Milestones mapped out

Ian McMillan with Jan Shrine of the society at a milestone in Bradford Road, Brighouse
Ian McMillan with Jan Shrine of the society at a milestone in Bradford Road, Brighouse
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I’m standing by the side of a busy road in the Salendine Nook area of Huddersfield; cars and vans are zooming by, inches from my ample frame. I’m leaning over, intently studying what appears to be an almost anonymous lump of rock with a few primitive scratchings on it. Schoolkids wander by and gaze at me incuriously as they scoff chips from cartons. If only they knew.

If only they knew that I was looking at an example of an historic milestone, probably erected in the 1720s, with an unusual gable top of a kind that’s only found in Yorkshire. On one of the milestone’s weathered faces you can make out a couple of pointing hands, one indicating Lindley and one indicating Longwood.

It’s odd, but even as the traffic screeches past and a lad stops eating his chips long enough to start texting, I feel that I’ve been transported back in time to an era when it was, literally, all fields round here, and the roads were unmade dirt tracks and if I was lost I would need a marker to tell me which direction Lindley was in.

I’m in the knowledgeable and enthusiastic company of Jan Scrine from the Yorkshire Branch of the Milestone Society. They are a group of people who have taken it upon themselves to help to restore and preserve our county’s milestones and other waymarkers which could otherwise fall into disrepair or neglect or, worse, get chipped away at, covered by signs, or nicked and put up for sale on eBay.

We jump in Jan’s car and drive around to another milestone and I wax lyrical about the beautiful details on the pointing fingers on the Salendine Nook one; “some of them even have shirt cuffs on” she says, with the glow of the true enthusiast.

Jan says she got into milestones almost by accident. She had come to live in the area and was looking for a hobby. Milestones and waymarkers seemed to fit with her general interest in archaeology and social and cultural history. They’re everywhere, but often unnoticed and uncelebrated despite their longevity and importance. After all, if it wasn’t for milestones our ancestors would have been lost most of the time, rather than just some of the time. As Jan says, when there’s a milestone there, you’ve got another directional option available to you rather than saying “You turn left by the third tree”.

The clever Romans were the first to use them in this country, on their military roads in the first century AD, and then there were no new milestones until the 18th century when unsuspecting Justices of the Peace were instructed by higher authorities to erect guideposts on the moors where tracks and paths crossed.

Later, milestones became compulsory on the toll or turnpike roads and some of the surviving stones are actually fare points for Hansom cabs. There are 9,000 left in the UK, and quite a lot of these are in Yorkshire, because Yorkshire folk have always liked to know where they’re going and where they’ve come from, especially if it doesn’t directly cost them owt.

Jan and I are at our second location, on the Bradford Road. This one is a metal front on a stone base; it’s been restored and the lettering stands out beautifully (although not as beautifully as it did, Jan says), telling us how far it is to Bradford and, wonderfully, how far it is to Brighouse Town Hall.

It was made by Liversedge firm of Brayshaw and Booth, and the lettering is clear and precise. Perhaps because I’m fascinated by language in all its forms, I’m really drawn to the inscriptions. There’s apparently one near Farnley Tyas where the word miles is spelled miels on one side. Jan reckons the man who was doing the inscribing either went to the pub and left his apprentice to do the work, or went to the pub and came back armed with The Dictionary of Beer; either way, the pub was probably involved.

Oddly, milestones are listed buildings, rather than listed monuments; it’s an anomaly of planning and local law, but I think it gives them a kind of majesty and importance that they otherwise might not have.

As we roll to our next milestone, I ask Jan about other street furniture, and it turns out she’s keen on all of it. I mention that I quite like looking at old postboxes and she agrees, naming a couple of designs I’ve never heard of.

She likes streetlights, too, but, as she says “I haven’t got time for bus shelters!” I nod in agreement; life’s too short for bus shelters. “Now, if you’re talking tram stops…” she says, her eyes glowing with zeal.

I love zeal, I enjoy the fact that people are passionate about things that we might otherwise ignore as we stroll by chewing chips and texting. There will be plenty of zeal at the Milestone Society’s Northern Spring meeting on April 15 in Hebden, near Grassington. They have organised a lecture on Paved Ways in North East Yorkshire and there will be an illustrated talk on Boundary Stones.

The air will be buzzing with discoveries and restorations, with lost stones found and catalogued, and more modern ones like the ones on the new walks around Kirkburton that glow in the West Yorkshire sun.

We arrive at our next milestone by the wall of a supermarket car park further along the Bradford Road. This one is unusual because it’s a To and From. In other words, on one side it says that it’s two miles to Huddersfield, and on the other it tells you it’s two miles from Huddersfield.

The duplication is explained by the fact that it’s one of the aforementioned fare-stage posts for Hansom cabs. You needed to know how far you’d gone and how far you were going so that you could calculate the fare. I gaze in wonder as shoppers rush by.

That’s the addictive beauty of milestones: they make you stop and look, they make you think about local history, they make you think about the people who came before. I wish I’d got time for bus shelters.