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Trail talk: The Sustrans Millennium Mileposts

'Fossil tree' Millennium Milepost, Dover, Kent

Following a National Lottery Grant of £42.5m from the Millennium Commission in 1995, a National Cycle Network (NCN) of some 16 575 miles was established and officially opened June 2000. These safe, maintained paths are used by hundreds of thousands of cyclists and walkers every year. The Royal Bank of Scotland funded the creation of a thousand cast iron ‘Millennium Mileposts’ to mark the new network and the four designs of post are encountered right across the UK.

There are four designs of Millennium Milepost and four artists, from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, were commissioned. All four designs can be found in all four countries. Though there may have been a degree of nationalist pride and local preference in their spread and location. Three Points of the Compass doesn’t deliberately search these striking mileposts out, though others do, especially cyclists. I show here just a handful from those I have seen on my walks.

Many of the Millennium Mileposts also have a disk on them that features symbols and text in code. I must confess that I have never paid much heed to these and only recently learnt of their purpose. There are 60 different designs of disc on the four designs of milepost and these form a Millennium Time Trail. This is, or was, a treasure hunt puzzle created by Sustrans to celebrate the year 2000 Millennium, though the puzzle trail itself probably dates from a couple of years earlier. Sustrans is a UK walking and cycling charity responsible for the creation of the NCN and the siting of the Millennium Mileposts.

'Fossil' Millennium Milepost, approaching Chester
‘Fossil Tree’ Millennium Milepost, approaching Chester on Wales Coast Path
Fossil Tree by John Mills
Fossil Tree by John Mills. Flint.

The first design of milepost was commissioned from Brighton based Englishman John [Jon] Mills. ‘Fossil Tree‘ is usually brightly painted when found, each of the fossils frequently picked out with paint. Made by Taylors Foundry in Haverhill, Suffolk, the casting was almost certainly carried out at their foundry in Stoke on Trent.

The milepost design is based on an extinct spore bearing tree like plant Sigillaria whose fossilised remains are often found. Various other fossils are shown in relief on the ‘trunk’ of the milepost embedded in various sedimentary layers depicting the passage of time “from early primitive creatures to the ultimate demise of fossil fuel driven technology”.

Millennium Mileposts are often encoutnered where a long distance footpath runs concurrent with a National Cycle route. A Fossil Tree was passed by Three Points of the Compass when walking the North Downs Way, and again when completing the Saxon Shore Way in 2020
Millennium Mileposts are often encountered where a long distance footpath runs concurrent with a National Cycle route. Near Dover a ‘Fossil Tree’ was passed by Three Points of the Compass when walking the North Downs Way in 2015, and again when completing the Saxon Shore Way in 2020

This is one of 1000 mileposts funded by The Royal Bank of Scotland to mark the Millennium and the creation of the National Cycle Network

Citation on Millennium Milepost
The Cockerel by Iain McColl. West Highland Way
The Cockerel by Iain McColl

If you were not aware of these mileposts, it would be easy to stumble across one and think it simply a piece of local art rather than a loosely coordinated UK wide project.

The second design of milepost commissioned was ‘The Cockerel‘ by Scottish sculptor Iain McColl. For some reason I haven’t noticed many of this attractive design on my travels. I can only surmise that a high proportion of this design found their way to Scotland and I tend to walk footpaths rather than cycle paths in Scotland.The one I show here was passed when I walked the West Highland Way in 2013 and again in 2018.

The design of ‘The Cockerel’ is based on Miro’s ‘The Fork’ and Brancusi’s ‘The Cock‘. I rather like this design and wish I encountered it more frequently.

32% of the cycle routes are entirely traffic free and the network connects with all of the UKs National Parks, sixty of the UKs Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Scottish National Scenic Areas in the UK, also 18 of the UK’s 20 World Heritage Sites. One stated aim of the Sustrans project was to create safe and accessible traffic-free network that can be used by a sensible 12-year-old travelling alone.

Directional fingers on 'Rowe' type milestone, Gravesend, Kent
Directional fingers on ‘Rowe’ type milepost, Gravesend, Kent

In 1998 Welshman Andrew Rowe designed the third milepost commissioned. A native of Swansea, a place with a long nautical and industrial heritage, he combined elements of that history in to his artwork. There is nothing subtle about this design. The large links point squarely at what is being commemorated.

These ‘Rowe type’ mileposts differ from the other three designs in that up to five directional ‘fingers’ could be included if required. The example I have included here has three pointers and was passed on the Tarka Trail in 2018. In common with many wide and quiet cycle paths, this path utilises an abandoned railway track for much of its straight course through the countryside.

'Rowe' type Millennium Milepost, Dover, Kent

The rear of the ‘Rowe’ design is nothing to behold. With an all round aspect to these multi-directional posts, this was a fault in the design brief and a lost opportunity.

'Rowe type' Millennium milepost, by Andrew Rowe
Rowe type‘ Millennium milepost, by Andrew Rowe
'Rowe' type milepost photographed at Minehead, the end of Offa's Dyke Path, walked in 2018
‘Rowe’ type milepost. Photographed at Minehead, the end of Offa’s Dyke Path, walked in 2018
'Rowe' type milepost. Photographed at Galashiels
‘Rowe’ type milepost. Photographed at Galashiels, Scottish Borders

The fourth Millennium Milepost commissioned was designed by Belfast artist David Dudgeon. ‘Tracks‘ is the only one of the four mileposts to truly engage with cycling as a design concept. The main design “shows the tracks made in the landscape by cyclists”. Below this, at the base of the post, is a piece of prose exploring “sensations and observations one makes whilst travelling through various environments”.

“DOWN A WANDERING PATH

I HAVE TRAVELLED,

WHERE THE SETTING SUN

LIES UPON THE GROUND.

THE TRACKS ARE HARD AND DRY

SMOOTHENED WITH

THE WEATHER’S WEAR,

MY MIND DID MOVE

WITH THEM THAT HAD

BEFORE ME BEEN,

TRODDING DOWN THE GROUND

A TRACK FOR ME TO FOLLOW,

LEAVING MARKS FOR OTHERS

A SIGN FOR THEM TO FOLLOW.”

David Dudgeon, 1999

'Tracks' milepost at Dartford on the Thames River Path is badly in need of a repaint and is almost entirelyy taken over by plant growth. But still an ideal location for lost dog's balls apparently
‘Tracks’ milepost at Dartford on the Thames River Path is badly in need of a repaint and is almost entirely taken over by plant growth. But still an ideal location for lost dog’s balls apparently
'Tracks' by David Dudgeon
Tracks‘ by David Dudgeon. Millennium Milepost passed while walking the London LOOP in 2015
A Tracks milepost that has lost its fingers. Passed on the South Downs Way, 2018
A ‘Tracks’ milepost that has lost its directional fingers. Passed on the South Downs Way, 2018

Since the posts were first commissioned and sited, there has been infrequent relocation and replacement. Further information and locations on the Sustrans NCN and Millennium Mileposts can be found here.

These Millennium Mileposts are obviously not the only signage on the cycle network. The primary signage is of a white bicycle (sometimes including a walking symbol) on a blue background. An inset number includes the route number.

Cyclists and pedestrians are sometimes segregated by lines on the paths, but frequently both share a common track. Cyclists have to contend with hikers walking abreast while those walking have the demented racer to put up with. And don’t get me started on dog walkers. Courtesy in both camps goes a long way.

National Cycle Network signage

‘The Millennium Time Trail’

The Millennium Time Trail works out for all to see

That Time in itself is still Time’s mystery.

Good Luck! Time to Go!

Charlie Harrow, creator of the Time Trail

It is now a couple of decades since the Time Trail was developed by Charlie Harrow for Sustrans and I doubt many are still attempting to complete and solve it. Certainly Three Points of the Compass has never attempted to do this. It was (or is) by all accounts an extremely demanding task and very few people have actually completed the puzzle. There seems to be very little information available today about the discs and Sustrans seem to have done their best to forget about it. However there is some very good information on this puzzle trail here.

Charlie Harrow leaflet
Charlie Harrow leaflet

The following is repeated from what Sustrans said at the time of creation of the trail twenty years ago:

“The Time Trail is a four-dimensional voyage and puzzle around the National Cycle Network. Throughout the UK there are almost one thousand cast iron mileposts on National Cycle Network routes, many of which carry embossed metal discs the size of small plates. Each disc contains a design that can be copied by making a pencil and paper rubbing to help you record your journey. There are over 60 different designs repeated around the Network divided into five sets. Each set of designs joins up like a three dimensional sculptural jigsaw to illustrate different aspects of Time. The five sets lead to a very rare 6th set – a final mystery to be solved and Treasure to be discovered. There are at least two copies of most Time Trail Symbols in each region and the mileposts have been arranged so that the first two sets of designs can often be collected during a single ride near a large town.
Throughout the Time Trail you will find a number of themes. The ancient elements of Fire, Earth, Air and Water and the Ether are intertwined in the designs, whilst the seasons, the zodiac and the history of the last twenty centuries are the common threads that connect the Time Trail images together. Ingredients of ancient philosophy, time and space, astronomy, alchemy and molten metal are thrown together into the melting pot and stirred by the users of the National Cycle Network in their quest to solve some of the mysteries of Time.
How far the Time Trail will lead will vary from child to child and from adult to adult. Not everyone will manage to or expect to go the whole distance in the quest, for Time means different things to different people. But one thing is guaranteed – we are all on a voyage in Time and Space in our lifetimes and the Time Trail hopes to reflect this and capture the excitement and essence of that voyage for those who get out there and use the National Cycle Network.”

Sustrans

There are six sets of discs. To make it a little easier for people to complete the puzzle, the UK was divided into nine regions. Each region has at least two of each disc from T1-T5. So it is possible to visit an entire set within a single region.

Each disc carries an image related to the theme of the set in which it is. The five sets comprise-

  • T1. Four discs- The Seasons
  • T2. Six discs- The Continents
  • T3. Eight discs- The Ages of Man
  • T4. Twelve discs- The Signs of the Zodiac
  • T5. Twenty discs- The Centuries

plus-

  • T6. Ten discs- The ‘rare’ discs

Each T1-T5 disc carries part of a poem, the whole poem appearing across the 50 discs. The words MILLENNIUM POEM result.

Time Trail disk on Ramsgate milepost
Time Trail disc 9 of 20 from T5 set ‘The Centuries‘. On Millennium Milepost. Ramsgate, Kent
Dumpton Gap
Time Trail disc 5 of 20 from T5 set ‘The Centuries‘. On Millennium Milepost at Dumpton Gap, Kent

MEASURE EVERY HEARTBEAT TO COUNT OUT OUR LIFE’S SCORE
IS “TIME TO ESCAPE” MEANT TO FIRE OUR COMING AGE?
LOCKED IN SEASONS’ BARS SWINGS PENDULUM’S CEASELESS CLAY
LUNGS NEVER FULL ENSNARE US IN TIME’S EIGHT PIECE CAGE
ENTROPY’S AIM SHOOTS LEPTONS IN DANCING CYCLES OF LIGHT
NATIONS REACH OUT IN HOPE ACROSS TIME ZONES AND LONG DEGREES
NO CORNERS TO HIDE US, EARTH’S SHADE SPINS HOURLY ROUND TONIGHT
IN ALL MIND-STREAMS WE WADE, OUR WORLD-LINES WEAVE PAST TAPESTRIES
UNCERTAIN DREAMS EVOLVE IN THE STRUGGLE FOR THE “WHY?”
MUST IN ALL THESE TIDES OF FAITH, FLOW STILL SUCH WAVES OF FEARS?
PLACE AND TIME TEMPT FATES, BUT ALL LIFE’S NATURE IS TO DIE
OUR ERA, STARS, BOWS OUT, PLAYING ITS MUSICAL SPHERES
EVERY GAINED UTOPIAN GOAL MAKES US MANIFOLD TIME’S TREASURE
MAPPED OUT, AS ABOVE SO BELOW, NERGAL TICKS OFF TIME’S MEASURE

Probably the first Millennium Milepost seen by Three Points of the Compass. Passed while cycling the Tarka Trail in 2009
Probably the first Millennium Milepost seen, or at least noticed, by Three Points of the Compass. ‘Fossil’ post passed while cycling the Tarka Trail in 2009

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