It is hard to imagine the unenclosed landscape that the earliest travellers in the Dales had to find their way across. By the end of the Iron Age, most of the tree cover had gone from the moorlands, and they had become featureless wastes with hardly any natural markers to act as guides. The Romans imposed a system of well-maintained and well-surfaced roads upon this wilderness and traders and people on imperial business must have found them easy to follow. Without maps however, travellers still needed guidance and the Romans were probably the first to introduce the idea of milestones. None have been found in the National Park, but two Roman milestones from the Stainmore Pass, an important northerly route into the area can be seen at the Dales Countryside Museum.
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 that led to the consolidation of routes and the erection of markers in the shape of stone crosses. Mastiles Lane is one of the best known of these monastic routes and several of the medieval crosses or their bases along this track still survive. The most complete example is Weets Cross. The crosses were placed at visible high points along a route or marked points were the road passed over the boundaries of different estates.
In Coverdale, the canons of Coverham Abbey erected Hunters Stone on the line of their route to their estates around Kettlewell in Wharfedale. The stone is placed right at the lip of the dale edge and can be seen both from the bottom of the valley and when being approached from above.
From medieval times, goods were usually transported using packhorses, and they established an even wider network of long distance upland routes through the Dales. They too must have relied on routemarkers or guide stoops as the stones are known. An 18th century example lies on an old road up Wensleydale near West Witton. Legislation in the late 17th and early 18th century required parishes to erect guideposts to the next market town for the benefit of travellers. A possible example of one of these early stones can be seen at Howgill in Barden lying on the old market and lead route between Skipton and Pateley Bridge, now a footpath. Such stone routemarkers were traditionally whitewashed with the lettering picked out in black tar.
The building of Turnpike Roads in the 18th century revolutionised travel through the 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. 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. An early 18th century stone milestone still remains beside the Richmond-Lancaster Turnpike near Newby Head. The surviving carved stone examples erected by the Sedbergh Turnpike Trust have been recorded by a local history society. In the 19th century, the industrial production of cast iron led to stone being replaced by metal markers. A whole series of such mileposts dating to 1825 can be seen along the part of the Richmond-Lancaster Road that is now the B6255.
By this time, local roads were being maintained by the parishes they ran through. In Upper Wharfedale, guidestones erected by individual parishes or townships can be distinguished by their lack of uniformity. All are incised on stone, some are painted white with black lettering and most have pointing hands incised into the stone. A possible 18th century example lies beside the road at the junction of the B6265 and the Hartlington road. In addition to guidestones, roadside boundary markers were erected to show where the responsibilities of each parish began and ended. At Tomgill Bridge near Thoralby a stone example reads “Here ends Aysgarth Road”. Another near Aysgarth reads “Here Ends Aysgarth Bounds 1853”. A number of paired roadside boundary markers were erected in Ribblesdale made from Helwith slate, such as the series around Stainforth parish.
The Highways Act of 1862 required the compulsory unification of parishes to form local highways authorities. There was considerable hostility to the Act and in the West Riding at least it was not always enforced. The Craven part of the National Park included two of these new authorities, Settle Highway District, formed in 1895 and the East Staincliffe Highway District which lasted from 1864 to 1895. A number of uniformly shaped and carved guidestones appear to have been erected by East Staincliffe such as the example near Forge Garage in Bolton Abbey village. In the North Riding a cast iron milepost from near West Witton has ‘Leyburn H. D.” on it standing for the Highway District formed there.
From 1888, responsibility for the road network was placed in the hands of the county councils. Cast iron mileposts from this era often carry the name of the responsible authority such as “NYRCC” for North Yorkshire Riding County Council. With the coming of the motor car in the 20th century, more prominent routemarkers 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. A good example has recently been restored at Cowgill with its circular cast iron finial recording the highway authority – Yorkshire West Riding, the parish – Cowgill and the grid reference. 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. The West Riding seems to have been somewhat lax in carrying out this order, hence the survival of signs such as that at Cowgill. Things have come full circle at Airton where a completely new fingerpost has been created for the Coast to Coast Cycle route but in a traditional style and painted with the traditional black and white stripes up the pole.
The routemarkers described here are always vulnerable to damage or removal when placed beside heavily used roads. Even more disturbing is the deliberate knocking down of medieval wayside crosses alongside unmetalled roads being used by four-wheel drive enthusiasts. Such markers may have lost their original purpose, but they should be preserved alongside more prominent monuments as an important part of our history.
Benford, Mervyn (2002) Milestones Princes Risborough: Shire Publications
Hands, Stuart (2002) Road Signs Princes Risborough: Shire Publications
Moorhouse, Stephen (2003)‘The anatomy of the Yorkshire Dales: deciphering the medieval landscape’ in Manby, T G et al (eds) (2003) The Archaeology of Yorkshire: an assessment at the beginning of the 21st century Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No 3 pp298-362 [‘Routeways’ pp319-320]
White, Robert (2002) The Yorkshire Dales. A Landscape Through Time Ilkley: Great Northern Books [‘Transport’ pp98-100]
Wright, Geoffrey N (1985) Roads and Trackways of the Yorkshire Dales Ashbourne: Moorland Publishing
www.milestone-society.co.uk – website for society dedicated to the recording and preservation of route markers. Includes extensive bibliography.
www.milestonesweb.com – website with history and details of different designs of milestones