Black and white and read all over: If you spot a pair of bollards with the words Keep Left, please let Graham Stanton know. Meanwhile, he shows the rest of his collection to Nicholas Roe

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The Independent Online
Graham Stanton is amazingly cheerful about his collection of old road-signs, considering how much pain is interwoven with his strange hobby. Last October, for instance, he was 30 miles from his home in Bromsgrove, West Midlands, driving towards an auto-jumble sale to see what he could pick up, when he had a heart attack. Doctors said later he was lucky to have survived, but at the time the only thing he could think of was finding a friendly face; so he turned the car round and drove home. He tells the story with bursts of laughter: 'I was creased up over the wheel]' he howls.

That is the sort of man Mr Stanton is and this sort of story gives an insight into a passion that might otherwise seem unfathomable: after all, we drive past road- signs every day.

'Come and have a look,' he says, and nips out through the kitchen, opening the back door with a flourish. Here, three feet away and all the more alarming for that, stand two fully operational traffic lights on big black- and-white poles. They work, too.

But this is just the beginning, because Mr Stanton is now hurrying round his tiny garden, saying, 'I'm leaving the juicy bits to the end. They're inside, in the garage. I think you'll be gobsmacked.'

His square lawn is crowded with the tokens of his affection for our motoring past - speed-limit signs, direction pointers, mileposts, even a couple of police telephone boxes. It is surreal, a motoring wonderland filled with orders you need no longer obey: Stop; Slow Down; Go Back.

Mr Stanton owns 600 road- signs, almost certainly the largest collection in the country. Recently a motoring museum tried to buy the lot, but he refused because they represent a 15-year investment of time, energy and - as he makes clear - emotion.

You can see it, watching him touch a 1904 speed-limit sign which says, endearingly, '10mph'. You can hear it when he says, 'What I'd love to get my hands on is some early 'Keep Left' bollards . . .' And he means exactly that: he'd love to. He wants ones with 'Keep Left' on them instead of an arrow, you see.

The key date is 1965, the year in which Britain's road-signs lost their distinctive character and became Europeanised and modern in style. Before then we had words on big, solid metal plates fixed below triangles and discs telling you exactly what to expect: Bend, Bridge, Hill. They were repairable, paintable, non-reflective, durable. Now we have shiny sheet metal which is replaced, not repaired, and the symbols are inside a disc or triangle, the words have mostly gone.

Mr Stanton says of pre-1965 road-signs: 'They possess one thing that modern signs don't have: character. I have to be careful not to insult the industry because they are very good to me, but modern signs are mass-produced and fairly drab. Older ones add to a landscape.'

Mr Stanton's mother shared his love of roadside memorabilia but she became ill and one day in 1986, bedridden and dying of cancer, asked if he would drive her to his house so she could look at the collection. 'I drove the car nose into the garage and she just sat there looking round,' Mr. Stanton says, not smiling now. 'Then she said 'OK, I've seen enough,' and I took her home. It was almost as if she knew that this was the last time she would see the collection. She died a couple of weeks later.'

He opens the door of the garage and we squeeze inside. It is brilliantly lit. Sharp colours of red, black and white leap out and words scream: Steep Hill, Single Line Traffic, Narrow Bridge. The signs are gorgeous, heavy in their cast-iron or cast-aluminium gaudiness.

Mr Stanton says a few old signs can still be seen in the countryside, mostly neglected and forgotten, but in a tiny number of cases they remain by special request. 'There's a village in the east of the country where they have two of the old 'Torch' signs left up,' he says. A burning torch once indicated 'School', but the symbolic beacon of learning has long since been doused.

Mr Stanton is utterly lost in detail now, standing in his garage, discussing the difference between a 1940 crossroads sign and one produced in 1957 (the X is vertical in the later version). He does it with such enthusiasm that all you can do is nod and listen to a story that goes back centuries.

Romans launched Britain into road-signs by giving us milestones. The Middle Ages saw the appearance of wooden direction posts. The floodgates truly opened, however, in 1888, when cycling organisations started erecting metal plates to warn weary cyclists of hills and corners.

Then came cars and the countryside was blitzed with signs of all shapes and colours, until 1921 saw the beginning of standardisation and the arrival of that solid, uncompromising style that Mr Stanton loves so much.

There were minor revisions of shape and colour after that, notably in 1933 and 1957. They invented a cattle sign, put out the torch, changed the shape of the steam train on the level-crossing sign. But in 1965 the big change came; we embraced European preference and dug up most of our roadside heritage.

Mr Stanton stumbled on his enchantment by accident. Now 43, he was driving down a country lane 15 years ago when he spotted a tatty old road-junction sign with a red triangle on top: 'I thought, my goodness, you don't see many of those about, I must do a bit of research. And what happened was that the council actually gave me that sign several weeks later, and then I started getting in touch with local authorities all over the country and it became apparent that no one was doing anything to preserve Britain's old signs. The bulk of them had been destroyed.'

Ask why that should bother him and he says: 'I was pleased to know that I had suddenly hit upon something that few other people had given a thought to.'

Supported by councils, policemen and modern signmakers (who transport his finds free of charge), he has pursued his quest ever since. Sometimes he spots old signs at the roadside and is given permission to take them away; sometimes councils discover them in their own depots and ring him; sometimes people tell Mr Stanton of signs on private land, or lost in lanes long since bypassed.

Mostly he gets them free, but then he faces little competition. That is his whole point: nobody cares. Mr Stanton knows of only one other collector who takes the subject as seriously as he does - a man in the south of England.

He is back in his kitchen now, going through his vast library on road-signs, which he finds fascinating. Here is an oddity, though: a letter of apology from Warwickshire Constabulary.

It is another strange story: in 1986 Mr Stanton was given official permission to remove an old milepost from Gaydon, Warwickshire. But a resident saw him taking it, jumped to the wrong conclusion and telephoned the police, who arrived too late to catch their man.

Three years passed. Then one day, Mr Stanton appeared on children's television talking about his signs and was spotted by the same resident - who again called the law. Mr Stanton was arrested at home, taken to Bromsgrove police station and locked up for two hours until the constabulary discovered he had been entitled to take the milepost, at which point they let him go. He laughs like mad about it but I think it hurt him.

He was once a police cadet and now works for a trust rehabilitating ex-offenders. 'My hobby came close to costing me my life and certainly cost me my liberty for a couple of hours,' he chuckles. But it is more than a laugh, it is chunks of his life.

When it is time for me to go he comes to the door still talking about Keep Left bollards which he really would love to get his hands on. If you see one, please pass on the news.

(Photographs omitted)

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