Dotted around the country, with several also in Yorkshire, are mileposts best described as obelisks. Many date from the second half of the 18th century. This was before “Egyptomania” took hold in the early 19th century: inspired by Napoleon, a growing number of artefacts came to England – such as the two obelisks brought back to Kingston Lacey in Dorset in the 1820s.
Typical is the famous one at Craven Arms in Shropshire, one of the tallest in the country, showing mileages to 36 towns and cities ranging from Edinburgh to Plymouth.
They were usually erected by local landowners, and contrasted with the stoops put up by parish and township surveyors – in size and in the quality of the materials and craftsmanship. The names of neighbouring towns are usually high up, so as to be easily seen by those on horseback.
Three examples can be found on the A628 in Ackworth, south-east of Wakefield.
The first, standing at a junction outside Ackworth School is the most elaborate. It comprises a hexagonal column, dated 1805, on top of which is a triangular stone with directions, topped by an urn. Although the direction-stone is triangular, and it’s a three-way junction, the directions do not follow the standard pattern. It has an obvious front, facing the school, with fingers pointing left, to Pontefract, and right, to Hemsworth (both three miles). The two other faces both point in the same direction down the minor road, originally Low Ackworth Lane, now Station Road (though sadly the station closed long ago). It has directions and pointing fingers to East Hardwick (3) and Snaith (15) on one side, and Went Bridge (3) and Doncaster (13) on the other. Carved above these, on the urn, is the name Low Ackworth. A traveller hoping to get to Snaith (historically in the West Riding but now in East Yorkshire) would have needed a lot more guide-posts to reach it through the maze of narrow lanes leading there. (Pictured right)
The urn is a recent addition, following a refurbishment of the obelisk in 2016. Before that it had an ornamental wrought iron stand carrying three lamps, and before that it was originally topped by a round ball or globe – as still seen on the third one.
This is similar to the one outside the school, though less elaborate: less rusticated, a plain hexagonal column, and at the top a ball or globe. Standing in a traffic island at the junction of Pontefract Road and Long Lane, and again a three-way junction, the directions, with pointing hands, are shown in a more logical way. Facing the main road it points to Pontefract (left) and Barnsley (right). The other two sides have directions to York and Darrington, and East Hardwick, and Sheffield (detail pictured at bottom). Under the front is simply the name Ackworth (this is more exactly High Ackworth) and the date 1827.
The third is a different type, and not technically a milepost, as it does not show distances. It is at the corner of Bell Lane, opposite Ackworth Moor Top Quarry, where the stone probably came from, just north of the junction with the Wakefield-Doncaster road. It has a plain undated phallic design, and shows directions to Hemsworth and Sheffield on one side, and Wragby and Wakefield (up Bell Lane) on the other. Described simply as a stone post on the earliest Ordnance Survey map, the directions named do not tally exactly with the post’s present position. (Pictured left)
All three are too elaborate, and late, for the usual guide-stoops required by the County Justices at the beginning of the 18th century. The first two are later than the foundation of the school (1779), and earlier than the Barnsley and Pontefract Turnpike of the 1830s. According to J L Saywell in his ‘Parochial history of Ackworth’ of 1894: “To a stranger they possess a commemorative or memorial appearance, but in reality they were erected by the Lords of the Manor, as combination guide- and distance-stones”. He also noted that a lamp surmounted the globe. He does not, however, mention the other (Bell Lane) obelisk, and we do not know when that was erected.
RWH / updated Jan 2022