Many trails in the UK pass through small villages and towns. Often found at these are village signs, unique to each location. Spare them a glance, for they can reveal a great deal.
While the name of a village or town will be shown in various forms at entrance roads, village signs are usually something quite different. They demonstrate pride and identity. They frequently illustrate local trade, craft, farming, history, personality, folklore or myth. Perhaps surprisingly, in their present guise they do not have a long history.
Some village signs will focus on historical peculiarities. The Suffolk village Framlingham boasts not one, but two extremely rare Victorian pillar boxes. When Mary Moore prepared drawings for her blacksmith husband Hector, she included one of the 1856 survivors on the village sign. Also included is the ancient village pump, church, castle, Coat of Arms and ducks on Framlingham Mere, the town pond. She went on to paint the sign prior to it being erected in 1991. The cost of the sign was raised by the local Womens Institute, who’s insignia appears just below the sign.
We have three Kings to thank for the (re)introduction and early promotion of village signs. Edward VII commissioned the Princess Alexandra School of Carving at Sandringham to produce signs for four villages on the Sandringham estate. George V made further commission for additional signs for other villages. His son, Prince Albert, later Duke of York, and still later, King George VI following the abdication of his brother, was their greatest champion. He gave a speech to the Royal Academy in 1920:
“The development of motor travelling has bought back to our highways some of the importance which they enjoyed in the old coaching days. I feel sure that many of my comrade motorists would welcome the revival of the village sign or emblem to the visitor in a strange land. The name of many a village would offer scope for the wit and humour of the artist. In the neighbourhood of Sandringham village, signs have been introduced with considerable success”Duke of York, speech at Royal Academy banquet, May 1920
Ever on the look out for a good story and opportunity for self-promotion, one of the national newspapers ran with the idea. The Daily Mail organised a design competition. The prizes on offer were considerable. First prize was £1000, second £500, third £200, fourth £100 and six runner up prizes of £50 each. There were 525 entries from across the UK and an exhibtion was staged in London in October 1920. The winners were St. Peter’s, Kent; Mayfield, Sussex; Battle, Sussex; no fourth prize, and only three of the six runner ups are known- Bromley, Kent; Biddenden, Kent; Widdecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon.
The great majority of village signs are found in the East and South East of England, particularly in their birthplace of Norfolk, but they also occur right across the remainder of England, with just a few examples also found in Wales and Scotland. In my home county of Kent, more than half of the villages have had a sign identified, of which I have seen but a fraction
Many signs have been erected since those first heady days of the 1920s. A great many were added on the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, again for her Silver, Golden and Diamond Jubilees in 1977, 2002 and 2012. A large number were also added for the Millennium in 2000 when many villages and towns were revisiting and exploring their roots and place in society. Additionally signs have been moved, repaired and replaced. Single signs have had another added elsewhere in the village. Local parish councils and village residents have pushed for their installation and the Rotary Club and Women’s Institute have been great driving forces.
Signs are most usually mounted on an oak post, with a concrete base. However there is also great variety in this informative addition to our street furniture. Some signs can instead be hung from buildings or other structures. The metal sign at Minnis Bay is fixed to the Beacon Brazier. Itself erected and lit on the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth in 2012.
Other signs can be atop metal posts, such as the examples at Crofton and Farnborough Village included below. More elaborate village signs may stand on a pinth, or form part of an ‘artistic’ offering on a stone, concrete or brick plinth. Some villages have installed a sculpture rather than sign and these have occasionally reflected more of a commissioned artist’s vision than that of a locality or residents.
Signs can be carved from wood and left bare or painted, be constructed of pierced metal, cast aluminium, concrete, carved from stone, even Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP) to enable brightly coloured scenes to be included. A member of the Otford Women’s Institute made their village sign herself.
Signs can be single or double sided. If double-sided, they may have the same face repeated, or feature a different design on each face. There aren’t really any rules and a great variety can be found. One thing is required though- the name of the village or town should always be included.
Some signs are perfect for their rural surroundings, even the artificiality of GRP signs can ‘weather in’ and not appear too incongruous. That said, Three Points of the Compass is not a fan of every village sign encountered on various trails and travels.
The sign, or more properly, village sculpture erected in the hillside town of Detling, Kent was sculpted by Surry artist Simon Buchanan from non-local Portland stone and erected for the Millennium in 2000.
With twenty thousand pounds of financial support from many sources-local parishioners, Arts Council England, Kent County Agricultural Society, Maidstone Borough Council, Detling Parish Council and a Kent Rural Action Grant, money seems to have been simply thrown at a desired outcome. Despite a shell on the main column referencing the badge carried by passing Pilgrims, the design is not particularly in tune with its surroundings and history and, adjoining stone Badger and Woodpecker aside, it is a poor effort and, unsurprisingly, also reputed to be the most expensive village sign ever constructed. Rather than a cockerel (referencing the local pub) emerging from the letter ‘D’, perhaps a White Elephant…
Village signs have occasionally featured in my blogs as they frequently illustrate particular aspects of the history of an area. When hiking at the eastern end of the Isle of Sheppey in Kent last summer, the sun was beating down on golden crops of cereal, the nearby marshes were home to nesting waders avoiding the quartering raptors. A hundred years previous, lumbering aircraft were taking faltering steps into the air and it is unsurprising that the local sign proudly includes not only local wildlife and sailing craft, but also proclaims Leysdown-on-Sea to be ‘the birthplace of aviation‘. Would a casual visitor know this if not informed by this sign?
Almost needless to say, there is a society for people interested in all things village sign. The Village Sign Society was founded in 1999 and members have identfied over 4000 examples, though many signs no longer exist. Sadly their database and photobase is only accessible to members but a great deal of information on individual signs also exists elsewhere online.
“They form an open air gallery of history, heraldry and humour, to which there is no admission charge”Brigid Chapman, author of The Village Signs of Sussex