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Trail talk: Village Signs

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.

Puttenham village sign, passed on the North Downs Way
Puttenham village sign, passed on the North Downs Way

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.

Brancaster village sign, passed on the Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path
Brancaster village sign, wood carving on oak post, made by The Village Sign People. passed on the Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path. Below the Roman soldier, the old Roman name for the village appears- Branodunum
Pirton village sign, passed on the Icknield Way
Pirton village sign, simple wood carving on oak post, passed on the Icknield Way
Sheringham village sign, passed Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path. The sign was erected in 1977 on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth the Second
Sheringham village sign, Iroko wood carving on oak post, passed on the Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path. Superb carvings reference the location, between the pines and the sea. The sign was erected in 1977 on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth the Second
Framlingham village sign
Framlingham village sign was made by the blacksmith of neighbouring village Kettleburgh.

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.

Pillar box at Framlingham is one of the oldest boxes still in use in the country and is featured on the village sign. Box cast by Andrew Handyside of Derby in 1856.

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:

Village sign at Great Chesterford, passed on the Icknield Way
Village sign at Great Chesterford, passed on the Icknield Way. Different panels appear on the two sides of the sign

“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.

Platt Parish
Platt Parish sign features hops and cobnuts, found in profusion in the area.

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

Village sign at Platt Parish, passed on the London Countryway
Village sign at Platt Parish is situated on the small green beside the village church, passed while walking the London Countryway. Sign erected for the Millennium, 2000

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.

Village signs became a popular subject for picture postacrds. Almost a way of putting a pin in a map and telling someone- "this is where I am". The village sign at Widdecombe-in-the-Moor was one of the original prizewinners in 1920. Postcard postally used in April 1928
Village signs became a popular subject for picture postcards. Almost a way of putting a pin in a map and telling the recipient- “this is where I am”. The village sign at Widdecombe-in-the-Moor was one of the original prizewinners in 1920. Postcard postally used in April 1928
Glass Reinforced Plastic sign at Dagnall. Passed on the Icknield Way
Sign on village green at Dagnall. Passed on the Icknield Way
Glass Reinforced Plastic sign at Dagnall. Passed on the Icknield Way
Glass Reinforced Plastic panels on the sign at Dagnall ensure it’s long term survival

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.

Minnis Bay Thanet Kent Diamond Jubilee tower 2012
The simple Minnis Bay sign hangs from the Beacon Brazier. Erected 2012. Passed on the Saxon Shore Way
The North Downs Way passes close to the brick and stone village sign at Detling, Kent. Erected for the millennium in 2000
The North Downs Way and Pilgrims Way pass close to the brick and stone village sign at Detling. Erected 2000

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…

Perforated metal village sign at Rodmersham Green
Perforated metal village sign at Rodmersham Green features cherries and apples hanging from the top frame. Erected October 2013 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth in 2012
Perforated metal village sign at Chilham
Village sign at Chilham. The hanging fruit on this sign forms part of the perforated metal design
Perforated metal village sign at Harvel
Rural scenes abound on the perforated metal village sign at Harvel, passed on the London Countryway
Pierced metal sign at Leysdown on Sea shows not only local wildlife but focuses on its place in aviation history
Pierced metal sign at Leysdown-on-Sea shows local wildlife and also focuses on it’s place in aviation history

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?

Village sign at Cliffsend informs us of a diverse local history encompassing both Vikings and Hovercraft
Panelled village sign at Cliffsend informs us of a diverse local history encompassing both the Vikings that landed here and the World’s first international hoverport that operated from here
Crofton village sign, passed on the London LOOP
Crofton village sign, passed on the London LOOP
Farnborough Village sign, passed on the London LOOP
Farnborough Village sign, passed on the London LOOP

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

4 replies »

  1. An excellent choice of topic.Good information accompanied with explanatory photographs.

    Like

  2. Living in Norfolk, the ‘birthplace’ as you rightly say, there are certainly many, many village signs to see. Thanks for the info and pictures of others. I think Leysdown is my favourite.

    Like

    • Thanks for commenting Jenny, and I happen to know, there is a rather lovely village sign, on a small triangle of grass, not far from where you live…

      Like

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