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Follow the brown signs

Lacking direction? Feeling listless? Amanda Hone may have the answer. Interview: Martin Stanhope

Amanda HoneWe see them all the time, yet often don’t even notice them. The objects in question: brown signs. No, not the blue signs that point you in a singular direction, or the red signs that tell you off, but the rather friendly brown signs that suggest you’re just around the corner from something useful, something quirky, something historic.

It may be a racecourse, a farm park, a castle or a swimming pool – some fascinating, others, frankly, less so, but all an integral part of our social and cultural life. And now the world of brown signs has an unlikely ambassador. Young, pretty, erudite and passionate, Londoner Amanda Hone has a love affair with the signs, or more accurately, what they represent and the people behind them. ‘There’s such diversity to them – they represent all of our history, geography and culture.’

And for Amanda this is no hobby – she calls it ‘her project’ and has developed her own website called simply: ‘Follow the Brown Signs’, which includes a blog of her travels, the history of the signs and, significantly, a map where people can review brown-signed attractions. And attractions can add themselves to the map – the hope being that it becomes a searchable database to inspire people to get off the sofa and discover something interesting.

‘It all started at university. I was quite bored and just used to jump in the car and go in a random direction and discover where I was, rather than go for a drink in the Union bar, which I got bored of pretty quickly.

‘I studied at Southampton, so we were right on the edge of the New Forest – one day, driving through, I noticed a sign for an ‘otter and owl sanctuary’, which struck me as such an incongruent combination, but quite endearing really. So, the indicator went on and I went for a look.

The owner was passionate about what he did, and other people’s enthusiasm is really contagious – this began to open my mind. I came out thinking about wildlife and the countryside and my place in it. After that I started noticing brown signs a lot. And that was a problem as there’s quite a few of them!

‘Windmills and lighthouses are now two of my favourite things, but I didn’t really know I was in any way interested in them until I started ‘brown-signing’.’

Amanda casually drops in this new verb – brown-signing – the new day-tripping perhaps?

She is, rather surprisingly, almost reluctant to name favourite attractions insisting that it’s up to individuals to make up their own minds and discover their own passions, but, when pushed, does concede a soft spot for Eling Tide Mill on the edge of Southampton – a watermill that harnesses the power of the tide to grind wheat into flour.

‘It’s been milling in the same way since Norman times – the people who run it are all volunteers, educating people about social and farming history. I believe it’s really important for both adults and kids to understand that, particularly seeing how and where flour is made.

‘I massively herald that on my blog – the link between land and table has been lost in our supermarket age.’

Warming to her rural theme, Amanda’s also keen to highlight the work of the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading. She says quite simply: ‘I love it!’

Tucked away down a quiet road opposite the city’s hospital the museum holds a fascinating collection of agricultural history. ‘They provide a great experience for visitors, particularly children – it’s a hands-on attraction.’

The rather fantastical tale of a Marharaja’s well, just off the A4074 between Oxford and Reading leaves Amanda noticeably bubbling with enthusiasm.

Where next?

She’s writing a book. The website is ‘blood, sweat and tears’, and there’s some discussion about the possibility of a phone app for ‘brown-signers’ to use, but she remains remarkably true to her passion.

‘Everyone says: ‘make money from it’. But I’d rather get it right, take years to do it than do something to make a quick buck, and do it badly.’

As prosaic as it sounds, this hinges on data collection in the first instance, ensuring attractions add themselves to her website (it’s free), and then, more interestingly, that people start to use it as a useful tool ‘for days out, with the kids, for inspiration.’

Amanda is a qualified occupational psychologist by trade, but today works in marketing and uses her salary to fund ‘the project’. ‘I’m very poor, but as long as I can pay my rent, I’m happy. I eat a lot of crumpets, so I’m fine. I get so much out of it – it’s my life. I love discovering new places.

‘My main problem with writing the book is that I get so into it – and then I’ll suddenly notice that it’s 4pm and I’m still sitting at my desk in my pyjamas. It’s a cliché, but, for me, it really is about the journey, not the destination.’

Our advice is to follow Amanda’s advice – turn off the satnav, ditch the guidebook and the next time you pass a brown sign on the way back from tea with Aunt Edith, turn off and take a look. You never know what you might discover.

Tweet Amanda

Brief history of brown signs

Our history with France may be somewhat chequered, but brown signs are in fact a French invention. Indeed, they’ve been elaborately pointing to chateaus and abbeys since the 1970s. It was a decade later that Britain introduced them in Kent 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 and Nottinghamshire got ones with just 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 signs were written into the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions Manual.

Since then they’ve spread like wildfire, with scarcely a road in Britain without one. Bizarrely, it’s 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. 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 such as a certain number of visitors per year and disabled parking.

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