Guidestones and Milestones - marking the way

Sometimes noticed but not read; hidden in the roadside verges, or standing proud and clean, marking the way.  ‘Milestones’ can still be seen along most of our main roads.  They have their origin in Roman times and throughout the 17th to 19th centuries were essential to the horse-drawn traffic using the main routes between key towns.

The Romans laid good metalled roads and introduced the first organised system of signposting on British highways by marking every thousandth double-step with a large cylindrical stone and 117 have been found in the UK of which 5 are in Cornwall.  The stones bear an inscription relating to the Emperor of the time rather than giving information on distance to the next town. One stands inside St Breaca, the parish church of Breage (photo1); others are at the church of St Hilary, near Marazion, (203/550313); in a private garden at Menheer Farm, Busveal, near Redruth (203/719418); at St Piran’s Chapel, Trethevey, Tintagel (200/076891) and another inside the church of St Materiana, Tintagel (200/050884).

After Roman times, roads developed to meet local community needs as horse-drawn carts and carriages followed the easier routes between hamlets and villages creating the winding country lanes and the old main roads which still remain.  An Act of Parliament in 1555 made local parishes responsible for their upkeep and boundary markers became important.  The Highways Act 1663 brought was the first Turnpike Act and subsequently some 1706 Turnpike Trusts and involved local justices, although from 1706 the norm for the next 130 years was to involve independent people rather than justices.

Under the General Turnpike Act 1766 milestones became compulsory on all turnpike roads and the General Turnpike Act 1773 enabled the establishment of ‘Turnpike Trusts’ which were required to erect distance signs to nearest towns along the turnpikes.  Fifteen Trusts were set up in Cornwall between 1754 and 1863 to improve some 380 miles of roads and ‘That the said Trustees’, or any five or more of them, may, and that they are hereby impowered (sic) and required, to cause the said road to be measured and milestones or posts set up on the sides thereof, with inscriptions to be made thereon, denoting the number of miles, and distances to places, as they, or any five or more of them shall think fit.’  This was to be the statute mile of 1760 yards to end the use of the long mile or local estimates of distances.   The last Turnpike Trust ended 1885 and from 1889 the newly formed County Councils became responsible for main roads and Trusts were ended.  Then in 1894 rural district councils were required to accept responsibility for local roads.  

As ‘Trusts’ were a local initiative it was inevitable that there would be a great variety in the stones carved by local stone masons.  The standard, and style, of lettering and spelling found on the stones varies with the locality, some being well set out and carved whilst others are crude with no alignment of the lettering.   Many of these survive in their original form and location, but others have been lost or re-positioned due to road re-alignment or a completely new road has left them dotted along the ancient route. 

Two types of stones survive and Cornwall’s roads seem to show every example of ‘Guidestones’, which has the name of the place, or places, being approached on the face seen by the passing traffic, and ‘Milestones’ which also show a distance to the place(s). 

Most of the Guidestones are triangular and the two roadside faces show the places in opposite directions.  Some of the best guidestones are in the Penwith area and many of them have a finger pointing the direction.  These have been designated ‘fingerstones’ in recent times and were made by local stonemasons Billy Foss and Henry Quick.

Fingerstones are also found in other parts of the county; on the A394 to the east of Helston at Trevenan Bal (203/686299) and three in St Keverne (204/775224 and 744218) and there is a single one at St Veep (200/150568) but these are not so ornate as those in Penwith.

Block 1

There is not a consistent style as each Trust ‘did their own thing’, hence there are some very elaborate stones, eg those at Crows-an-Wra (203/395276) (2) and east of St Just on the A3071 (203/381309) (3) which might be the finest guidestones anywhere as compared with the one at Reperry Cross, Lanivet (200/046633) (4) which is rather crude.  A guidestone of a different design is near Pencarrow House as it has a square capstone (200/057721) (5).  This is on top of a short pillar whilst others in the area are atop pillars of varying heights.  A unique guidestone is positioned near Key Bridge, St Breward (200/087738) which also serves as the support for a fingerpost.   

Another interesting guidestone is at Crill Corner, Budock (204/783310) (6).  The top is triangular giving directions to Penryn, Falmouth and Mawgan with the date 1828 and the lower part of the pillar is rectangular.  It once stood in the middle of the three-way junction but is now re-positioned in the verge with one face unseen. 

Block 2

Spelling is an interesting feature on stones in the St Austell area. It is ‘St Austle’ on the 1776 guidestone pillar at Reperry Cross (200/046633) (7); ‘St Austel’ on the milestones along the A394 between Grampound and St Austell (204/952489) (8); and ‘St Austell’ on milestones along the B3287 between Sticker and Tregony.  One has an interesting ‘error’ with St Ostell and an ‘A’ over the ‘O’ (204/957473) (9).  Most stones show short names in full, longer names such as Lostwithiel have a localised short-form, or 4 letters per line if given in full.  Of note are two guidestones near St Veep (200/146561) and the other is a fingerstone (200/150568) which show the direction to ‘FOY’, the pronunciation of ‘Fowey’, (via the Bodinnick Ferry) whilst one south-west of Crowlas, near Penzance (203/511325) shows the distance to Hale whilst others along the road show ‘Hayle’.

Block 3

The ‘Milestone’ usually has the distance in whole miles shown with the place being approached, but some Trusts showed fractions of a mile.  Going west on the A30 from Penzance the milestones show a single figure (203/397326) (10), so local knowledge is required as to where, or from, you would be travelling.  But in those days most people did not travel far, the next parish being the limit for many.  The stones of some Trusts show the town being approached given as the initial letter and a figure, so H 7 and T 10, indicates 7 miles to, or from, Helston and Truro 10 miles (204728346) (11). Another style is B above 5 (200/137651), or 5 above B (204/013624) indicating Bodmin 5 miles.  Similar abbreviations appear within local areas throughout the county as C is for Callington, L refers either to Launceston, Liskeard, Lostwithiel or Land’s End in the west; P for Penzance whilst R is Redruth.

Distances are given in Roman or Arabic numerals depending upon the preference of the Trust.  Fractions are easy with Arabic numbering but what of the Roman style.  That is answered along the A394 between Grampound and St Austell as the Roman numeral bears a shortened digit to indicate ‘half (204/952489) (8)’.  A stone in Alexandra Rd, St Austell (204/018523) is unusual as it shows both Arabic and Roman figures.

Block 4

There are some unusual stones; two stones near Callington show distances measured in ‘poles’, the one near South Hill, north-west of Callington, shows ‘C over 6 Furlongs 25 Poles’ (201/346700) (12); the Saltash Trust Turnpike Boundary stone near Trerulefoot (201/328588) is unique in giving the distance as ‘7M 22P 1Y’ or 7 miles 122 yards.  

Milestones erected by the Truro Trust are consistent in style all showing ‘From Truro x Miles’ and Threemilestone is the only village in England named after a milestone (204/780450) (13).

Block 5

Along the B3275 through Ladock to Indian Queens the milestones show distances to London (204/876469) (14); these being through the towns of Bodmin, Launceston, Okehampton, Exeter, Honiton and Shaftesbury etc, along the ‘old A30 route’ so the distances are no longer accurate given the many realignment works to the road over recent years.

However, some routes have changed over the centuries.  Roads were little more than tracks, widening in places to avoid an obstacle, or provide a passing place.  Preferred routes probably avoided areas prone to flooding or steep hills too difficult for heavily loaded horse-drawn carts, with carters not wishing to suffer broken wheels and axles.  The gentry, in their postchaises, would expect to travel in comfort without too many bumps and jolts or coming across drovers with large herds, and peasants walking.  In those days a main route going west from Truro was through Perranwell and Stithians towards Rame hence the milestones marking the route along Old Tretheague Bridge Road west of Stithians (204/766386) (15).  Perhaps this was the preferred road for the transporting of grain to, and milled produce from, Tretheague Mill near Rame. 

Block 6



Likewise, a route from Helston to Redruth left the present B3297 at Trenear and 7 milestones mark the route through Porkellis and Carnmenellis (204/704364) (16) to re-join the B3297 at Buller Downs, just south of Redruth.


The majority of stones are granite but there is a group of Slate Milestones on the road from Bude to Highampton, Devon dating from the 1870s erected by the Holsworthy District Highway Board.



Not all guidestones and milestones were ‘Trust’ stones.  The big Landed Estates in the county had their own stones along the preferred routes from the nearest major road; Trelowarren, near Helston, Tregothnan, Penrice, near St Austell, and Mount Edgcumbe each have several stones but Heligan has only one (204/008479).  The designated route to Trelowarren is from Butteriss Gate on the A394 to Gweek and Mawgan Cross (203/718328) (17), whilst the Tregothnan stones run from the old main road through Probus along the lane past Trelowthas and Tregerrick to Merther Lane (204/868437) (18).  Penrose Estate, near Helston, is also named on fingerstones along the Porthleven road from Helston and the lane from the A394 at Sithney (203/642280) (19). Block 7

Where roads have been realigned stones have been remade with modern, machine cut lettering as those along the A394 near Helston and the post-1947 road from Gweek and St Keverne around RNAS Culdrose (203/671251) (20). 

Many stones are now unseen as we pass by as they have been laid into the hedgerow or a wall, covered in grime, almost lost to the modern world.  The letters are often small and can only be read when passing at slow speed, completely ineffective for today’s traffic.   Stones without information still exist, the metal plaques having been removed showing wartime defacement, or have dropped off, at sometime and have not been replaced (203/754346) (21).  Others have become damaged by machinery trimming the hedgerows (203/672283) (22).

Block 8

The guidestones and milestones along our main routes are part of our transport history, but alas, they no longer have a use for modern traffic speeding past.  Many volunteers, and councils, across the country are cleaning them and the question is to repair, refurbish or replace.  Grade II listed status is being sort from English Heritage for many in Cornwall.  The Milestone Society was established in 2001, with an aim to “identify, record, research, conserve and interpret for public benefit the milestones and other waymarkers of the British Isles”.  Members’ interests also include tollhouses, turnpike history and canal milestones. 

Look out for them, note the different styles, but drive safely.


Milestone and Signpost variants

The above article mentions milestones with spellings different from those now in use.  

Var 1

One on the A30 south-west of Crowlas, near Penzance (203/511325) shows the distance to ‘Hale’ whilst others along the road show ‘Hayle’.  The milestone near St Veep (200/146561), and a rather crude fingerstone at the next junction (200/150568), show the direction to ‘FOY’, the local pronunciation of ‘Fowey’.

Another interesting stone is at the mini-roundabout on the A389 (200/076667) about 100m west of Morrison’s Bodmin supermarket, which shows the direction to Launceston with the spelling as ‘Lanson’ on the capstone mounted on a triangular pillar.  ‘Lanson’, with a short, soft ‘a’ is an oft heard local pronunciation, although a long, hard ‘a’ to give ‘La(r)nson’ is also spoken.  It does not appear that these spellings were to save space so were they the accepted spellings at the time or the illiteracy of the stonemasons?

Var 2


Different styles and sizes of capstones, and signposts mounted on pillars, rather than posts, that may be triangular, square, oval or round, and of differing heights, are found in the parishes of Bodmin Moor. 



Var 3




A rarity is the capstone with an integral fingerpost near Key Bridge in the parish of St Breward (200/087738).  The wooden signpost was replaced in 2009 and is already in poor condition (2019) and in need of further repair.







Var 4




Whilst distances on milestones are either in Roman or Arabic numerals a stone in Alexandra Rd, St Austell (204/018523) is unusual as it shows both Arabic and Roman figures.









Also of interest are the three different ‘finger’ shapes found on signposts made by the different foundries; John Toy of Helston, Nicholas Holman of St Just in Penwith and the Charlestown foundry.  The ‘Toy’ hand is considered to be the more realistic shape looking at the curve of the top of the hand whether pointing left or right.

 Var 5


NB: For consistency and accuracy the map references are those used by Ian Thompson in his excellent book.  They are based on the OS Landranger maps on which milestones are shown by ‘ms’, although some are not.


Cornish Milestones: The development of Cornwall’s roads in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Ian Thompson.  Pub. Twelveheads Press.

West Penwith Fingerstones –

Roman Milestones in Cornwall.  An internet search reveals several sites giving details; 

The Journal of Antiquities.

The Roman Milestone - Mynheer Farm.  

St Breaca Church, Breage

The Milestone Society at

Milestones and Waymarkers.  The Milestone Society

Turnpike Roads

Turnpike Trusts in Cornwall

Photos of Milestones in Cornwall

The Milestone Society Newsletter No: 15 July 2008 p19

The Milestone Society Newsletter No: 20 January 2011 pp12-13  


Acknowledgement: My grateful thanks to fellow CA7C members living near Looe who answered my plea and went out of their way to provide the photos in St Veep,

The first article, written by Doug Castle, appeared in CA7C Seven Focus in April 2016 pp14-20.   The article, Milestone and Signpost variants, alos written by Doug Castle, appeared in Seven Focus, September 2021, pp 16-18.

See also:

Pointing the Way - Fingerposts