A RADICAL protest group has taken drastic action to ensure Westmorland becomes officially recognised as a historic county.

Members of County Watch have baffled tourists and locals by placing ‘Welcome to Lancashire’ signs in the heart of what is now Cumbria.

The signs - which are official Lancashire County Council signs - have been spotted at Bowness and Skelwith Bridge.

A series of unofficial ‘Westmorland’ signs have also appeared in Burton-in-Kendal, Milnthorpe and Sedbergh.

County Watch secretary Tony Bennett said Britain’s historic county and shire boundaries should be retained.

“I think these historic signs give people a sense of place, continuity and tradition,” he said.

“People value the Westmorland county name and this is apparent in the Westmorland County Show, the Westmorland Football League and the Westmorland Gazette.

"Westmorland still has a very strong identity but there is no point retaining the name if people don’t know where the historic county starts and ends.”

The county of Westmorland and parts of Lancashire were absorbed into the new county of Cumbria in 1974.

"These areas have been governed by Cumbria County Council ever since.

Mr Bennett, 63, a retired solicitor from Essex, said County Watch has taken direct action because repeated “polite attempts” to have the historic county recognised have failed.

He said County Watch will return to Cumbria next summer if Cumbria County Council does not recognise the old Westmorland boundaries by April.

“We will be back to put ‘Westmorland’ signs up at Brough, Penrith, Keswick and possibly even on top of Hellvelyn,” he said.

“This is a shock tactic but we would love to talk to Cumbria and Lancashire county councils and we will happily pay for the new signs, agree a location and erect them to Highways Agency standards.”

But the new signs have sparked confusion from locals and tourists who have failed to understand the significance of the County Watch campaign.

David Foster, 65, from Crook, said he was utterly baffled when he spotted the ‘Welcome to Lancashire’ sign at Counties Meet, near Bowness.

“Nobody know where they have come from or why they are there,” he said.

“It’s just so obscure.”

Martyn Stott, 54, Cartmel Fell, said County Watch members had taken “a diabolical liberty”.

He said: “It’s miles to the Lancashire border so it’ve very confusing and misleading for tourists. Aside from that I don’t want to live in Lancashire!

“I think the whole thing is stupid, very misleading and there’s no point to it.

“All the neighbours have been talking about it wondering what the heck is going on.

"In fact I’m thinking of putting my own sign up saying: ‘Lancashire 35 miles south - keep going’.”

Ted Walsh, chairman of Cartmel Fell Parish Council, said locals have always pushed to maintain an existing ‘Counties Meet’ sign to mark the spot where Winster, Cartmel Fell and Windermere meet.

“I can see the point if someone wanted the historic Westmorland noted but whether it needs this level of skulduggery I don’t know,” he said.

But Appleby-in-Westmorland parish councillor and former mayor, Stan Rooke, said he would love to see Westmorland recognised as a county.

“When Westmorland was abolished in 1974, our former mayor fought to retain the name in the town’s title so the county wouldn’t die,” he said.

“It’s so important to keep the name alive because Westmorland is such a historic county and it would be nice for future generations to recognise it as such.

The Friends of Real Lancashire group also wants to see the traditional counties of Lancashire, Cumberland and Westmorland signposted.

Chairman, Chris Dawson, said such a move could boost tourism.

“The history and culture of the area is bound up with the traditional counties that have existed for centuries and whose boundaries remain unchanged by any legislation,” he said.

“The geography of Britain ought to be based on traditional county areas which never change rather than on ephemeral administrative areas.”

A spokesman for Cumbria Tourism said: "I applaud County Watch's spirit and inventiveness but we have to remember that this is 2010 and this is Cumbria, whether we like it or not.

"We would not want to confuse any visitors to the area about where they are.

"I'd like to see a sign called Welcome To Paradise and we could put it up in the Lake District, naturally."

A spokesman for Cumbria Highways said the LCC signs have been removed and returned to the authority.

“Following the re-drawing of county boundaries in 1974, road signs were obviously altered to reflect this change and unauthorised attempts to make further alterations could be misleading – especially for tourists and visitors,” he said.

“Any requests for new road signs need to go via the highway authority for permission, so we’d urge people to get in touch with us to look at going through the correct process rather than simply taking action into their own hands.”

County Watch

County Watch has led campaigns in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Hampshire, Dorset and Somerset.

In 2005, County Watch placed ‘Welcome to Yorkshire’ signs in Saddleworth, in the Metropolitan Borough of Oldham, in a bid to have the parish recognised as part of historic Yorkshire. Since then the village has flown a Yorkshire flag.

The group has 20 active members and is chaired by author Nikolai Tolstoy, a distant cousin of the Russian author Leo Tolstoy.

Tony Bennett is a retired solcicitor from Essex who ran as the UKIP Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Harlow in the 2001 General Election and as Veritas party candidate in 2005.

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