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
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
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
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
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
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.