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LIKE RURAL settlements all over the country, we've just been "gated". On two narrow roads leading down from the common, a couple of white five- bar gates - permanently open - have been set up by the roadside. It is all part of a byzantine traffic-calming scheme, intended to warn motorists that they are about to enter a zone of ramps and chicanes and very low speed limits. Unfortunately, one of the gates is placed at the beginning of a clutch of exclusive Thirties villas, and looks like the portcullis of a private estate, with a toll-keeper's booth only a council meeting away.

Still, it is better than what we might have had. Last year the local authority commissioned designs for vast icons and obelisks for half a dozen roads into the parish. Luckily, in a rare example of local democracy, the grandiose schemes were quashed by public outrage. What we have got instead is inoffensive, I suppose, but indistinguishable from the off- the-peg village gates cropping up across rural Britain and another example of how car travel is grinding down the differences between one place and another. Everywhere, "heritage" road signs are painted in the same sludge brown. Every other parish seems to be adopting the mock-rustic lollipop model for its village sign and setting it up by the local car-park.

It is a wonderful shock when you cross a boundary and are told in uncompromising terms that you are somewhere different. On the edge of Milden, in the vast arable plain of central Suffolk, the village sign is a bizarre metal statue of the weed fat-hen, from whose Old English name melde the settlement is named. It went up about 20 years ago, and may have sprung more from middle-class historical whimsy than from real community choice. But it is a strange and compelling object that speaks volumes about the setting and history of the place.

What were undeniably populist were the great chalk landmarks of southern England. The Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset, for instance, was cut out by the whole community in Celtic times, and regularly "scoured" amidst great junketing up to a century ago to keep the chalk outline visible. And it now looks as if the Giant's famously monstrous phallus was once a more modest organ which was joined to his navel by 19th-century Dorset rowdies bent on outraging the clergy. The conservation group Common Ground is carrying on the tradition in Dorset with its community-based "New Milestones" project.

But the best landmarks and local identity signs are those that outcrop or grow there anyway, if only the planners would leave them alone: the groups of horse chestnuts in fours, on the pastures of the next village; the birches which encircle Berkhamsted, and may have named it. Something birchish would have made a sight better portal. As it is, the gates are just another monument to the fact that the car rules, even when it is being tempered. Because they are, of course, a sham. Just imagine the reaction if they were ever actually shut. !