In the 1980s, girls were either obsessed by Sindy or Barbie. Amanda Hone wasn’t bothered much by either. The truth is she preferred the lure of a brown road sign.
Her interest may be explained by the fact that Kent, where she lived, had just become the first county to pilot the tourist signs. Whatever the reason, it’s now become a full-time obsession.
“Whenever I was on a journey as a child I’d spot them and wonder where they led, but it wasn’t until I was at university that I became hopelessly hooked,” says the 31-year-old. “I was in Southampton, bored and brown signs became the perfect distraction. I’d get in the car, drive in a random direction and after a little while find myself at an otter sanctuary or a motoring museum.”
After graduating, Amanda trained as an occupational psychologist, but her love of the open road soon put pay to any career in the field.
“One of the problems with being an occupational psychologist is that it teaches you what you really want to do. Unfortunately for me it wasn’t occupational psychology.”
Giving up her job, she spent a year travelling abroad, but when she returned home Amanda realised that she knew more about Asia than she did about her home country. It was time, she decided, to revisit the brown signs.
Planning a vague route, which took her via various friends’ houses and the promise of free accommodation, she packed her car and set off with one pledge. To follow every brown sign she saw.
“I didn’t want to be told where to go by a guide book or a sat nav,” she says. “There’s something about following someone else’s route which kills off the potential to discover new things.”
Blogging about her travels, Amanda had soon ticked off a cider farm, various hill forts and a handful of stone circles, but it became clear this was more than a personal odyssey.
“Visiting so many attractions in quick succession I realised that at the end of every sign was a small snapshot of Britain,” she says. “I met people who were obsessed by paperweights and others who had dedicated their lives to model railways. To some that might be peculiar or a bit odd, but to me it was just perfect. I found myself learning more about Britain than I ever had in school.” In Yorkshire, Amanda’s travels took her from a campsite above Robin Hood’s Bay, which had erected its own homemade brown sign, to the steep cliffside of Ravenscar, via rock pooling at Boggle Hole and badger watching at Cropton Forest.
“The forester at Cropton was typical of the people I met on the way. He was incredibly knowledgeable, a man who lives and breathes the outdoors. He’d only been to London twice and hated it – I have a lot of respect for that.”
While still venturing out in search of hidden gems, Amanda is now writing a book chronicling each of the 93 different types of brown signs, from air museums to zoos and in the process restoring the reputation of the humble brown sign.
“In some quarters, they are really quite derided,” she says. “Obviously there are brown signs to places which shouldn’t really have them, I’ve even heard of one to a Tesco superstore, but they are a British institution and one we really should treasure.
“When I tell people what I’ve been doing they love it, but when I ask them when was the last time they followed a brown sign they look at me blankly.
“It’s really sad to think that Britons now rate shopping or watching television as their favourite pastime while discovering and engaging with our history and heritage is something we do only on the odd weekend away.
“However, the one thing I realised during my travels is that all is not lost. There are so many people out there who care about lots of very different things. They are not interested in making money, they just want to share the things that are important to them with other people. Part of the reason for writing the book is to celebrate their efforts.”
No one knows exactly how many signs there are now in Britain, but if she has her way Amanda will visit each and every one of them.
“To me brown signing is an antidote to the modern world,” she say.
“I honestly think it’s the best way of discovering Britain. It makes you pay attention to the things that are easily ignored and which so often go unnoticed. If anyone needs convincing I tell them to randomly turn off the road the next time they see a brown sign and I guarantee they won’t regret it.”
Read Amanda’s blog at www.thebrownsignway.blogspot.com