  The six figure map reference for the relevant point on the National Grid is given on the bottom half moon of the roundel, while the county name ‘Dorset’ is painted in black, on the top half moon section.

Bonfire Hill, on the outskirts of Alderholt, was this the site of a warning beacon?

Bonfire Hill, on the outskirts of Alderholt, was this the site of a warning beacon?

Lots of these unique fingerposts were removed, along with milestones, in 1940 after the government decided that such signposts could provide guidance for an invading enemy. Therefore many of these posts, with their directional fingers topped off with a circular finial, proclaiming the place name and the grid reference, were sent for scrap, and lost, forever. Some have turned up, unknowingly safely stored in some barn or outbuilding. But not all, so unfortunately Dorset fingerposts are in decline with many broken and falling into a shabby state of repair.

The roundel on the red fingerpost on the A31. Notice how it had broken at some point in its history, and has been screwed back together with two small plates. (Image: Colin Varndell)

The roundel on the red fingerpost on the A31. Notice how it had broken at some point in its history, and has been screwed back together with two small plates. (Image: Colin Varndell)

There are four red fingerposts in the county which are a source of much debate, without any consensus becoming apparent. Are they the locations of gibbets? Or are they the position of a hanging? Or maybe they are the place of an overnight stop for convicts on their way to the port before transportation to Australia? Whatever the case, these four are widely dispersed through the county, the best known one probably being on the main A31 at Anderson which allegedly signified to prison guards to turn here for Botany Bay Farm where they could rest the prisoners overnight. The others are situated in quiet, less frequented lanes at Hewood, Poyntington and Benville. They all have white lettering on the red fingers.

This finial at Gods’ Blessing Green can be seen on the road between Holt and Broom Hill

This finial at Gods’ Blessing Green can be seen on the road between Holt and Broom Hill

 

The Cuckoo Hill fingerpost is on a junction south west of Yetminster

The Cuckoo Hill fingerpost is on a junction south west of Yetminster

Some of the names on the horizontal part of the roundel make one rather inquisitive.  How have the names of these places come about? Is there any historic significance? For instance – is Dark Lane near Tincleton a dark lane? Is Slaughtergate where a gate led to the place where animals were to be slaughtered? Does Cuckoo Hill near Melbury Osmund, (or did Cuckoo Hill) have lots of cuckoos at one time? Why is God’s Blessing-Green named that? What happened at Molly Brown’s Corner at Lytchett Matravers for it to be called by that name? The list of amusing or intriguing names goes on – Cock and Bottle, Bull Bridge, Bonfire Hill, Melbury Oak, Hell Corner, Tinkers Hill. Apparently Whitehall and St James are not just places in London but also here in Dorset. Each one must have a story to tell.

The abbreviated lettering to save space on finials at Sixpenny Handley

The abbreviated lettering to save space on finials at Sixpenny Handley

Some of the posts have interesting spellings as well, such as the one for the village of Sixpenny Handley. It has saved on the number of letters needed by changing the name of the village to 6D Handley, which must confound those born post decimalisation. Spellings of villages can also be interesting (Portesham or Portisham) or even misspelt like Marwood for Marshwood.

Whitehall is not just the name of an area of London, but also a junction in Maiden Newton

Whitehall is not just the name of an area of London, but also a junction in Maiden Newton

St James, Shaftesbury, which is also the name of a famous London district

St James, Shaftesbury, which is also the name of a famous London district

These cherished pieces of road furniture are one of the features that enrich our everyday lives here in Dorset. They are part of our rural identity and provide a historic link from the past to our hectic high speed present.  Their charm is irrefutable. By maintaining and restoring these symbolic fixtures we can even contribute to the local economy by supporting local jobs and skills.
There is a project run by the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Partnership to find and record as many of the Dorset traditional finger posts as possible. It is then hoped that individuals, parishes, groups or companies might support the project by electing to sponsor the repair and restoration of these posts to their former glory. Indeed, some Dorset companies already use Dorset’s iconic fingerposts as a feature of their branding. ◗
❱ If you would like to help the Netherbury Parish Fingerpost Project to restore and refurbish all sixteen fingerposts in the parish, visit netherburyvillage.wordpress.com/page/2/ and scroll down to the appropriate ‘post’. Internet search ‘AONB fingerpost’ to find details of other Dorset fingerpost projects or to become a ‘Fingerpost Champion”.

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