Country Life

Sign language

BOLD and bright, swaying gently in the wind high above our heads, illustrated inn signs are as ubiquitous as they are often unnoticed. Part navigational aid, part advertising billboard and part street art, they’ve been guiding drinkers to the pub door in our towns and villages for centuries, a vital ingredient of the traditional British local.

Strange to think, then, that these pictorial placards weren’t always unique to the inn trade: as 18th-century street scenes show, they once hung from every kind of shop, coffee house and tavern, jostling with one another for space and sometimes stretching right across the road.

By then, they were considered a public nuisance. Growing ever bigger as proprietors tried to outdo their neighbours,

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