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Follow the brown signs

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The History of the Humble Brown Tourist Sign

Where it all began…

We stole brown tourist signs from the French (anyone who has ever driven in France knows how artistic, elaborate and massive their brown signs are pointing to historic towns, châteaus, bridges and abbeys, among many other places of tourist interest all over France). French brown signs had been directing motorists to attractions and facilities from the 1970s, so in the early ’80s (the decade of my childhood) Britain introduced them in Kent (my home county) and Nottinghamshire as an experiment to see if they might work here too. Kent got signs with symbols on them to denote the relevant attraction or facility type and Nottinghamshire got ones with only text to see whether including a recognisable image on the signs made them easier for motorists to use. Signs with symbols proved the winner and very soon regulations for tourist signing were written into the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions Manual. Since then different symbols representing the different types of tourist attraction and facility across Britain were designed and by the late 1980s brown signs with intriguing symbols on them began popping up along roadsides across the country.

Where we are now…

It is not actually known how many brown signed attractions there are in the UK since management and administration of them no longer lies with a central authority. It was once The British Tourist Board, but when it became VisitBritain the responsibility was handed over to local councils and The Highways Agency who now control which attractions and facilities qualify for a brown sign. I don’t know but I would estimate there must be tens of thousands of them.

What makes a brown sign…

Technically the definition of a brown signed destination is “a permanently established attraction or facility which attracts or is used by visitors to an area and which is open to the public without prior booking during its normal opening hours” (as stated by the Highways Agency). Brown tourist signed attractions and facilities must first apply to their local council or Highways Agency (depending on whether the signs will appear on local roads or bigger trunk roads), then prove they provide tourist interest and meet requirements like a certain number of visitors per year and disabled parking etc. Luckily for visitors though the rules are pretty accommodating which means that brown signs can point to such small, quirky and unique joys as paperweight museums, gnome gardens, seal sanctuaries and observatories as well as the more mainstream attractions such as theme parks, cathedrals, ice rinks and zoos.

The changing face of tourism and tourist destinations in Britain…

Modern tourism as we know it began when our ever curious and pleasure seeking Victorian ancestors got the opportunity to travel. Previously the Victorian public had relied on horse and carriages along rutted roads to get around, limiting the distance and speed to they could travel to their destinations. However when the railway network spread across Britain during the 19th century Victorians could suddenly travel on a scale no one had ever thought possible.

They visited seaside resorts, pleasure gardens, sites of historical significance and a whole host of other quirky destinations they deemed worth a pleasure trip. They revelled in their new-found freedom to explore the country and these detinations began seeing the positive effect of receiving visitors en mass. Some art galleries and museums were opened to the public earlier than 19th century but on the whole they were few and accessed predominately by the elitist classes. Soon however the relative ease with which people could move around and spend their money helped to open up more tourist “attractions”. By the 1950s with the introduction of the paid holiday leisure and tourism had become a full blown industry in it’s own right. Destinations that were once simply local curiosities became infamous to an area and soon facilities started emerging that catered for these tourists in greater numbers. Organisations such as English Heritage and the National Trust were formed to protect and open up heritage destinations to the British public.

By the 1980s when the new formalised tourist signage was brought onto Britain’s roads it was clear that tourist destinations could not only provide an informative and interesting way to spend one’s leisure time, but these destinations could also be a significant player in the UK economy. Tourism now contributes over £115 billion to the economy every year and there are more destinations than ever that are supported by the government, the visiting public and grant giving organisations.

The 93 symbols that have slowly grown from their original few (including castles, National Trust properties and museums) since the ’80s now encompass an unbelievably wide range of what we now accept, and take for granted. They are all places where we can go to spend our leisure time, including sports arenas, arts spaces, places of outstanding natural beauty, museums, industrial heritage and cultural destinations . What I find fascinating is that many of these symbols point to destinations that never started out as tourist attractions, but have sprung up from a need to protect, celebrate and educate future generations about a world that has gone before them. Gradually since the Age of Enlightenment during the 18th century the advances in science, engineering and technology have fuelled an astonishing change in the way we live our lives, which is so far removed from the world even 60 or 70 years ago before WWII. I am always heartened by a visit a brown-signed destination and think it’s so important to soak up whatever these places have to tell me. Many are places that not long ago didn’t even exist, or there wasn’t a need to preserve their subject matter, and just looking at the huge array of brown signed destinations goes to show the changing face of our modern world.