Devon help us

Published on 16 September 2021

Road signs in the UK are colour coded to help you distinguish different types of road. In Devon, though, you'll find more colours than anywhere else. What do Devon's colourful signs mean?

You know how it works. Blue-backed signs are for motorways. Green backgrounds are for primary routes. Black and white signs are for all other roads, and a brown background indicates a tourist destination. We've got a whole page explaining the many colours of the UK signage system.

If you find yourself in Devon, though, you'll soon stumble on signposts that don't conform to the system - they have unusual blue or brown arrows on them, and coloured borders, or sometimes no border at all.

The county of Devon is responsible for a greater mileage of roads than any other highway authority in the UK, and thanks to its rural nature, many of them are either very narrow, very steep, have very high hedges and no visibility around corners, or lack places to pass oncoming traffic. Some have all those features.

Uppacott Cross, Devon, the meeting of several roads of dubious width. Click to enlarge
Uppacott Cross, Devon, the meeting of several roads of dubious width. Click to enlarge

In the 1980s, to help drivers select suitable routes around the wilds of Dartmoor, the County Council sorted minor roads into types, erected all-new signposts with a new system of colour coding, and launched a publicity drive.

Signs were put up to explain the colour code at entry points and car parks across Dartmoor, and leaflets were published and made available at tourist attractions, information kiosks and local cafes.

The system was considered enough of a success that, in about 1990, it was rolled out to the entire county. You can now see these oddly colourful signs across the whole of Devon, from Sidmouth to Bideford and from Lynton to Salcombe.

What you won't see is any explanation of the system. With a few faded exceptions, the explanatory signs are all gone, the leaflets are no longer published, and the Council's website is silent on the matter.

That seems odd, so to fill the inexplicable void, here's an explanation of Devon's colour coding system. Apart from a handful of forum posts, we believe it's the only one available anywhere online.

True colours

Devon still uses the same system of road signs as the rest of the UK, so you will see A-roads and B-roads signposted just as you'd expect. Primary routes have signs with green backgrounds and non-primary routes have black and white signs.

Roads signposted in this way are suitable for all types of traffic, and are the only routes considered suitable for buses, coaches and heavy goods vehicles.

Smaller roads will use Devon's special colour schemes, which are all really an extension of the black and white signs you'd expect to see on minor roads. Devon just changes the colour of the borders and the arrows.

Blue: roads for medium sized vehicles

Blue borders and blue arrows indicate roads suitable for cars, minibuses and light goods vehicles - but NOT caravans. These roads usually have lengths of single track road and may have restricted sight lines or sharp turns, but with good opportunities to pass oncoming traffic.

Blue borders indicate roads for medium sized traffic. Click to enlarge
Blue borders indicate roads for medium sized traffic. Click to enlarge

Brown: roads for light vehicles

Brown borders and brown arrows point to roads that are really only suitable for cars and other light traffic. These roads tend to be predominantly single track and may be quite hemmed in, requiring low speeds and careful manoeuvres to pass other vehicles.

A brown-bordered fingerpost for Postbridge. Click to enlarge
A brown-bordered fingerpost for Postbridge. Click to enlarge

White: roads for local traffic

White signs with no borders, and either no arrows or white arrows with an outline, indicate roads recommended for local traffic only, and which may only lead to private premises or very small settlements. These are often extremely narrow, perhaps only just the width of a car, and may lack any space to pass an oncoming vehicle (or even a pedestrian) for long lengths. In some cases they may not have a fully sealed surface.

A white sign, complete with white arrow, for a very local road. Click to enlarge
A white sign, complete with white arrow, for a very local road. Click to enlarge

Patching it up

On ordinary road signs, a panel of a different colour can be used to indicate a different type of road - like, for example, where motorway numbers are placed in a blue box to make them stand out from the rest of the sign. Sign designers refer to them as patches and panels, and you can "patch up" or "patch down" to indicate higher and lower status roads.

Devon's system allows for the same thing to happen with its special colour codes. Where a destination is shown that will require you to travel on a lower standard of road later in the journey, it appears with the appropriate colour border.

You can see, for example, a blue border around Chagford on this fingerpost, because the road it points down is suitable for all traffic, but if you keep following signs to Chagford you'll eventually be directed along a road that's recommended only for medium sized vehicles.

A blue patch on a black-bordered fingerpost sign. Click to enlarge
A blue patch on a black-bordered fingerpost sign. Click to enlarge

Most of the examples so far have been on the kind of fingerpost signs you see in quiet rural Devon, but the system works on all types of sign. Here's a large advance direction sign on a fast A-road, where Aylesbeare appears in a brown border to indicate that it's reached by leaving the A3052 and taking a road suitable only for light traffic.

Nine Oaks junction on the A3052, with a brown-bordered patch for Aylesbeare. Click to enlarge
Nine Oaks junction on the A3052, with a brown-bordered patch for Aylesbeare. Click to enlarge

In some places, Devon's highway engineers get really ambitious, and start placing panels within panels. This sign indicates a left turn that's suitable for all traffic, but where the only signposted places will involve a later turn onto a road open only to medium sized vehicles - and within the blue-bordered panel there is then also a brown-background panel for a tourist destination.

A brown tourist panel inside a blue bordered panel on a black and white sign, like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind. Click to enlarge
A brown tourist panel inside a blue bordered panel on a black and white sign, like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind. Click to enlarge

Devon only knows

Understanding Devon's unique colour coding system making navigating the county much easier. Tiny side roads are no longer a nasty surprise, and if you don't want to risk having to reverse a caravan along half a mile of winding single-track lane, then you can avoid roads like that with certainty. So it's a bit of a mystery why the County Council don't do more to publicise it - hoping instead, presumably, that people will get the idea after seeing enough of the signs.

That seems unlikely, though, in a country where some drivers don't yet understand some of the most basic warning signs. A bit of education can go a very long way.

A reproduction of the signs once seen across Devon to explain the system. Click to enlarge
A reproduction of the signs once seen across Devon to explain the system. Click to enlarge

For now, this explanation will have to do. So take this valuable information, and next time you find yourself in Devon, wondering what lies around the next corner, and whether you'll make it to your destination with your wing mirrors intact, just take a look at the colour of the sign - and wonder no more.

If you know of any surviving signs on Devon's highway network that explain the colour coding system, please do let us know in the comments.

Comments

Fraser 16 September 2021

Thanks very much for this ! Next time I'm in Devon I shall feel more confident when taking a particular route, However the OS 1:50000 maps do indicate width for the yellow-coloured roads. The only thing is when one actuall uses such a road, it can be wider for most of its length with the narrow bit only a few yard, OR it really is narrow so don't go down it with a large and wide vehicle !!

Matthew Goode 17 September 2021

I like the fact that the sign to Sticklepath, South Tawton and the caravan site (all contained within a blue border) is not suitable for caravans!

Would a towed caravan not count as medium sized?

I assume it is precisely the towed caravans that can't use the routes with the blue border, as it is hard to reverse them up to let someone pas you etc. I'd think campervans and some motorhomes may count as medium though and not necessarily be excluded by the 'no caravans' rule. Presumably there is another route to reach that caravan site that is suitable for all caravans though, or if not then the site is probably no longer in business.

Giles Westaway 17 September 2021

Born and grew up in Devon, passed my test in the early 90’s never new the official detail on this until now. Always knew small roads = colours; really small = white. But in a tractor you just went wherever you needed to… and you better reverse ‘cos I can’t!

Bit of a problem for us here in West Wales too. One of my pet peeves is people who drive down country lanes, whether tourist or local, but can't reverse even a little way to a passing space without veering off course numerous times, or driving a 4X4 but won't drive onto a flat grassy area or into a field gateway.

MilesT 17 September 2021

I wonder if this data has been exposed to the various providers of mapping data used for consumer and commercial vehicle routing/navigation

Mathew Perring 17 September 2021

Growing up in Devon in the 80s my friends father was responsible for roads maintenance in Devon for the county council, so very likely had a hand in this. You would see him on the TV news any year when it snowed saying they would be doing everything possible to keep the roads clear it was invariably bright and sunny as they would shoot it in the summer and play the recorded footage when the winter weather fell.

He solved a mystery when another friend found this odd star shaped rock with rounded corners about 2cm by 1cm and after finding one started looking and found many more, until he had a whole bottle filled with them. Turned out these were concrete stars used in road construction.

David Brown 18 September 2021

As far as I know, there's only one remaining explanation sign, and can be found on a minor road at the western roundabout of the A38/A385 junction near South Brent.

Amazingly, the leaflet shows a picture of the special Devon colour coded signs, and even says that there are signs to indicate the different types of road - but it still doesn’t actually explain the system!

It does, on the first page, middle of the left hand side, next to the pictures of the Whimple, Butterleigh and Woodtown signs.

So it does! Weirdly that page is blank when I view it on my phone, but on a desktop PC it’s visible. 

Dan Lockton 30 September 2021

This is a great article! Growing up in Devon, I was so fascinated by this system and it's really good to have it explained in such a thorough way.

Devon still uses the same system of road signs as the rest of the UK, so you will see A-roads and B-roads signposted just as you'd expect. Primary routes have signs with green backgrounds and non-primary routes have black and white signs.

The one anomaly / slight caveat to this is that certain of Devon's narrower B-roads were (are?) signed with the blue-bordered/arrowed category rather than the standard national system. For example on the map on the Devon CC leaflet linked above, the B3217 (single-track in places) from Okehampton up to High Bickington and the A377 is shown in blue rather than as a secondary route, and indeed for parts of this, on the ground, the signs were (are?) blue-bordered but still with "B3217" on at least some of them. Parts of the road have now been declassified.

I mentioned it once on SABRE but I half-remember the (very very narrow) B3205 from the A379 south of Dartmouth https://goo.gl/maps/QhTLFoHyvEc82EY49 down past Dartmouth Castle and into the town — which currently only has a brown tourist sign and no indication that it's a B-road at all — being signed with a brown-bordered/arrowed sign.

Richard Crossley 4 November 2021

They need this in Monmouthshire (Wales in general maybe), plenty of single track high hedge lanes there. I have show friends of mine the width of the roads and they always ask, "What happens when you meet something coming the other way?" If it's a vehicle one of them reverses the to next gate or passing place. If it's animals, the vehicle reverses, has one tried backing up sheep?

Adam 6 November 2021

This is fantastic, thanks for writing it up - I've been wondering about it for years & have now moved to Devon so was inspired to do a quick google :)

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