There are nine Roman milestones in Cumbria. Five of them, uprooted, and displayed in Tullie House, no longer serve their primary function. Their severely eroded sandstone faces record the might of once-proud emperors. One, just a worn sandstone stump, protected by iron railings, stands exactly where the Romans placed it, but today it marks the peaceful A66 as it carries local traffic through the by-passed Temple Sowerby. Another stands in a field in Langhwathby and a third is preserved in Brougham Castle. The fourth was ploughed up in a field near Sedburgh and re-erected where cows could scratch their hides against its rough surface. Today it bears an additional inscription recording, in Latin, of course, that it was restored from the soil by Giles Moore in 1836.
Otherwise, nothing remains of those welcome stones that told the Roman legionaries that they were yet another mile closer to their destination.
The Middle Ages had little truck with roads. Horses and pack-horses made their muddy way across the country, but Queen Elizabeth passed an act in 1555 requiring every parishioner to contribute four days a year to the maintenance of the highway. By 1691 there were minimum standards requiring roads leading to market towns to be “even, level and at least eight feet wide”. Milestones were few and far between. One outside the Greyhound Hotel in Shap which was built in 1703 tells the traveller that he has X6 miles to go to Standal and XI to Penrith.
The milestone came into its own with the turnpike road at the end of the eighteenth century. They told the traveller not only how far he had to go, but how much he had to pay.
The first turnpike between Carlisle and Workington was established in 1753. The road ran through Wigton and along to the coast at Allonby before turning south to Maryport and Workington. A later act for “repairing the road from the city of Carlisle in the County of Cumberland to the Market and Sea-port town of Workington in the said County” has the turnpike going through “ Raffles, Kelhouses, Woodhouses, Micklethwaite, Wigton, Red Diall, Meals Yate, Bothell, Black Cock, the West End of Cockermouth, Bridgefoot and Stainburne”.
The Carlisle-Cockermouth road is distinguished by its milestones. “There are two differently inscribed cast iron plaques attached to the red sandstone pillars. Together they provide the longest series of milestones in the County – 17 in their original positions, two moved a short distance because of road improvements, and one in private hands.”
Many of the old toll houses on these various turnpikes are still to be seen today, often marked by their protruding bay windows which served for the collecting of the tolls. There are distinctive ones at Waverton and Wampool, Arkleby and Calva Brow, Dearham and many other places throughout the county.
The old milestones mark the major roads of yesteryear. They are a unique trace of long-gone commerce. Many are now lost, buried or abandoned by road improvements and the earnest motorist lacks the pedestrian’s concern with recording each individual mile.
Colin Smith’s enthusiasm for these neglected markers has led him to lovingly record every milestone and milepost and every toll house in the county. He has photographed many of these worn and weary stones with their black inscriptions in quaint lettering and he provides a full listing of the location of all those which still survive.
Hidden in the grass at the side of the road, unnoticed by the speeding drivers and the devouring bulldozers, they are a unique record which should be treasured and not neglected.