Driving along the tarmac roads that cut their way through the Westmorland Dales today, it’s hard to imagine the trackless wastes that once confronted the earliest travellers to the area. Having said that, following tracks made by herds of grazing animals like deer would have provided them with a way through and those wandering routes gradually became known paths, some local, some joined up to form long-distance trails along which objects like prehistoric flints were carried and exchanged from far away places.
Shared memory and the spoken word were how travellers found their way in those days, a good river crossing place, a prominent hill, the place where you could safely sleep for the night, landscape details and an idea of days passed for distances travelled, handed down person to person for generations. Sometimes a route may have been marked by cairns of stones at particularly tricky points, or a burial cairn at a visible point became the focus for a route. Follow the line of the Roman road called Wicker Street north from Tebay and south of Crosby Ravensworth and it passes close by a possible prehistoric burial cairn
It was not until the military government of the Roman Empire was imposed on the area two thousand years ago that we find engineered routes laid out, measured and marked on the ground by regular milestones. It was an essential feature of good governance and a help to trade that travellers could tell how far away they were from the next town or fort. We are lucky to have several Roman milestones surviving from just outside our area.
Two can be seen at the Dales Countryside Museum. They come from the major arterial road that ran east from the Roman fort at Brough through the Stainmore Gap and is now roughly where the A66 runs.
A third Roman milestone was found buried along the line of the Roman road leading from Ribchester in the south to Carlisle in the north. The route is closely followed by the A683 at Middleton. The Roman road was the main route north in the late first century AD and dates from around the time the Roman Governor of Britain, Agricola, marched his legions north to subdue the rebellious local Brigantes tribe. The Lunesdale Archaeology Society provided the following description of the stone and its inscriptions:
“In 1836 the milestone was found during ploughing buried in the ground a short distance from the churchyard. There are two inscriptions on the stone: the first from the time of the Romans; the second recording the finding of the stone and its re-erection in the field overlooking the churchyard.
The Roman inscription reads: ‘M P LIII [M(ilia) P(assuum) liii]’ which records a distance of 53 Roman miles. This has been taken to be the distance from Carlisle, to which it approximates well. In the later period of Roman occupation (third century and later) a tribe called the Carvetii in believed to have had its administrative centre at Carlisle, and the milestone could have marked the southern boundary of its territory. The Victorian inscription commemorated in Latin its discovery and re-erection in 1836 by the finder/landowner Mr W. Moore of Grimeshill: Solo Erutum Restitvit Gul Moore an MDCCCXXXVI. There are also a number of cuts on the stone due to ploughing prior to its discovery.
The stone fell over in 2014 and was subsequently moved to the safety of the churchyard where it was placed on more permanent display in September 2016.”
Once the Romans left, their roads began to decay and people had to find their own way around a growing network of local tracks and paths. After the Normans arrived however, the long distance transport of trade goods led to the erection of guide stones on the more difficult upland routes. In the Yorkshire Dales, it was the long distance trade of sheep and wool particularly by monasteries that led to the consolidation of routes and the erection of markers in the shape of stone crosses. The crosses were placed at visible high points along a route or marked points were the road passed over the boundaries of different estates.
So far we’ve not come across any actual examples in our area but a clue may lie in the name of a now vanished farmstead Crosby Hall near the granges belonging to Byland Abbey in Asby Parish. It lay on a possible monastic route running east past Asby Grange. Local historian Keith Cooper suggests the name may indicate the presence of a boundary cross or entrance marker to the abbey estate in his fascinating video tracking the possible boundaries of the monastic estate.
The monks relied on packhorses to carry their wool and other goods and strings of these nimble footed ponies continued as the main carriers of traded goods like wool, salt and coal up until the middle of the eighteenth century. Packhorse routes stretched the length and breadth of the country and they were sometimes marked by stone route markers, known as guide stoups. Again, a place name suggests where one may have stood in the past, Stoup Hill and nearby Stouphill Gate farm which lie alongside Townhead Lane leading eastwards out of Ravenstonedale.
Legislation in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century required parishes to erect guideposts to the next market town for the benefit of travellers. Such stone route markers were traditionally whitewashed with the lettering picked out in black tar.
Below is a stone route marker outside the Greyhound Hotel in Shap. Courtesy of The Milestone Society.
The building of Turnpike Roads in the eighteenth century revolutionised travel through the Westmorland Dales. For the first time wheeled carts and wagons could travel all year round. Calculating the time between staging posts and markets became more crucial and regular milestones were erected so that travellers knew how far they had to go before reaching their destination.
The location of accidents on the roads could be indicated by the position of the nearest milestone as in this article in the Westmorland Gazette:
From 1766 it became compulsory for Turnpike Trusts to erect these milestones so that there could be an accurate system of pricing and coach drivers could stick to timetables.
Several turnpike milestones or their nineteenth century cast iron replacements survive in the project area and are recorded in The Milestones Society’s databases. Notable among these are the ones erected by the Sedbergh Turnpike Trust along its road to Kirkby Stephen, now the A683. The history of this section of road is summarised in the Yorkshire Dales National Park’s Historic Environment Record as follows:
“From 1761 the Sedbergh Turnpike Trust began to construct several turnpike roads radiating out from Sedbergh. This particular route was completed in 1765 and led to the important market town of Kirkby Stephen. Knitted goods manufactured in and around Sedbergh were traded in Kirkby Stephen. The Trust undertook to repair and maintain the roads it charged tolls on, a process that at first consisted of simply filling in ruts with soil. In 1830, the Trust appointed John L. McAdam as surveyor and he applied his new method of road surfacing, using layers of broken stone reducing in size towards the surface of the road. As it was used this graded layering compacted and produced a solid road surface.
In 1814, stone milestones were erected along the length of all the Trust’s roads around Sedbergh. On the Kirkby Stephen route some were later replaced by cast iron mileposts.”
By this time, local roads were being maintained by the parishes they ran through. They also often had milestones but these were distinguished by their lack of uniformity.
In addition to guidestones, roadside boundary markers were erected to show where the responsibilities of each parish began and ended. If you check out Ordnance Survey maps for the area you will often spot ‘BS’ for boundary stone where parish boundaries cross roads.
The Highways Act of 1862 required the compulsory unification of parishes to form local highways authorities. There was considerable hostility to the Act and it was not always enforced. From 1888, responsibility for the road network was placed in the more reliable hands of the county councils. Cast iron mileposts from this era often carry the name of the responsible authority. With the coming of the motor car in the twentieth century, more prominent route markers were required, the better to be read at speed. The county councils commissioned large numbers of cast iron finger posts to be set up at road junctions giving directions and mileage. A Ministry of Transport memorandum issued in 1921 provided a basic model for these direction signs, but county engineers took the opportunity to display local distinctiveness.
The 1964 Traffic Signs Regulations Act instructed counties to replace their old cast iron signposts with the standard ones now seen all over the country. As you’ll find if you visit the area, these instructions were not always carried out to the letter hence the survival of original cast iron fingerposts like that pictured above.
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