“IN TWO HUNDRED YARDS TURN LEFT on to Shoot Up Hill, and then immediately right onto Mapesbury Road”, commands a disembodied, strangely accented voice in the GPS navigation system. So many people are now using digital routing devices to find their way around that I wonder whether the need for roadside direction signs will disappear sometime in the future. I hope not because although many of these signs are mundane in appearance, some of them are quite distinctive. Recently, I saw one which is a veritable work of art.
The Pillar of Salt is not only a biblical tale, the fate of Lot’s wife when she looked back at the city of Sodom, but also the name of an unusual road direction sign in the heart of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk (England). I had noticed this curiously designed signpost of Angel Hill in Bury St Edmonds on previous visits, but it was only a few days ago that I examined it carefully. It looks like a short lighthouse with arms projecting from it in three directions. Two of the arms have the names of places and road numbers (e.g. ‘MILDENHALL A1101’). A third arm bears the words ‘NO ENTRY’. The signpost looks distinctive but somewhat surprising in a square where it is surrounded by buildings that are mostly well over one hundred years old. It stands a few feet from the magnificent, massive gothic Abbey Gate, which was rebuilt in the 14th century.
A plaque at the base of the Pillar of Salt reads that it is:
“Considered to be the first internally illuminated traffic sign in this country.”
It was designed by Basil Oliver, the Architect to Bury St Edmund’s Town Council, and erected in 1935. The information on the plaque adds:
“It was granted special approval as it did not conform to regulations”.
The problem was that the sizes of the letters and numbers on the signpost did not conform to official standards. According to the britishlistedbuildings.co.uk website:
“The Town Council went to great lengths to find something worthy of this important location when increased motor traffic made signing essential. Basil Oliver advised on the design and at the time when road signs were being standardised under the 1933 Regulations, this sign is individual and probably unique. It was approved by the Ministry of Transport in June 1935 subject to the letters and road numbers being 5” [inches] high. This was a compromise since the new standard was for letters 4.5” high and numbers 6” high.”
Fortunately, this problem with the characters on the sign were resolved amicably.
Basil Oliver (1882-1948) was born in the Suffolk town of Sudbury a year after his parents had married in Hampstead, London. He attended school in Bury St Edmunds, where according to the website suffolkartists.co.uk he began his study of architecture. He continued his studies at Liverpool University; the Royal Academy School; and at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London. By 1904, he was articled to an architect in London. The website mentions:
“His best-known building is the Borough Offices, Angel Hill, Bury St Edmund’s, Suffolk (1935–1937), described by Pevsner as ‘Neo-Georgian, tactful, and completely uneventful’…”
In contrast, I feel that his signpost in Bury is anything but ‘uneventful’ and it is not ‘tactful’, as it catches the attention by being almost the only ‘modern’ structure in an otherwise old-world environment.
Oliver lived and worked both in Suffolk and London. He died a bachelor in the town where he was born.
The Pillar of Salt, fascinating as it is, is not the main reason that people visit Bury St Edmunds. Many people come to enjoy the grounds that contain the ruins of The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, once a significant Benedictine monastery. It was in the abbey church, now in ruins, that the barons of England met in 1214 to agree to force King John to accept the Charter of Liberties. This was the forerunner to the Magna Carta, which was signed by King John at Runnymede in 1215. Within the ruined church there are two plaques commemorating that important gathering of the barons and listing their names.
Thus, Bury St Edmunds was the birthplace of both the Magna Carta and, also, the internally illuminated direction sign, two developments separated by a gap of 720 years. Much of the research for this short essay was done using the same technology that powers the GPS electronic navigation systems. Useful as these gadgets are, give me an old-fashioned direction sign any day.