Sunday, July 17, 2016
When the Finger Points
Fingerposts, guide signs that indicate the direction and distance of towns and villages, have been a feature of the English countryside since the 17th century, when they were placed at significant crossroads by order of local magistrates. In the late 18th century, parliamentary legislation made it compulsory for all turnpike roads – roads maintained by the collection of tolls - to feature fingerposts.
The size and style of fingerposts varied widely until 1921, when the familiar wooden design we see today was handed down in a parliamentary circular. It said that fingerposts should have 2 1⁄2 or 3 inch high black upper case lettering on a white background affixed to a white supporting pole. That model has remained ever since, except for a few years when this enduring feature of rural roads disappeared altogether.
Early in the Second World War, German invasion was an imminent threat. Whether by air or sea, the government made plans for such an eventuality. In Angus Calder’s 1969 book, The People’s War: Britain 1939-1945, he details the lengths the authorities went to to frustrate any invaders: ‘To prevent gliders landing, fields, downland, golf courses and recreation grounds near the south and east coasts were scattered with timber baulks, or with an extraordinary variety of improvised hazards.’ As well as filling fields with old cars and broken-down farm machinery, Caulder also notes that railway stations within 20 miles of the south coast had to have all naming signage removed. But it was the fear of enemy parachutists that had the most significant effect on the people’s daily life.
In May 1940, the government ordered that ‘no person shall display or cause or permit to be displayed any sign which furnishes any indication of the name of, or the situation or the direction of, or the distance to any place.’ All over Britain, street names and sign posts were removed. In towns and cities, this presented some difficulties but, in the countryside, the removal of all fingerposts made navigation almost impossible. It was the armed forces themselves who requested their restoration. Military drivers were ‘subjected to bafflement and nervous exhaustion if they ventured into unfamiliar territory’ and, after an absence of three years, fingerposts were returned to rural roads.
Despite their simplicity and elegance of design, it is possible that nowadays fingerposts are simply an anachronistic feature of the heritage industry. In his new book, Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Our World, Greg Milner notes that anyone on Earth with a smartphone knows exactly where they are and where they are going. With 75% of adults, and rising, in this country owning one, perhaps the days of the fingerpost are numbered. In a parochial illustration of the global reach of GPS, when I was at the end of my road preparing my phone to take the photograph at the top of this page, someone from a passing car shouted at me, “Pokemon Go!”