Milestones Have Been Here Since the Roman Times

Milestones is an inclusive, encompassing term. The Romans, with their penchant for efficiency, constructed well-metalled roads to expedite the movement of soldiers and supplies across their vast Empire.

To aid in timing and efficiency, they possibly marked every thousandth double-step with a sizable cylindrical stone, a practice echoed in the surviving 117 such markers in the UK.

The Latin term for a thousand, ‘mille,’ corresponded to a distance of 1618 yards. Although the eventual British standard mile extended to 1760 yards, ‘long’ miles persisted into the 19th century. Post-Roman times saw roads adapting to local community needs.

In 1555, an Act of Parliament assigned responsibility for road upkeep to local parishes or townships in the North, emphasizing the significance of boundary markers. By 1697, Justices were mandated to erect guideposts at cross-highways and on the moors.


Journeying by road during this era was arduous, with sunken lanes transforming into quagmires in wet weather, occasionally resulting in the drowning of horses and riders. Covering the 400 miles from London to Edinburgh took a staggering 16 days.

From 1767, milestones became mandatory on all turnpikes, serving not only to inform travellers of direction and distances but also aiding coaches in adhering to schedules and facilitating charges for horse changes at coaching inns.

These distances were also instrumental in calculating postal charges until the introduction of the uniform postal rate in 1840. During the pinnacle of the turnpike era, 20,000 miles of roads were adorned with milestones, marking the enduring legacy of a transformative period in Britain’s road history.

Roman Milestones – Legacy in Britain’s Landscape

The roots of roadside milestones in Britain extend deep into antiquity, finding their earliest expressions in the well-organized road network established by the Romans during their occupation.

Roman Milestone At the junction between the minor road up and over Coldtown Fell and the A68, which here follows Dere Street, the Roman road.
Roman Milestone. At the junction between the minor road up and over Coldtown Fell and the A68, which here follows Dere Street, the Roman road. West Woodburn, Northumberland, England. Image Credit: Russel Wills

In the sprawling expanse of the Roman Empire, milestones served as essential markers along the meticulously constructed roads that connected distant provinces. As the Romans marched into Britain in the 1st century AD, they brought not only their military might but also a sophisticated understanding of infrastructure.

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Roman Control

Roman milestones were more than mere distance markers; they embodied imperial authority and the organizational prowess of the Roman state. Adorned with inscriptions, these stones not only measured the distance between locations but also symbolized the far-reaching arm of Roman control.

Britain, being a vital outpost of the Roman Empire, witnessed the construction of roads adorned with these markers, showcasing the efficiency and orderliness that characterized Roman engineering.

The legacy of Roman milestones persisted even after their withdrawal from Britain in the 5th century. While the Roman road network fell into disrepair during the subsequent centuries, the concept of marking distances endured.

Roman milestone on the former A66 between Kirkby Thore and Temple Sowerby (
Roman milestone on the former A66 between Kirkby Thore and Temple Sowerby

The remnants of Roman milestones, though scant, served as a subtle reminder of the advanced road infrastructure that once crisscrossed the landscape. As Britain transitioned through the early medieval period, characterized by uncertainty and diminished infrastructure, the notion of marking distances began to take root once again.

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While the formalized milestones of the Roman era had faded, the seeds of what would become the roadside milestones of later centuries were sown, awaiting the gradual revival of road networks and the resurgence of organized travel in medieval Britain.

Medieval Period Navigating the Uncertain Paths

The medieval period in Britain was marked by a tapestry of narrow, often unpaved roads, a stark departure from the well-maintained Roman thoroughfares that had once crisscrossed the landscape.

In an era where travel was often an arduous and unpredictable undertaking, the need for markers to guide wayfarers became increasingly apparent. While the grandeur of Roman milestones had faded, a more rudimentary form of distance marking emerged, reflecting the practical needs of medieval society.

Roman road near Hobbs Cross, Essex, and at this point within the civil parish of Theydon Mount. The Roman road from London to Dunmow passes under the M25 London Orbital Motorway just to the south-west and survives here as a bridleway
In essence, the medieval period set the stage for the reemergence of the concept of milestones.

During the medieval period, trade routes and pilgrimage trails gained prominence, connecting scattered settlements and fostering commerce. Along these paths, travelers encountered basic markers that took various forms, ranging from crosses to simple stones etched with directional indicators.

These early milestones served as humble yet crucial guides for pilgrims, merchants, and adventurers navigating the challenging terrain. As trade routes flourished, so did the significance of these primitive markers, hinting at a gradual resurgence of the need for organized navigation.

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Standardised Milestones

Pilgrims seeking religious sanctuaries, merchants transporting goods, and individuals embarking on journeys of various purposes relied on these basic markers to navigate the often treacherous medieval roads. These stones, marked with primitive inscriptions or symbols, hinted at distances and provided a semblance of order in an otherwise unpredictable travel landscape.

These relics of our past sit quietly and go unnoticed on the sides of our roads.
These relics of our past sit quietly and go unnoticed on the sides of our roads.

In essence, the medieval period set the stage for the reemergence of the concept of milestones. These markers, though modest in form, laid the groundwork for the more sophisticated and standardised milestones that would come to define Britain’s evolving road networks in the centuries that followed.

The medieval milestones, with their simple yet pragmatic approach to guiding travellers, reflected the resilience and adaptability of a society navigating the complexities of medieval life.

Renaissance and Tudor Era

As Britain transitioned from the medieval period to the Renaissance and Tudor era, a renewed spirit of exploration and intellectual curiosity permeated society.

The Renaissance, with its emphasis on humanism and a revived interest in classical knowledge, brought about a transformation in various facets of life, including navigation. During this era, the concepts of mapping and navigation gained renewed attention, laying the groundwork for more sophisticated milestones.

The travellers of the past would still recognise them today. Carved from local bedrock, you may also see them made from cast iron.
The travellers of the past would still recognise them today. Carved from local bedrock, you may also see them made from cast iron.

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The Tudor monarchs, particularly Elizabeth I, presided over an era that saw the establishment of postal routes and an increased focus on communication and commerce.

These developments necessitated a more formalized approach to road networks and, by extension, the need for clearer markers to guide travellers. While the roads of this period were still far from the modern highways we know today, there was a discernible shift towards organized travel.

In the Renaissance and Tudor era, milestones evolved from the rudimentary markers of the medieval period into more structured stones, often bearing inscriptions indicating distances to significant destinations.

Standardised Navigation

These markers, though not yet uniform, marked a departure from the simplicity of earlier milestones and reflected a growing awareness of the importance of standardised navigation. The burgeoning network of roads connecting towns and regions demanded clearer guidance for travellers, and milestones began to play an increasingly pivotal role in facilitating these journeys.

Old Milepost by the B4204, north of Rochford Mount, Rochford Parish
Old Milepost by the B4204, north of Rochford Mount, Rochford Parish

This era marked a pivotal moment in the history of milestones in Britain, as they transitioned from being primarily practical markers to symbols of a changing society. The increased emphasis on mapping, trade, and communication during the Renaissance laid the foundation for the more systematic approach to milestones that would be embraced in the subsequent centuries.

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The Renaissance and Tudor era milestones, with their evolving designs and clearer inscriptions, hinted at the growing importance of efficient navigation and connectivity in shaping the landscape of Britain’s roads.

Turnpike Trusts and the Systematic Milestones

The 17th and 18th centuries marked a transformative period for Britain’s road infrastructure with the establishment of turnpike trusts. As the demand for improved roads grew, turnpike trusts emerged as organizations responsible for maintaining and upgrading these vital thoroughfares.

This era witnessed a departure from the ad-hoc nature of earlier milestones, as the systematic placement of milestones became a hallmark of the evolving road network. Turnpike trusts funded road improvements through toll collection, and milestones played a pivotal role in this financial model.

Old Milestone by the A44, Gore, Old Radnor parish, Walton, Powys, Wales
Old Milestone by the A44, Gore, Old Radnor parish, Walton, Powys, Wales

The stones, often made of durable materials like stone or cast iron, were strategically placed along turnpike roads to indicate distances between toll gates and major destinations. These milestones were not only practical navigational aids but also served as visible reminders of toll payment obligations.

The 17th and 18th centuries saw a standardization of milestones, both in design and information provided. Clear inscriptions detailing distances to nearby towns or milestone markers from significant locations became a common feature.

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Stagecoaches Became a Popular

The systematic approach to road maintenance and the increasing commercial importance of well-maintained routes contributed to the widespread adoption of these uniform milestones.

These centuries witnessed an unprecedented growth in trade, commerce, and travel. Stagecoaches became a popular means of transportation, and milestones played an integral role in guiding coachmen and passengers alike.

Old Milestone by the A93, north of Campsie Hill, Guildtown, Perth And Kinross, Scotland
Old Milestone by the A93, north of Campsie Hill, Guildtown, Perth And Kinross, Scotland

The stones were not merely markers; they were symbols of progress and an emerging consciousness about the importance of organized travel.

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The milestones of the 17th and 18th centuries, with their standardized appearance and clear information, mirrored the growing sophistication of Britain’s road networks. As the turnpike system expanded, milestones became indispensable for travellers and a testament to the increasing organization and connectivity of the nation’s evolving transportation infrastructure.

Milestones & the Golden Age of Coaching

The 18th and early 19th centuries marked the zenith of road travel in Britain, ushering in the golden age of coaching.

This era, synonymous with the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages and the rhythmic beat of hooves on well-maintained roads, saw the emergence of milestones as indispensable guides for both coachmen and passengers. The coaching system, with its extensive network of routes connecting towns and cities, brought about a heightened demand for clear and reliable navigational markers.

Stage coach outside a coaching Inn
The Ashopton Inn, bustling coaching inn which was just as popular with visiting tourists as it was with local villagers.

Milestones during this golden age evolved into more refined and standardized forms. Crafted from durable materials like stone, these markers bore clear inscriptions indicating distances to significant destinations. As coaching routes proliferated, milestones became essential for estimating travel times, ensuring timely arrivals, and facilitating the efficient operation of coaching inns and rest stops along the way.

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The coaching era was characterized by a spirit of adventure and a sense of interconnectedness as stagecoaches crisscrossed the country, connecting remote villages to bustling urban centres.

Milestones are a Hangover

The milestones, strategically positioned along these well-travelled routes, not only provided practical guidance but also symbolized the progress and sophistication of Britain’s expanding road networks.

These milestones were witness to the comings and goings of a diverse array of passengers – from intrepid travellers and business magnates to mail carriers and everyday citizens.

The milestones are a hangover from our turnpike era, there was one every mile along the turnpike. Sadly, and perhaps ironically, we have lost many to modern day road improvements.

Their inscriptions, chiselled with precision, reflected a commitment to clarity in navigation and an acknowledgment of the significance of measured distances in the journey of a rapidly changing society.

The coaching era not only transformed the experience of travel but also elevated milestones to a prominent status in the collective consciousness. The stones, standing as silent sentinels along the roads, became emblematic of the flourishing road culture and the spirit of enterprise that defined this golden age.

As the wheels of progress turned, milestones guided the way, leaving an indelible mark on the landscape of Britain’s historic roads.

Milestones in the Victorian Era

The Victorian era in Britain, spanning the 19th century, witnessed a profound transformation in various facets of society, and the realm of transportation was no exception.

Read More: How Were Roman Roads Built?

With the Industrial Revolution in full swing, road networks became vital arteries for the burgeoning industries, and milestones played an evolving role in guiding this period of unprecedented growth. As the steam engine revolutionized industries and railways crisscrossed the nation, roads underwent substantial improvements to complement the changing landscape.

Old Milestone by the A5, Milestone Buttress, Capel Curig parish, Pont Pen-y-Benglog, Conwy, Wales
Old Milestone by the A5, Milestone Buttress, Capel Curig parish, Pont Pen-y-Benglog, Conwy, Wales

The Victorian era saw a heightened emphasis on connectivity, and milestones adapted to the needs of an increasingly mobile society. These stones, now often made of cast iron, continued to bear inscriptions but also reflected the changing nature of travel and commerce.

Victorian milestones, strategically placed along roads, not only indicated distances to nearby towns but often incorporated references to railway stations. This interconnectedness of road and rail marked a new era of transportation synergy, with milestones serving as pivotal markers for travellers navigating the expanding network of both road and rail routes.

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Milestones Became Integral

The increased focus on commerce and trade during the Victorian era further elevated the importance of milestones. With a network of turnpikes and a burgeoning road infrastructure, milestones became integral to the efficient movement of goods and people.

They were not only practical markers but also symbols of progress, reflecting the dynamism of a society hurtling towards industrialization.

During this era, milestones also reflected the Victorian penchant for standardization. The stones adopted more uniform designs, making them easily recognizable as part of a cohesive system. This standardization, coupled with improved road surfaces and the advent of more reliable transportation, enhanced the overall navigational experience for travellers.

As Britain embraced the advancements of the Victorian age, milestones stood as witnesses to the transformative power of progress.

Whether guiding the wheels of a horse-drawn carriage or signalling the approach to a railway station, Victorian milestones etched a dynamic story of a society navigating the complexities of an industrialized and interconnected world.

Safeguarding the Silent Witnesses of the Road

In the contemporary era, as the landscape of transportation evolves, milestones stand as silent witnesses to the rich tapestry of Britain’s road history.

Recognising the intrinsic value of these markers as cultural artifacts and historical links, there has been a commendable effort to preserve and celebrate their heritage. Organizations and enthusiasts, driven by a passion for history, have taken up the mantle of safeguarding these humble yet significant stones.

Milestone by the A583, Preston New Road, Blackpool
Milestone by the A583, Preston New Road, Blackpool

Preservation initiatives have sought to ensure the physical integrity of milestones, preventing their deterioration due to weathering or vandalism. Restoration projects, often undertaken with meticulous care, aim to bring these markers back to their original glory, allowing them to continue telling the tales of bygone journeys.

Beyond physical conservation, milestones have found a place in heritage initiatives that aim to educate the public about their historical significance.

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Interpretive signage, often accompanying well-preserved milestones, narrates their stories, detailing their role in guiding travellers through different epochs of British history. Museums and historical sites also showcase milestones, providing a tangible link to the past and fostering a deeper appreciation for the evolution of road travel.

Preserving Milestones

The recognition of milestones as cultural heritage extends beyond their functional purpose. These markers, with their inscriptions and distinctive designs, are emblematic of the changing societal attitudes towards navigation and connectivity.

Preserving milestones becomes an act of celebrating the resilience of a nation’s roadways and the enduring impact of milestones on the landscape.

In essence, the preservation and heritage efforts surrounding milestones contribute to the collective memory of a nation. They serve as poignant reminders of the journeys undertaken, the progress made, and the ever-changing nature of British roads.

Through these initiatives, milestones continue to be not only markers of distance but also timeless storytellers, weaving narratives of a road network that has shaped the contours of British history.