24 May 2002

How longs a country mile? As long as you wanted it…

When is a mile not a mile? At one time

it depended where you lived as

Tom Montgomery discovers

BEWARE the country mile. It has more stretch than a bunji jumpers elastic. The reason, according to retired lecturer Howard Smith, is that there used to be long miles, middlin miles and short miles. If you lived in Yorkshire and Derbyshire you had further to go to cover a mile. Ten furlongs as opposed to todays standardised eight. Kent had the longest mile, around London they were shorter and some counties had three different lengths for a mile.

That is how they measured things in the past. At local, not national level, until the statute mile was introduced.

As late as the 18th century moving around the countryside was a hazardous business, as old burial registers will testify. "Starvd to death on the moors" is a familiar entry in the days when there were no guides.

Practical maps were not available until 1760 and were restricted to the wealthy and the literate. With no signposts, few landmarks and the ever-present threat of a change in the weather, navigation in the countryside, especially moorland, posed many problems. Most travel took place in the summer and local people would only make an occasional journey.

&#42 Guidestones

In 1697 the government permitted the erection of guidestones, known in the North of England as stoops, the Viking word for stone. They were set up at crossroads and inscribed with the name of the next market town or settlement "to which each of the joining highway leads". After 1738 the distance in miles was added.

These early wayside markers had only a short life, being superseded by milestones and turnpike roads. But some are still there and Howard has tracked many of them down in the Peak District and written the first books specifically devoted to them.

"Stoops were the first time the government took an interest in guiding travellers in the countryside. They were mostly placed on trade routes, such as pack horse trails and bridleways in remote moorland areas like the Peak District. In other, better-populated parts of the country, travellers could ask for directions," he said.

"Virtually all those described in my book have been listed grade II."

Stoops are usually free-standing, square columns, about five-feet high and weighing half-a-tonne. Nobody knows how many were erected. Since they became redundant a number have been broken up or moved from their original location. Farmers have reused them as gateposts, saving them in the process, and in the last war some were dug up and stored or buried to confuse the Germans if they invaded.

&#42 Landscape expert

Howard, an expert on the old routes of our ancient rural landscape, says it is only recently that local historians have begun to be aware of these interesting relics. Those within the Peak Park have been recorded as "treasures". His books, The Guide Stoops of the Dark Peak and The Guide Stoops of Derbyshire are among nine he has written on local history. They are available from him at 9 Woodland Road, Sheffield, S8 8PD. Price £5.55.