England is a tapestry of counties whose road signs beckon us across its seams. While some nod a simple welcome, others carry slogans offering everything from basic lessons in history to full-on personal development proclamations. But are their days numbered?
“Let Yourself Grow – it’s not really been used since I have been here,” says Jo Lappin, the current head of the Northamptonshire Enterprise Partnership.
She’s referring to the message emblazoned across the welcome signs to Northamptonshire.
Introduced a decade ago the “Let Yourself Grow” signs were to be “key way of raising the profile of the county”.
But some felt the message confused Northamptonshire with “a bag of compost” and within just six years it was deemed out of date by the very organisation which introduced it, the Northamptonshire Enterprise Partnership (NEP).
Mention compost, vegetable cultivation and the Let Yourself Grow slogan in the same sentence and Lappin will offer an obliging, if slightly self-conscious, chuckle.
Such signs would not be put up today, she says.
“Our days of huge county signage have ended,” says Lappin. “Road signs take a long time to replace and they are very expensive.
“You can get the the same results in other, more cost effective, ways.”
Let Yourself Grow has been been replaced “Love Northamptonshire” which, says Lappin, “has far more potential to blend into other areas” – for example “Love Northampton” or the county’s career-focused “Love Talent” campaign.
Unlike the “grow” message, however, the “love” branding will not appear on county signs but online and in publicity materials.
Northamptonshire is not alone in moving away from boundary sign slogans.
Lancashire, for centuries the Red Rose County (and, yes, it remains so) was given slogan surgery back in 2005 when it was repackaged by Lancashire County Council as “A Place Where Everyone Matters”.
The slogan was stamped – not always without a hitch – on “Welcome to Lancashire” signs across the county boundaries.
But, like Northamptonshire, the “matters” message no longer appears to matter quite as much.
Visit Lancashire now uses the slogan “Where life feels good”, though that motto has not been stamped on the county signs.
Instead the road signs have been steadily replaced with new ones offering a more cautious welcome to incomers. They read: “Welcome to Lancashire – please drive carefully”.
Bucking this trend is Herefordshire, which in 2012 unleashed its “Here You Can” brand.
The “here” message – which plays on the county’s name – has been printed on about 30 “welcome to Herefordshire” road signs.
Rachel Jones, brand manager, said: “When we introduced this piece of work everyone was very enthused by it.
“A lot of our road signs were out of date and we thought it would be great to use the new branding on the roads we are in charge of.”
“Here You Can is such a positive and strong message,” says Jones, “and we can do clever things with it.”
Four years on and the branding is still warming up, she says, and there are no plans to change it.
“We will keep the message for as long as it continues working for us.”
At Highways England – which is responsible for motorways and major A roads – county boundary road signs have fallen out of favour.
A spokesman said there was a trial to introduce new signs following London 2012 but that programme was not extended.
“It (county signage) is not something we routinely do,” he said. “There’s so much information on the roads already that it has to be about providing people with useful information they need to see.”
Meanwhile, in other counties…
- Kent: Garden of England
- Essex: Host County for the London 2012 Olympic Games Mountain Bike Competition (on some road signs)
- Northumberland: England’s border country
- Hertfordshire: County of Opportunity
- Warwickshire: Shakespeare’s County
- Rutland: Multum in Parvo (much in little)
- County Durham: Land of the Prince Bishops
- Staffordshire: The Creative County
- Cheshire: Home of England’s Finest Gardens
So what makes for a good county slogan?
“You want something that sums up the essence of the place, that is short and pithy, eye-catching and individual,” says the Plain English Campaign’s Liam Reddington.
Nottinghamshire Experience’s 125,000 rebranding of the county with a slanted “N” was certainly short and pithy.
It was also, claims Reddington, a bit “meaningless”.
Launching “N” in 2005, Nottinghamshire Experience had high hopes.
“The new identity is much more than a logo,” the organisation claimed. “It’s a way of presenting ourselves, creating a sense of place in promotion and on the streets.
“As such it relates both to the people who live and work here, as well as to our many visitors.”
But by 2008 use of “N” was dwindling. Now it is nowhere to be seen.
In its place comes “One Day in Notts is Never Enough”.
“I quite like that one,” says Reddington.
Natalie Walsh, of Experience Nottinghamshire, said the slogan grew out of a media campaign strap-line in early 2013. It has since been adopted by Experience Nottinghamshire and is used in its marketing.
So how many days are enough in Nottinghamshire?
“That’s a good question,” says Walsh. “Well, we don’t want visitors to come just for one day – there’s far too much to see and do.”
Surveying the range of England’s county mottos, Reddington has come to a conclusion.
“I suspect many of these people have lost track of why they are writing these slogans.”
Leicestershire’s motto, “the Heart of Rural England”, is described as a “bit bland” by Reddington. “It’s the heart of rural England. So what?”
One driver even went as far as lodging a Freedom of Information request with the council asking: “Where is rural England as I can’t find it on my map?”
Leicestershire County Council, which put up about 25 Heart of Rural England road signs, provided a somewhat enigmatic response: “The heart of rural England is not a location.”
As to whether the county might be rebranded as the home of champions, following Leicester City’s coronation as Premier League winners, the council has yet to comment.
Norfolk’s “Nelson’s County” gets fairly short shrift from the Plain English Campaign. “Okay, he was born there,” says Reddington.
Unsurprisingly, the Nelson Museum, which came up with the slogan (the project was funded by the late turkey magnate Bernard Matthews), sees it differently.
Curator Kerry Payne said: “There appeared an obvious correlation to the county and its most famous son, whose legacy and relevance are still current today. As Nelson himself was once quoted: ‘I am myself a Norfolk man and glory in being so.’
“Members of the public who visit the museum often mention the signs.
“Some are unaware of the Nelson connection with Norfolk until their visit to the county.”
But many counties are happy to do without slogans on county road signs altogether.
Suffolk (which called itself a “curious county” for a little over a year), Devon and Cambridgeshire are among those eschewing unnecessary road sign verbiage.
As is my home county, Yorkshire.
But if Yorkshire absolutely had to have one, as Visit Yorkshire’s Hannah Bryan says, “the best one for Yorkshire is God’s Own County”.