The Joys of Randomly Following Brown Tourist Signs
How a quirky hobby got a little out of hand
Over the past few years my life has become filled with, dare I say overtaken by, the urge to follow brown tourist signs — the signs that are all over the roads in the UK, and indeed the world, directing visitors to tourist destinations.
I began following them just for fun at university. It became a bit of a fun, a spontaneous way for me to kill a few hours — just jump in the car, spot a brown sign pointing somewhere I’d never heard of and visit wherever it led, even if at first it didn’t look like the kind of place I’d normally choose to go.
I started happening upon an unbelievable array of interesting, quirky, and fascinating destinations. They were all run by great people completely dedicated to sharing their passions with the world, inspiring others to get interested in them too and doing a fantastic job of showcasing Britain in all its eccentric and splendid glory. I discovered museums dedicated to barometers and cuckoo clocks; beautiful nature reserves growing on enormous reclaimed landfill sites; 500-year-old pubs selling frothing pints of local ale; I climbed lonely lighthouses standing proud on rocky weather-beaten outcrops; saw working farms still using traditional organic agricultural methods; I did coast-hugging, windswept walks that made me feel alive and truly experience what it is to be an islander; I saw ornately decorated Victorian sewage pumps still working in full steam.
Following all these brown signs opened my eyes to an amazing and wholly underestimated world all around me. These great places were all just waiting to be discovered the same way I had discovered them, they were screaming out for it, they all had brown signs showing you the way.
What I was finding was just too good to witness all on my own, so in between my extensive travels I set about building a website that would inspire others to start randomly following brown tourist signs too and experience all this rich heritage, history, culture, and geography for themselves. Across the world, brown road signs are used to point the way to millions of cultural sites and heritage destinations. The rules and categories for what type of attraction gets a brown sign change depending on where you are, but for me that’s what makes going “brown-signing” so much fun: you just never quite know what you’ll discover. In the UK, we have 93 different officially recognized symbols, including windmills, museums, viewpoints and ice skating rinks, but we also have a whole host of attractions that don’t fit into any of those categories and so have their own unique signs, such as the huge Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope, the first of it’s kind in the world yet still telling us new things about space, or the Ironbridge in Shropshire, the first bridge ever to be made from iron, an engineering masterpiece and UNESCO heritage site.
What I love is that whenever I spot a brown sign, wherever I am in the world, I know a visit there will tell me something new. It’ll expand my mind and teach me something important about the world I live in, even if it’s only something small you can always find that kernel of amazing. All my life I have struggled to connect and engage properly with the world around me, I wrangled with never truly understanding my own little place on this planet and my role within it, but when I learned to take the time to be spontaneous and engage with the world in a different sort of way, by putting down my iPhone, ignoring my nagging sat nav (GPS) and properly noticing the world around me, that world became far more clear.
Following brown tourist signs is a fun and quirky way to spend some leisure time. I guarantee that if you make a day of it this weekend you’ll discover some fantastic places and talk to some seriously fascinating people who are just waiting to share their passion with you. But apart from brown-signing just being fun, it is also the most rewarding way to notice the world around you, you make time to properly experience your history, heritage, culture, and landscape simply by turning off the road when you see a brown sign.
For me, “brown-signing” isn't just about spotting brown signs and following them any more (well, I still do that a lot, obviously). It’s also about noticing the unnoticed and balancing this confusing, scary, information-overloaded world we live in with a little twist of make-your-own-adventure time. And you know what else—it might well be one of the most important things in my life that keeps me grounded and sane.