Volunteers and community groups are being urged to get involved with a ground-breaking project to restore historic signposts in Somerset.
In response to stretched finances, the Somerset Fingerpost Restoration Project was set up by Somerset County Council and the Southwest Heritage Trust in 2016 to help preserve and protect the signs by harnessing the goodwill of volunteers and exploring alternative funding options.
Exmoor National Park Authority, with support from the Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund, has since run a hugely successful project in West Somerset with more than 100 volunteers recruited and more than 60 signs restored to date.
Communities in other parts of Somerset have also been able to secure sponsorship from local businesses or have successfully applied for grant funding to help pay for repairs. One example is Williton Parish Council, which has secured sponsorship funding from Magna Housing to restore some of its fingerposts.
More volunteers and community groups are now being sought to get involved to carry on work that the Council no longer has the money to fund.
Councillor John Woodman, Somerset County Council’s Cabinet Member for Highways, said: “We are very lucky in Somerset to have one of the most impressive collections of fingerposts in the country.
“With the strains on our finances we just don’t have the budget to restore these beautiful signs ourselves, but this is a fantastic example of communities coming together – with help from us – to take the responsibility on.
“It proves what we already knew, that there are amazing people out there willing to give something back. We’ve also found that community groups have access to sponsorship and grants which are not open to us. I’d urge anyone with an interest in preserving these iconic landmarks to get involved.”
Back in the 1960s, councils were advised to remove all fingerposts and replace them with the modern, standardised road signs which can now be found all over the country. In Somerset, this advice was ignored, and as a result the county still has a wonderful back catalogue of fingerposts.
Somerset County Council has cared for these unofficial highways signs for more than 60 years, but having had to find around £130m of savings and efficiencies over the last eight years, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify spending precious resources on non-mandatory services.
Somerset County Council and the Southwest Heritage Trust have produced a handbook that provides all the information required to enable community groups to decide if they would like to take part in this valuable project. It also contains a fascinating potted history of fingerposts in Somerset. You can view the handbook at http://www.somerset.gov.uk/policies-and-plans/schemes-and-initiatives/somerset-fingerpost-restoration-project/.
Exmoor National Park’s Charlotte Thomas, who is leading the Exmoor project, said: “The interest we’ve had from local communities has been just fantastic. We have teams of volunteers all over the project area who are helping out. There is even a group in Minehead who are a roving team and have helped refurbish signposts in neighbouring parishes.
“Others have kindly let me know when they have found broken fingers and we have been able to use local contractors to fix them. It just goes to show the important role these signposts play in the personal and regional history of Exmoor.”
Mike Neville and Stuart Lawrence, two volunteers from Minehead, have been busy working with others to restore numerous signposts along the A39. Mike said: “I got involved with the project because I wanted to make a difference in my local community and I’d noticed the signs starting to look scruffy.
“It’s really satisfying seeing them looking all pristine by the side of the road and good to know you’ve done your bit in restoring a local heirloom. I’ve even made a few friends along the way!”
Tony Murray, housing director for Magna Housing which is sponsoring Williton Parish Council’s fingerpost project, said: “We support the communities we are based in so we were really pleased to be able to help with this project. Fingerposts have been a part of our landscape for decades and we want to see their use continued. We really hope that other people are encouraged to join in and do what they can.”
Please contact your local parish council if you would like to get involved, or email firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.