West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Local History


by Eric Houlder

Most of us have a soft spot for old-fashioned milestones. From the rough-hewn country variety with their 'freestyle' spelling to the brutally efficient turnpike stones cast indelibly in iron, they all seem to point backwards to a bygone age of leisured travel. A far cry indeed from our crowded roads.

There were milestones well before the English settled in Britain and gave the southern part of it their name. As long ago as Roman times, travellers in what is now Yorkshire could look at a wayside stone, and after deciphering the name, title and honorifics of the Emperor who caused it to be erected, (Goebbels learned a lot about propaganda from the Romans) find out how far it was to York. Lesser places rarely figured. Sadly, although many thousands of milestones were erected before the Romans left in the early Fifth century, fewer than 120 now survive in Britain. By coincidence, three of them were found in Castleford.

Like many another place situated at a river crossing, Castleford (LAGENTIUM) had its cohort fort with a small town strung out along the road to Doncaster (DANUM) and the south. Northwards from the fort gates, travellers would pass the regimental bath house and then cross the Aire en-route for York, Catterick, or perhaps Hadrianís Wall.

Today, modern travellers cross the Aire at Ferrybridge so that the old road north is no longer viable along its entire length. Yet Castleford still retains evidence of its days as an important staging post when Emperors such as Hadrian, Severus, or Constantine the Great passed along Beancroft Road on the way to or from the Imperial Palace at York.

Pretty well any hole in the ground will yield Roman pottery, whilst beneath a car park near the river lies the military bath house waiting for a time when money becomes available to unearth and preserve it. Yes, Castleford is proud of its Roman past, and desperate to reveal, restore and display it; but it was not always so.

A century ago, a local man digging close to Beancroft Road found a complete Roman milestone, or two, to be precise, for the pillar had been turned upside down and re-carved. The lucky finder was about to break it up when Professor Haverfield, doyen of Roman studies happened to pass, make an offer, and buy it. He then generously offered it to the town, which refused it! Disappointed, the Professor offered it to Leeds Philosophical Society, which accepted with alacrity.

Even more surprising, when shortly afterwards another milestone was found on Carlton Street right outside the probable site of the fort's south gate, it too was threatened with destruction until rescued by a local doctor. This one finally ended up in the safe keeping of the Yorkshire Museum in York.

By the 1950s, Castleford had forgotten about its second stone, and borrowed the earlier, double one back from Leeds. Although the precious relic was only on loan, Castleford cemented it down in a corner of its museum, which was a room in the public library. When Leeds requested its return in the mid 60s, nothing was done until they sent men with a pneumatic drill! The stone went back to Leeds.

There the saga may have ended, until in the summer of 2002, yet another local Roman milestone was discovered on the boundary between Ackworth and Pontefract, a mere four Roman miles south of the Beancroft Road discovery.

After initial discovery by local man Ross Metcalfe and farmer Peter Thorpe, this one was positively identified by archaeologists, including the writer. Following excavation and research, the stone was traced to the Emperor Marcus Annius Florianus who reigned from June 276 until he was murdered by his own soldiers the same September. Being a late Roman Emperor was dangerous!

All the resources of the modern media were set in motion, so that local, regional and national papers as well as television reported the discovery, as well as Peter Thorpeís intention of lending the stone to Pontefract Museum. The very same week it was accepted by Richard Van Riel, the Curator, and transported there. It now sits proudly in the entrance hall, awaiting the strengthening of the Roman Britain display case.

Although Pontefract and Castleford share the same local newspaper and the same MP, and though the inhabitants often marry each other, there has always been an element of competition between the towns. This has recently been subsumed in a joint bid for regeneration cash, but the fact that Pontefract has now got one Roman milestone, whilst Castleford, where two -- really three -- were discovered has none, alerted some locals, from both towns, to the possibilities.

The first target was Leeds, where a polite demonstration was mounted on the steps of the Town Hall. As Leeds effectively prevented the destruction of the stone by the forefathers of the demonstrators, it does seem slightly unjust to demand its return, but the whole thing was tongue-in-cheek anyway.

The polite approach appears to have paid off, for both cities have intimated that if and when Castleford has somewhere to display these precious relics, then either the stones, or exact replicas will be returned.

Though that date may be far into the future, interested visitors will eventually be able to see the best display of Roman milestones in the country, all within three miles of each other and each within a couple of miles of its findspot.

Eric Houlder


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