Pointing Us in the Right Direction

Signpost_Porlock Post2

A project to refurbish our cherished historic signposts driven by local people and parishes was given a boost by being awarded Heritage Lottery Funding late in 2016 for a two-year project to December 2018. This allowed the appointment of Charlotte Thomas to act as a co-ordinator and enabler for the project based at the National Park office in Dulverton. This article introduces Charlotte and explores the distinctive character of Exmoor’s cast iron finger posts.

Signpost at White Cross

The Historic Signposts project was prompted by the concern of local communities about the state of signposts in their areas, combined with the desire to help preserve and celebrate these much valued features of the Exmoor landscape. The project aims to record, refurbish and explore the history of our traditional signposts. And, as Charlotte also points out, none of this would be possible without the support of an amazing group of local enthusiasts and volunteers.

Charlotte Thomas

Having grown up on Exmoor, Charlotte was very familiar with the signposts during her childhood. Then she discovered that something we often take for granted on the side of the road has had an interesting history! This role was an ideal opportunity to work on these everyday traditional features, enhancing the landscape she loves. Sadly in recent years, with the county councils having to cope with budget cuts, maintaining the signposts has been low priority and this is taking its toll. Thanks to the local communities and parishes raising their concerns, the Exmoor National Park Partnership Fund provided a small grant in 2015 to get a pilot project off the ground, with the aim of securing more funding to extend the project.

The signpost at Cloutsham Gate is an example of where major repairs are needed – only the base remains.

Using a mixture of modern research techniques (ie using an app to load results directly into a project database) and “old-fashioned” paper reports and photographs, an enthusiastic group of parish volunteers managed to survey 126 signposts across 23 parishes for the pilot project. Results highlighted that most signposts need some attention (in terms of cleaning and repainting) but are generally sound, with some requiring more major repair.

The pilot project data supported a successful application to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) in December 2016 (with additional aid provided by Exmoor National Park Authority and Somerset County Council). Charlotte was employed to oversee the project in February 2017, and has since been recruiting volunteers, organising training and searching out specialist crafts-people for repairs, finding foundries with the skills and knowledge to make the fingers and finials, along with suitably qualified contractors who can fit these and carry out repairs.

Signpost_Lucott Cross2
Signpost at Lucott Cross

So far the most challenging aspect has been ensuring all the volunteers have had the necessary Health and Safety training for working on/near highways from Somerset County Council. This is a vital requirement before anyone can head out to survey, clean and paint the signposts, so it has meant the initial part of the project is taking a bit longer than expected. However, as Charlotte points out, this is more than balanced out by being particularly rewarding in giving her the chance to work with local communities and groups. In addition to the participants who supported the pilot project, she has also recruited an extra 30 volunteers. Plus not many projects can show such an obvious link between its start and finish – as will be highlighted in before and after photographs on an interactive map on the project website page for each restored signpost.

Signpost_Spire Cross
Signpost at Spire Cross

The pilot survey led to the realisation little is known about the history of the fingerposts and the local heritage they represent. Some of the posts are at junctions with historic names, whose history can be explored. It is known that most fingerposts were taken down during the Second World War, but it is unclear whether the same ones were re-erected or if new sets of fingerposts were commissioned. Already comparisons of historic photographs are raising questions as to changes in materials, style, paint work and direction to key locations. A key aim of the project is to work with the Exmoor Society to support volunteers in the study of local collections of historic documents, personal photographs and other historic sources to gain a new understanding of the history of the posts and how they changed over time.

Signpost_diagramUltimately the desire is to restore all the signposts in the project area (Exmoor and some surrounding parishes) with local communities enabled to contribute to their future care and cleaning. Two additional practical outcomes have already been achieved: working with Somerset County Council to write a handbook on the maintenance, repair and restoration of these traditional signposts (completed in May 2017) and the development of our Historic Environment Record Database (www.exmoorher.co.uk). This will hold all the collated data – which signposts have been restored, to what degree, and when. This database is also becoming a depository for wider information, aided by historical photographs that show the personal links with these signposts. Charlotte would like anyone living on Exmoor to search their family photos for any which include signposts in the background; or have a look into the dusty corners of attics and barns to check if there are any bits of fingerposts or finials that might help restore a signpost.

Signpost_Westcott LaneIn fact, one of the volunteers from Brushford recently contacted Charlotte after they found a fingerpost in the local bus stop. Further research identified it had come from the Dunkery Beacon/Wheddon Cross signpost, which had a finger snapped off – so it will now be repaired and restored with the original. Someone else from another parish found out about the project and is so keen to restore their local signposts, they are funding the work themselves!

This project has highlighted how the signposts play a vital importance in the personal and regional history of Exmoor. Charlotte also has plans with colleagues to develop trails and story walks to bring these signposts to life so we can all get to understand and appreciate ‘history we can touch’.

If you have any contributions for the project such as photos or parts that can be used to restore a signpost, please contact Charlotte at Exmoor National Park Authority click here to email] or find out more about the project on our website.