The measure of things

An old milestone a reader spotted while queuing for the Kingswear to Dartmouth ferry in Devon

Following my column about milestones a couple of weeks back, I received a fascinating message from a reader who kindly sent me a picture of an old milestone he had spotted while queuing for the Kingswear to Dartmouth ferry in Devon (see picture).

He asked me to guess what the initials M-F-P stood for. I wasn’t sure, but was determined not to look online (And before I give you the answer, have a look at the picture above and see if you know what they stand for – and no cheating!).

In my dad’s column from 9th August 1980, he too had been contacted by a reader following his mention of milestones a couple of weeks before. A Mr G.R. Pennock from Barningham, near Richmond, told my dad of a very old stone ‘outside the Smallways Inn on the road from Bowes to Scotch Corner, now the A66.’

That stone, I believe, is still there, a short, squat thing with four sides with the following carved into each face: ‘CATTE RICK ROAD; BK14 1774; GREATA BRIDGE ROAD; RICHMOND ROAD’ and on one of the faces is also an arrowhead with a line across the top.

If you look at the picture with this piece, you will see that it also has the same arrowhead on the side (Another puzzle for you if you don’t already know what that means…).

The Smallways milestone is pretty easy to understand apart from ‘BK14’ which also has ‘1774’ beneath it. My dad guesses that ‘BK’ could be ancient initials for Barnard Castle, but then the ‘14’ isn’t right, as it is only around eight miles or so to Barnard Castle from there. They could perhaps refer to Bishop Auckland, which is 17 miles away, and as I have mentioned before, measurements for miles could vary in days of yore, so ‘14’ is not too far away from 17. If anyone has the definitive answer though, please do get in touch.

Going back to the arrow with a line across the top, when I showed the picture of the above milestone to my brother, he knew straight away what it was (I am convinced that my brother knows everything!).

And of course, my dad knew too, and he explains in his column that it would be a later addition to the ancient stone, and is a tool used by map makers Ordnance Survey to indicate that they have used this point to measure height above sea level. If you look at an OS map, there will be a contour line going through that very spot showing how high it lies. The marks can be found in all sorts of places, not just on way markers. They are inscribed on cairns on the moors, on the walls of houses, in fact anywhere where a contour line passes through. However, due to things like property development, land movement and just natural decay and destruction, they are no longer classed as a reliable source of information, and far more sophisticated systems are used these days for the accuracy of height above sea level.

Going back to the picture on this page, have you worked it out yet? I guessed the ‘M’ meant ‘mile’, and the ‘F’ meant ‘furlong’, but it was my mum who knew that the ‘P’ meant ‘perch’ or others might know it as ‘pole’. It is yet another ancient unit of measurement, the smallest of the three.

In other words, Newton is 16 miles, six furlongs and 24 perches/poles away from Kingswear, whereas Torquay is 12 miles, two furlongs and 14 perches/poles away. It strikes me that this is a very detailed description of distance, but I suppose if your only method of transport is your feet, then it helps to know as then you can judge exactly how long it might take you to walk to your destination.

These days it is far easier to find out such things. You just put your destination into an app and it will tell you how far away it is, and how long it should take you to get there, depending on your mode of transport.

For anyone who’d like to know though, according to Google Maps, it would take you 10 hours to walk the 34 miles, six furlongs and 29 poles from Kingswear to Exeter.

It makes me rather grateful to have a car.

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 7th August and the Gazette & Herald on 5th August 2020

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