Rural pride on display
11:39am Thursday 9th October 2008 in Countryside
O xfordshire’s villages have been slow to adopt the art of placing decorative signs at prominent places within their communities.
Decorative village signs have been around for about a century, predating signs erected by local authorities. Alongside the name of the community they usually incorporate illustrations of local events, customs, legends, people or industries.
Originally painted on wooden panels, signs have become an art form with examples in cast or wrought iron, carved wood as well as painted or sculpted signs.
Mainly found in East Anglia — Norfolk and Suffolk alone having more than 1,000 examples — Oxfordshire has around a dozen signs. Despite being few in number they are varied in style and materials used — and each has its own fascinating background story.
Edward VII, living at Sandringham while Prince of Wales more than a century ago, encouraged those living in villages around the estate in Norfolk to create signs that represented their communities, a celebration of their individuality promoting local pride.
The signs were made at the Princess Alexandra’s Guild of Carvers, on the Sandringham estate. Many of these early signs can still be seen. Other villages adopted the idea and the practice spread throughout East Anglia before the outbreak of the First World War.
The oldest example of a village sign located in Oxfordshire so far is at Kencot, a small village near Carterton. The sign, standing on a stone plinth on a green in front of the church of St George, appears at first sight to depict St George fighting the Dragon. -Closer inspection reveals the figure as Sagittarius, not slaying a dragon but shooting an arrow into the jaws of hell. The reason for this choice of subject is unknown
In 1920 the subject of this decorative art form was raised again, this time by the Duke of York, later George VI. During a speech given to the Royal Academy he expressed a wish to see the art revived.
Being among a growing group of people who enjoyed motoring as a leisure pursuit as much as a means of travel he felt the signs would please and benefit both residents and visitors. A national newspaper organised a competition for people to design village signs and offered to pay for the making and erection of the winning designs.
Sadly, although entries were received for places all over the country, none for Oxfordshire were included in the prize list. Had even one successful design been produced surely more would have followed.
Village signs were removed during the Second World War, along with all signage likely to aid an invading army, and many were damaged or lost.
Signs reappeared in the 1950s, including some replacements and others newly commissioned. The Festival of Britain, 1951, and the Coronation, 1953, were among the first events to be commemorated in this form.
Women’s Institutes were often instrumental in organising fundraising for such signs. The practice spread across the country, but the majority of Oxfordshire signs date from the Millennium and Golden Jubilee celebrations.
The sign at Childrey near Wantage stands by a traditional village pond near a triangular village green. The idea for the sign apparently came from a local schoolgirl who had seen such signs in Norfolk while on holiday. Local children added their suggestions as to what the sign should include and the result is an attractive double-sided carved and painted wooden sign showing the church, the pond and typical buildings of the village, along with fields and flowers. North Aston has another double-sided sign carved from oak and iroko woods by Eric Maslan, a local artist. Although some details are coloured, this sign has been largely left in its natural state.
Above the name scroll the church and manor house are depicted and below are four notable figures from village history.
William de Aston, a Norman knight, was responsible for the church while Sir John Anne added its later tower.
Colonel North brought fame to the village with the Aston apple and Foster Mulliar donated the fountain, sited near the sign on the village green, which provided the village water supply well into the 20th century.
South east of Wallingford, off the A4074, two villages have very different signs. Woodcote has an example of a rebus sign. Painted on wood, the sign stands tall on a flint plinth.
Beneath the name a scene showing a cottage among trees illustrates the place name (cottage(s) in or by a wood), the legend beneath, ‘A Chiltern Village 2002’ shows the sign commemorates the Golden Jubilee.
Nearby Checkendon’s Golden Jubilee sign is very different in style. Standing on a small green near the church of St Peter and St Paul, the double-sided sign depicts a delightful scene of the church and a path through the bluebell woods for which the village is noted.
Like a painting in appearance it reflects its surroundings admirably. The format is a tribute to two local artists, one, Peggy Beeton, a distant relative of Mrs Beeton of cookery book fame, and Robert Lobley. The tiny dated golden crown that tops the sign marks the Golden Jubilee.
It comes as no surprise that the village sign for Uffington (including the nearby communities of Baulking and Woolstone) features the famous white horse figure on the slopes of the downs above the village.
The sign, erected with funding from the White Horse Show to commemorate the Golden Jubilee, also includes St Mary’s Church, known as the Cathedral of the Vale, and a small building which was the schoolroom and featured in Thomas Hughes famous book, Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Thomas Hughes was born in the village and used this feature of his childhood in his writing.
Sir John Betjeman was once church warden of the church and instrumental in retaining some of its earlier fixtures and fittings during restoration work in his time.
The wrought-iron Millennium sign for Bodicote celebrates village life past and present. The church and a windmill feature alongside farm implements, animals and crops, sporting and arts motifs and a host of trees and wildlife. The whole represents a snapshot of work and leisure within the community. A chain of flowers surrounds the frame. It stands on a small green just off the A4620 on the edge of the village.
Sandford-on-Thames double-sided sign marks the village’s interesting history. Hung in the frame of a former inn sign situated at the junction of Church Road with the main road, one side shows the distribution of a dole of bread to villagers from a table-top tomb in the churchyard whilst the other has a Knight’s Templar and the Temple Farm building nearby. Dated 2002, the year it was erected, the sign was part of the Millennium plans for the village.
Cropredy has another sign full of detail. Planned to commemorate the Millennium and the Golden Jubilee it was unveiled in 2003. In cast metal with some 3D features it illustrates some of the many historic events affecting the community.
For many, Cropredy is synonymous with Fairport Convention and the annual Cropredy Festival and this event is represented by a bow and fiddle. The Church of St Mary the Virgin stands proud at the top of the sign, the base of an old cross below. Crossed swords mark the English Civil War battle of Cropredy Bridge in 1644, along with a helmet and the date, whilst a plough and furrowed field represent more settled times. Below, a narrowboat emerges from beneath a low bridge on the canal that runs through the community. This colourful sign stands on a small green in the centre of the village.
The oldest example of a village sign located in Oxfordshire so far is at Kencot, a small village near Carterton. The sign, standing on a stone plinth on a green in front of the church of St George, appears at first sight to depict St George fighting the Dragon.
Closer inspection reveals the figure as Sagittarius, not slaying a dragon but shooting an arrow into the jaws of hell. The reason for this choice of subject is unknown. Maybe a reader can solve the mystery? The sign itself is carved and shaped and painted in bright colours. Dated 1982 on the base, there is no indication as to why the village chose to erect a sign at this time.
All these signs are in the tradition of the original village signs, celebrating the unique qualities of the place.
Other communities that have a feature that could be considered as village signs are Bampton with its Millennium mosaic and Ewelme with its display of individual ceramic plaques also produced for the Millennium, both of which incorporate the village name. Kidlington has a wooden board in the High Street with the village name on and a mosaic at the base. Watchfield near Swindon has a delightful metal sculpture at the edge of the village with the message Welcome to Watchfield. As it carries the name it, too, could qualify as a village sign.
Studies of old postcards and photographs may reveal other signs from the past and there may be other signs within the county not featured here. Who knows what future events people may choose to commemorate with a new sign.
Maybe the Olympics of 2012 will encourage some communities to celebrate with a sign or a local anniversary, famous inhabitant or event could be marked in this way. Of course, there does not have to be a special reason for a village to choose to erect a village sign.
A keen motorist, the Duke of York in his 1920 speech expressed the belief that village signs would please both resident and visitor. This is just as true today.
The Village Sign Society exists to record village signs past and present through a constantly updated database and photographic record using photographs and postcards. Signs need refurbishing from time to time and even replacing. The society can also provide an information pack and an advisor to those wanting to erect a sign in their own community.