30/12/2011 14:58 GMT | Updated 29/02/2012 05:12 GMT

A Beautiful Sign

As the owner of a writers' retreat, I sometimes hear guests mourning a time gone by - when life was easier and simpler. I'm not convinced that it actually was either of those things, but what I do know is that we are in danger of losing some aspects of life that prevent it being run-of-the-mill. The crafts and skills which used to adorn daily life, and make it vibrant.

One of these is traditional signwriting. The letters and words that, until a few decades ago were found on almost every shopfront in any busy town. Unlike so much of the frankly garish and crude lettering seen today, which, thanks to computer technology, require no skill at all, these were signs crafted by true professionals who had painstakingly learned their trade over months and years. They were nothing if not easy on the eye, and did an excellent job of bringing more than a dash of style and elegance to the urban environment.

We need signs. They are all around us. But signwriting is a dying trade. There are only a few traditional signwriters left in the UK and few seem keen to take their place. The idea, held by some, that this is a skill which should be reserved for barges and funfairs is ridiculous, and ignores the fact that beautifully crafted signs can only be a positive thing for any business.

These days, so much is done using vinyl. It's cheaper and faster, but it's easy to do badly, and anyone can tell the difference. I wouldn't say I had an artist's eye - far from it. But on a recent trip to Bristol, several signs caught my non artist's eye and made me stop and look. The colours were completely true - a million miles away from the pixillated mixes of vinyl, and the outlines razor sharp. The signs were outside a barber's shop, a restaurant and an art gallery and in each case, not only did the frontage look better and more slick, but the sign also bestowed a kind of vibrant charm on the surrounding area.

The artist, a young local man, was nearby, at work on another sign. He told me that signwriting is a labour of love. He explained to me how every job is measured and drawn to scale, with pencil, on dress maker's pattern paper. The outlines are perforated and then the design is secured onto the site. Chalk is rubbed over it, to provide an outline, and then, when the paper is removed, work can start. There's no easy way to do it, he said with a shrug. It's slow and painstaking, and it takes years to be really good. But if you love letters, like I do, it's got to be worth it.

He's right, of course - and you can see his work at