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Norfolk's Milestones - Nigel Ford

Milestones are simple, but powerful, links to our past. 2017 Angel Awards winner for Best Rescue, Recording or Interpretation of a Historic Place, Nigel Ford, has managed a project to recover and restore hundreds of milestones across Norfolk - and his work is clear for everyone to see.

What began with a single milestone and one man’s determination to restore it has become an epic, collective quest as Nigel Ford and his team of volunteers have criss-crossed Norfolk to restore and reinstate many of the county’s 350 ancient milestones. The work continues, but the legacy of the project is already visible for all who travel through the county.

Nigel Ford at the Anmer milestone, Norfolk
Nigel Ford at the Anmer milestone, Norfolk © Historic England

A personal mission

Most of Norfolk’s milestones are made of limestone and date from the early 1800s, though some dating from the turn of the 19th century are made of cast-iron. After discovering one that had been severely damaged by a flail-cutter and - dismayed by its neglect - Milestone Society member Nigel Ford decided to make it his personal mission to recover and restore hundreds of way-markers.

Some of the milestones had been untouched since the Second World War, including one at Great Snoring, which the Milestone Society believes might have been buried as a security measure because of its proximity to Little Snoring airfield where a German airman was reported to have landed and surrendered. That milestone was recovered and restored after being buried for more than 70 years. Other milestones were found buried under brambles and badly broken.

As the scope of Nigel’s project grew he asked the community for help, organised a team of volunteers and passed on his passion for the roadside markers. Even HRH The Prince of Wales got involved by helping to paint Roman numerals on the Amner milestone on the Sandringham Estate, which is dated 1764 and believed to be Norfolk’s oldest recorded milestone.

Four children (two girls and two boys) from Downham Preparatory School help Nigel Ford to give the Stow Bardolph milestone its first coat of paint.
School children from Downham Preparatory School give the Stow Bardolph milestone its first coat of paint. © Nigel Ford

Creating a piece of history

In carrying out this project, Nigel truly left no stone unturned; but it is the way in which he generated enthusiasm and passion for the project that really provided momentum. To inspire children about the history of their area, he involved 24 primary schools, as well as one Brownie pack and several groups of Venturer Scouts.

“It was really surprising to see how interested the children were in the work,” said Nigel. “First, it was the physical side of doing something practical that they enjoyed. Then they realised that they were creating something that would be there for many years to come; in fact, they were creating history.”

The children relished the opportunity to get stuck in to the practical side of repairing the milestones and asked questions that put him on the spot, said Nigel. Involving children in the preservation of the milestones has made him particularly proud, he said, as does the way in which the roadside stones have brought the generations together and spanned the centuries, sometimes in surprising ways. In 2014 - the year the Brownie movement celebrated its 100th anniversary - some local Brownies took part in repainting the 100th milestone (marking 100 miles to London) and the event was attended by Nigel's late aunt (who was then in her hundredth year).

For Nigel, the process has been a steep learning curve, from working out which paints to use and how to repair cracked cast-iron, to asking stonemasons for help. At every step, he has passed on this practical knowledge as well as his passion, including encouraging local communities to “adopt a milestone”, which they would ensure remains free of brambles and litter.

HRH The Prince of Wales paints Roman numerals on the Anmer milestone while Nigel Ford looks on.
Nigel Ford looks on as HRH The Prince of Wales paints Roman numerals on the Anmer milestone as part of its restoration.

Outcomes

Several years after Nigel began his one-man quest to uncover Norfolk’s milestones and mileposts, around 150 of the stone and cast-iron way-markers have been rescued and preserved and can now be seen along the highways and byways of Norfolk. He is still inspiring a team of volunteers to unearth any milestones that are damaged or have simply been neglected.

A volunteer helps Nigel Ford move the Anmer milestone aided by a supporting rope.
A volunteer helps Nigel Ford move the Anmer milestone aided by a supporting rope. © Nigel Ford

Why this category?

Nigel has worked tirelessly (in consultation with Norfolk County Council, parish councils, residents and landowners) to recover every accessible milestone in the county. He is educating others about the history of their area in the time before tarmacked roads, when simple stones guided travellers through the county. Of course, said Nigel, there have been obstacles along the way; some of the stones marked on Ordnance Survey maps have never been located, and some bureaucracy has occasionally proved challenging. However, Nigel has also surpassed his own expectations. He has now compiled a book of photographs called 'Moving Miles: restoring Norfolk’s Milestones with the Help of Children, Royalty and Hard Work' which is being sold to fund future work. Carol Haines of the Milestone Society has now recorded the location and condition of hundreds of Norfolk's milestones. Thanks to Nigel and his colleagues and many volunteers, this piece of Norfolk's history will be preserved for future generations.

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