Image: on Kew Road, Richmond upon Thames.
*from “The Rolling English Road” (1913), by G.K. Chesterton.
“Milestones (Latin: Miliarium) were originally stone obelisks – made from granite, marble, or whatever local stone was available – and later concrete posts. They were widely used by Roman Empire road builders and were an important part of any Roman road network: the distance travelled per day was only a few miles in some cases. Many Roman milestones only record the name of the reigning emperor without giving any placenames or distances. The first Roman milestones appeared on the Appian way. At the centre of Rome, the “Golden Milestone” was erected to mark the presumed centre of the empire: this milestone has since been lost. The Golden Milestone inspired the Zero Milestone in Washington, D.C., intended as the point from which all road distances in the United States should be reckoned. Odometers were used to measure the Roman milestone spacing, most likely based on Ancient Greek Technology.”
From the website of the Milestone Society:
“The Romans laid good metalled roads to move soldiers and supplies quickly across their Empire: they measured distance to aid timing and efficiency, possibly marking every thousandth double-step with a large cylindrical stone. 117 still survive in the UK. The Latin for thousand was ‘mille’ and the distance was 1618 yards; the eventual British standard mile was 1760 yards, although ‘long’ miles also existed into the 19th century. After Roman times, roads developed to meet local community needs: in 1555, an Act of Parliament made local parishes (or often townships in the North) responsible for their upkeep and boundary markers became important. In 1697, the Justices were ordered to erect guideposts at cross-highways and on the moors.
At this time, travel by road was slow and difficult. The sunken lanes became quagmires in wet weather and occasionally both horses and riders were drowned. It took 16 days to cover the 400 miles from London to Edinburgh. So Turnpike Trusts were set up, by Acts of Parliament, from 1706 to the 1840s. Groups of local worthies raised money to build stretches of road and then charged the users tolls to pay for it – just like the ‘M6 Toll’ today. The name ‘turnpike’ comes from the spiked barrier at the Toll Gate or Booth. The poor bitterly resented having to pay to use the roads and there were anti-turnpike riots.
From 1767, mileposts were compulsory on all turnpikes, not only to inform travellers of direction and distances, but to help coaches keep to schedule and for charging for changes of horses at the coaching inns.
The distances were also used to calculate postal charges before the uniform postal rate was introduced in 1840. At the height of the turnpike era, there were 20,000 miles of roads with milestones.
From the 1840s, rail travel overtook road for longer journeys and many turnpike trusts were wound up. In 1888, the new County Councils were given responsibility for main roads and rural district councils for minor routes. As faster motorised transport developed so the importance of the milestones waned.
‘Milestone’ is a generic term, including mileposts made of cast iron. Such waymarkers are fast disappearing; around 9000 are thought to survive in the UK. Most were removed or defaced in World War II to baffle potential German invaders and not all were replaced afterwards. Many have been demolished as roads have been widened, or have been victims of collision damage, or have been smashed by hedge-cutters or flails.
Nowadays, roadside milestones generally fall within the remit of the local Highways Authority or the Highways Agency and their contractors.”
“Long ago, ancient Romans placed stone pillars called “obelisks” along the sides of roadways. Typically, the stones were placed a mile apart. Each “mile stone” was given a unique number, serving as a mile marker.
Today most people are familiar with the word “milestone,” but we use it in a slightly different way. Our modern-day use was inspired by the Romans’ ancient practice. Just as Roman mile stones helped travelers know how far they had come on their journey, our modern use of this expression does the same thing.
Instead of marking our journey on an actual road, however, milestones mark significant events in our lives. People reach milestones throughout their lives. You may not realize it, but you have already reached many milestones in your life, too.
As a baby, you reached milestones when you learned how to roll over, crawl, stand up and, finally, walk. Children celebrate many milestones as they grow up: learning to read, riding a bicycle without training wheels, getting — and losing — your first tooth and going to school for the first time are just a few examples.
You’ve got your whole future ahead of you — and that means many more milestones ahead!…”