Care and Repair FAQ
So, you would like to care for/restore/repair/ move a milestone?
You can’t just turn up with a tin of Dulux and paint that milestone! If you want a lasting result, you will need to think it through and be determined and persistent. Here are some simple answers to frequently asked questions, based on practical experience.
Who owns the milestone?
Milestones are (usually) the property of the Highway Authority, which is your County Council or Unitary Authority. They may have delegated the maintenance to a Highway Contractor. In the case of trunk roads, the delegation will be to Highways England and then to their Highway Contractor. You need someone’s permission if you want to work on a milestone by the wayside. If it’s on private land, you need to get the permission of the land-owner.
Is it Listed?
See https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/advanced-search/ and enter ‘Milestone’ into ‘Asset Type’. Listed Building Consent by the Local Planning Authority would be involved, if changes were envisaged; the listing is intended to keep it in the original state as when it was listed but does not preclude alterations provided the necessary consent is gained. Repairs not affecting the character or appearance do not require consent, but alterations do. It’s a good idea to check with your local planning authority if in doubt. Authentic repairs, using the same materials (or as near as possible) would include painting if the original was painted. Painting something that had never been painted before would be an alteration requiring consent, which would be unlikely to be granted. Repairing broken stones by concealed stainless steel bolts or using glue would generally count as a repair, as would, stitching together broke cast iron plates. Total replacement of the stone or the metal plate would be an alteration, but if what was left at the end was merely a replica (which would not be listable), then strictly speaking consent for demolition of the original would be required (unless it had been demolished in a road traffic accident), or a request made to remove the list entry.
Should the milestone be Listed?
Listing provides a ‘snapshot’ of the milestone in place at a point of time. It is designed to protect our built heritage and can be a helpful tool to both deter and detect theft because the milestone can be provenanced. There is no obligation on the owner to look after a listed item but to ensure that it is not altered without appropriate permission. If the milestone is ‘at risk’ and you want to provide more protection, perhaps from a property developer, you can find guidance and application forms on https://historicengland.org.uk/listing. It is a relatively straightforward process but you will need to submit a fully detailed physical description, its history, clear photographs and accurate map references because the Historic England inspector will not make a site visit. And if you are planning to restore a non-Listed milestone, delay any listing application until after the work is completed.
Who do I talk to?
After you have considered what needs doing, finding the right person in authority to talk to is essential, there is someone with a sympathetic ear out there somewhere, but you may not find them at the first attempt.
Start with the Highway Authority – your County Council or Unitary Authority. Write to them by email or by post. There will be contact details on their website. Give them a week to respond. Follow up with a phone call or further email.
Keep calm. Be patient. You are dealing with busy people who do not have milestones at the top of their agenda.
There may be a contact with the Highway Authority’s contractor – perhaps a helpline.
Write to them by email or by post at the same time as you contact the County Council or Unitary Authority.
The Authority may still have a Conservation Officer or a Historic Environment Records Officer – either may provide support for your case. Parish Councils are sometimes keen and have discretionary funding.
If you don’t get a response from Highways, and your follow up phone call or email does not get a response, you can turn to your County Councillor or Unitary Authority Councillor for help. They should follow up your initial enquiry and make sure someone gets back to you.
What needs to be done to the milestone?
Before you contact anyone, think through what might need doing; how will that affect the milestone and how will it be cared for in future. Historic England advice suggests that “The present day context of each stone should be carefully considered before any action is taken; it may be that a stone has 'grown old gracefully' and now sits so comfortably in its environment that any form of intervention would be unwelcome. Furthermore, it must be appreciated that some interventions, though well intended, will be irreversible and thereby change the stone or metal forever."
But if you consider that care or repairs are required:
1 Is it overgrown with weeds/ivy?
2 Is it covered in moss or lichen?
4 Has it fallen over?
7 Does it need moving to a safer or more convenient location?
8 What about its future care?
9 What about Fund raising?
Health and Safety Essentials
The Highway Authority, as owner of the milestone, has a responsibility to maintain it, if it is by the wayside, although only if the work is economically feasible. You can request them to do what needs to be done. If they agree to undertake the work, it would be useful to have a timescale. Your job would then be to remind them to get the work done, and to praise them when the task is successfully completed, perhaps in the local press or on social media.
Alternatively, you can offer to undertake the particular work yourself, on behalf of the Highway Authority. If you want to try this option, you will need some more detailed guidance, first on health and safety, then on each particular level of task outlined above.
This is about risk assessment. How safe would it be for you to work on the milestone using the appropriate tools and materials? What is the risk to you and any colleagues? What is the risk to road users including vehicles? Some Highway Authorities run one day basic safety training courses for people who will be working beside the highway. Ask if there is a course near you. If this is not an option, perhaps you can organise a site visit with that right person in authority you have contacted so that they can advise you about the appropriate safe practice. If this is not an option it is down to your common sense and a high visibility jacket, after you have prepared a comprehensive, informed risk assessment - essential if you are involving others or invoking an insurance cover. The Milestone Society’s insurance liability does not cover accidents, either personal or to property. You must also comply with the Road Traffic Acts and follow the Countryside Code. If your common sense tells you it is too dangerous, then don’t do it!
1 Is it overgrown with weeds/ivy/hedge?
As long as it is safe to work on the milestone, this is a straightforward gardening job to make the milestone visible again.
You may want to consider preventing the weeds encroaching again, by using a weed-proof membrane from your local garden centre spread on the ground close to the milestone, held in place with gravel, perhaps.
2 Is it covered in moss or lichen?
As long as it is safe to work on the milestone, it is usually a simple job to carefully remove moss with an old trowel or similar garden implement, without damaging the milestone.
Lichen can be removed with a bucket of clean soapy (warm) water and a scrubbing brush. Carry the water in a screw top container of five or ten litres capacity.
Like the weeds, the moss and lichen will regrow with time, but that’s life.
Do not use chemicals to kill off the moss or damage rare lichen growth.
3 Is it covered in dirt from the road?
As long as it is safe to work on the milestone, road grime can be removed with a bucket of clean (warm) water, Fairy Liquid or similar and a scrubbing brush. Carry the water in a screw top container of five or ten litres capacity.
If the milestone is very close to the edge of a busy road, it may become dirty again very quickly. If it is that close to the edge of a busy road, it is probably too dangerous for you to work on. You really should talk to that right person in authority.
Has it fallen over or been knocked over?
If a milestone has fallen over or been knocked over and is intact, it needs standing upright again. Milestones are heavy objects and it may require several people or lifting equipment to set the milestone upright. Here again, health and safety become a priority and careful planning is needed before work is undertaken, including checking for underground utilities services.
The milestone will not stay upright just balanced on the surface of the verge. Typically, between a quarter and a third of the milestone will be underground to give it stability. There is often a clear line ‘ground level’ on the stone, leaving an undressed part to be buried.
It is not recommended to set milestones in concrete, because, although this will prevent them being knocked over, if/when they are hit by a vehicle they will be broken in two or possibly destroyed. You could put a concrete ‘collar’ around the milestone, perhaps with inset slabs or crazy paving, to stabilise the ground, prevent weeds, improve visibility to verge cutters etc.
Is it damaged?
Broken stone, eroded/illegible inscription, broken or missing metal plate?
Stone which has delaminated would require professional treatment.
If a piece has been chipped off and would fit neatly back in place, it may be possible to use a water-based pva glue on a warm dry day to repair the milestone. Often the bits chipped off are too fragmented or simply lost and repair is not an option. The milestone must be left to carry its fresh scar.
If the milestone is broken in two, a repair is usually carried out by drilling matching holes, at least two, in each broken half and using stainless studding, builder’s resin-bonding and epoxy adhesive to join the parts together again.
If the break is very clean and the two parts are a good fit and the stone is unlikely to be hit and broken again, it may be possible to coat the two broken surfaces with water based pva adhesive and fit them back together.
It is not recommended that an eroded stone inscription (or one removed in wartime to baffle the Germans) be re-carved by an amateur. It may be regarded as part of the milestone’s history too.
A stonemason / monument mason could hand cut a new version of the eroded inscription, but would usually require the stone to be removed to his workshop. The mason may offer sand blasting as a cheaper way to recut an inscription, but this will not give the correct original profile to the lettering.
The eroded inscription can be painted on the eroded stone surface with care and give a reasonable result.
Broken cast iron can be joined together by a skilled craftsman, if you can find one.
If all the broken pieces are available, it may be possible to glue them together with a specialist adhesive, perhaps with a thin backing plate to give stability.
Missing metal plate/milepost
If you have the broken pieces (or an equivalent milestone) these can be used to make a pattern and cast a replacement plate or marker. There are foundries that will undertake this work. The cost may be hundreds of pounds for a flat plate, around two thousand for a cast iron triangular section milepost. The necessary pattern may cost more than the casting. When fixing mile-plates on a backing stone, you should use self-locking bolts to prevent the plate being levered off and stolen. You might also use specialised adhesives behind the plate for additional security. There may be an electrolytic interaction between some metal bolts and plates.
*Promain’s recommended system would now be:
and review the data sheets for further guidance on prep and application:
Replicas and new waymarkers
If you want to use different materials to the originals, for example reinforced concrete instead of a stone or a plate in cheaper aluminium instead of cast iron, this will be a replica, rather than a restoration. However, it should look the part and fulfil its original function! Plastic, fibre glass or even wooden replicas have been constructed in the past. Authentically, if the original was cast iron, the replacement ought to be in cast iron.
There are many utilities’ cables and pipes running under the wayside; if you want to erect or re-erect a milestone, you will need to have the site checked for these. The Highways Authority or their Contractors can provide such information, or you can obtain the reports privately for a fee.
Does it need painting/re-painting?
A freshly painted white milestone with crisp black lettering looks very smart. Before deciding to paint your milestone, take care to check that it was painted in the past. Cast iron will almost certainly have been painted, but stone may not have been. If the stone was painted, it was probably done with limewash, which is sacrificial, ie it weathered away but protected the surface of the stone. Are there traces of old paint on the milestone? Are other milestones in the same group painted? Agree with your Highway Authority contact that the milestone should be painted; ideally also agree a future maintenance plan because repainting cast iron only lasts 7 – 10 years at best and shabby, rusty paintwork does not look smart at all.
Can the milestone be taken to a workshop or will it need refurbishing in place?
It is easier to deal with a cast iron milestone indoors, although they are usually set deeply into the ground. The layers of paint and primer required are easier to apply in dry conditions. If it’s completely rusted cast iron, sandblasting might be worth considering, although milestones frequently retain a glass-like residue from the original sand-casting process and this should not be removed as it acts like a base primer. However, after sand-blasting it is essential to apply the first priming coat immediately, otherwise the surface will oxidise.
By the wayside
Is the location likely to be dangerous for you or anyone else, pedestrians, passing vehicles? Do that thorough risk assessment! If the milestone is within two metres of the road edge, you will need to set up road signs and cones to warn road users of your presence on the verge. Wear a hi vis vest. Once again, your friendly contact at the Highway Authority can advise on your particular milestone, but expect to make at least four or five visits to carry out the work required to strip and paint a cast iron milestone.
One Shot Enamel signwriters paint can be used for both stone and metal. When having new plates or fingerpost arms cast, we have tried using powder coating by companies specialising in this, but the results have generally been unsatisfactory.
First deal with steps 1, 2 and 3. Clear away the weeds, clean the milestone with a bucket of clean water and a scrubbing brush. You need to remove any old flaking paint, but if the old paint is sound, leave it. Leave the milestone to dry. Painting wet stonework is a waste of time, because the paint will just flake off again.
Masonry paint sold at your DIY superstore is designed for painting stonework, e.g. Sandtex. Choose a smooth white finish. Buy the best quality you can afford. It will cover better and last longer than a cheaper brand. Masonry paint is water based, so cleaning up spillages will not involve using chemicals with potential to damage the environment.
Some milestones are made from quite soft stone and may require more specialist paint, so that the paint does not cause a top layer of stone to flake off. Ask the Highways people, ask a local stonemason or research local stone types on the internet…
Inset lettering will need to be picked out with a smaller brush. While black masonry paint can be used for this, a tube of artists’ black acrylic paint may be more convenient although it will not last as long. Again, acrylic paints can be cleaned up with water. One Shot Enamel signwriters paint can be used for both stone and metal.
Cast iron plates or a cast iron mile marker needs a different sort of paint to a stone milestone.
Cast iron, unlike steel, will not usually rust away in a quiet roadside location. It will build up a protective (oxide) layer on which you can paint. However, by busy roads with lots of grit and salt spray or other chemicals, cast iron will rust and this must be removed completely.
Think carefully before you decide to remove the old paint. It may be providing a protective covering. It is part of the history of the mile marker. It will make a mess on the verge which will be difficult to clean up. Take piles of newspaper, which are easy to remove and bundle into a bin liner afterwards. Alternatively, cardboard or an old sheet are less likely to blow away. It will be difficult to remove all the old paint. Usually, it is best to take off any loose or flaking paint, clean the surface with water and leave it to dry, then paint over the old paint. You MUST get the rust completely out of the lettering corners otherwise it will leach through in a matter of months. And only do the work when the weather is warmer than 5 degrees because high humidity will cause a bloom on solvent products.
Chemical paint removers should ideally not be used at the roadside for environmental reasons, but if the milepost is very rusty, Nitromors works. You will need copious amounts of water to wash it off. Use plenty of newspaper to contain the residue and let the surface dry completely before attempting the priming coat. Shot blasting will damage the metal surface – sand blasting doesn’t work by the roadside unless you can get the priming coat on within a few minutes; although hand-held pneumatic equipment is reasonably cheap, it needs to be powered which means having a compressor. If using hand tools to remove old paint, the metal of the tools should be softer than the cast iron.
Exposed bare metal should have at least one coat of zinc-based or red oxide primer, followed by two coats of a metal paint, such as a white tractor enamel, eg Promain Teamac Tractor Enamel Rapidry*. These paints are usually cellulose based and require chemical solvents for brush cleaning. You can wrap used brushes in a plastic bag and clean them when you get home. Mixed results have been obtained from epoxy paints; unless the metal is completely stripped prior to priming, the rust will rapidly leach through. DO NOT USE HOUSEHOLD GLOSS – the metal can’t breathe and the paint surface will deteriorate within months.
Some cast iron work will have flat faced lettering, which is easy to paint black with a sponge or small roller. This will not work if the lettering has a triangular or round profile. Here, black artists’ acrylic paint may be easier to use and easier to correct errors than tractor enamel, but acrylic is less likely to withstand the rigors of the roadside grit and chemicals. One Shot Enamel signwriters paint can be used for both stone and metal.
If you are having new plates cast, consider powder coating by a company specialising in this.
Does it need moving to a safer location?
There is not a simple answer to this question, apart from saying don’t do it if you can avoid it.
Milestones should stay in their original position, unless the original position disappears or becomes too dangerous for the survival of the milestone.
Moving a milestone further back from the road edge is the best option, since this maintains the correct distance along the road from neighbouring milestones and from destinations recorded on the milestone.
If the milestone is in a sequence, they will usually be all on the same side of the road. This means it may be better to move the milestone a few metres along the verge on the original side, rather than across the road.
If the milestone is listed, the listing will fix the position, and only under very exceptional conditions can a listed milestone be moved, although this has been done in the past.
What about Fund raising?
Even the appropriate paints cost money! Local funding is best, because local people involved in a local project will help ensure the future of the restored milestone.
Approach the Parish Council. Seek sponsorship from a local business. Look for a local charity, including local family charitable trusts.
If approaching a national funding source, like the Heritage Lottery, bigger projects may be easier to fund than smaller ones. It can be easier to raise funds to restore the milestones along a whole length of road, than just one individual milestone, though matched effort on public engagement is usually required.
Consider adding a plaque to the restored milestone or located nearby to tell people about the restoration, with a date and possibly the names of sponsors.
Good publicity is often a key to fundraising – you may find sympathetic local press or social media contacts.
NB These guidance notes have been compiled by members of The Milestone Society from practical experience and with professional input, but they are not exhaustive. Vernacular materials and variable environments must be taken into consideration. While we believe that the information given in this guidance is satisfactory for practical restoration purposes, no liability can be accepted by The Milestone Society for any inaccuracies or omissions or for any damage caused as a result of following these guidance notes.
Advice For Highways Engineers
A Management Plan for RHAs was produced by URS on behalf of the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2013 for inclusion in the Service section of future tender documents for highways asset management contracts; you can download it here, along with a Model Agreement for the Management of Roadside Heritage Assets.