The Plot Thickens

by John Driver

Younger allotment holders (the under 40’s) who started school after the introduction of ‘Decimal Currency’ in 1967 and , the introduction of the ‘Metric System’ of measurements in 1971 (brought in after our entry to the EEC), will no doubt be well versed in centimetres, kilograms, litres etc.

Much of the blame for the Metric System and Decimalisation of our currency can be put fairly and squarely at the feet of ‘The King of France’ who decreed that a standard measurement of fine cloth would be a ‘Metre’ which he defined as the distance from the tip of his nose to the end of his outstretched hand. He also decided that instead of counting in dozens, like ignorant peasants, his Royal System of counting would be based on ‘Units of Ten’. As they say, the rest is history, the ‘Metric System’ is now universal.

However, I wonder how many of us ‘old codgers’, sitting out there in our allotment huts, still feel sentimental about the loss of the good old English ‘Imperial System’ of measurement?

I guess the vast majority of allotment holders will have been brought up on the ‘Imperial System’ of measurement at school eg. Pounds, shillings, pence, pounds and ounces, pints-quarts-gallons, inches-feet-yards and miles, combined with the intricacies of furlongs-chains-acres. Many of us have never really fully embraced the Metric System because the ‘Imperial System’ of measurement was firmly ingrained into our sub-conscious by old fashioned teaching whereby we had to recite verbatim, our ‘Imperial’ measurement tables and conversion factors. You’ll no doubt remember reciting:

  • 22 yards = 1 Chain;
  • 10 Chains = 1 Furlong;
  • 8 Furlongs = 1 Mile.

Mediaeval Maths – hope you’re up for this!
Before the days of compulsory schooling, our mediaeval forefathers and yeomen, who could not read or write, needed to measure, in order to work out distances and to determine areas in their fields and farms.

These were highly practical folk who used parts of their bodies as ‘Units of Measurement; eg.

  • One ‘Inch’ (from Old English ‘Ynca’ meaning ‘One Twelfth’) = length of the top joint of a thumb;
  • Four Inches = the width of a hand (is still in use today to measure horses despite metrication!);
  • Twelve Inches = the length of one’s Foot, (hence the standard distance ‘one foot’ was adopted);
  • Three Feet = One Yard (‘yard’ derived from the Old English term ‘gierd’ meaning Walking Stick);
  • The English ‘Rod’ = five and a half yards.

This land measurement is as old as farming itself. and was the distance required to turn a team of Oxen pulling a plough. The ploughman’s assistant called a ‘bovarius’ carried a Pole, exactly one Rod in length. When he reached the end of the furrow being ploughed it was his duty to walk in front of the oxen and to use his Pole to find the exact spot where the next furrow should be ploughed.

As an aside, it’s interesting to note that the word ‘road’ probably arose from the word ‘rod’.

In mediaeval times heavy wooden carts were pulled by oxen which required a wide road in order to turn round. ‘Rod’ spoken with a broad English accent is thought to have sounded like ‘ro-ad’.

  • The French ‘Perch’ – derives from the Norman French term ‘Perche’ – simply meaning a pole;
  • The English ‘Chain’ – was defined as 22 Yards (i.e. four Rods or Poles);
  • The English ‘Acre’ – in medieval times a strip of ploughing land that was one chain wide (22 yards) by 10 chains long (220 yards or one ‘Furlong’) = 1 Acre. (i.e. 4,840 Square Yards).

Still with me so far?
I guess this will take you right back to your school days but believe me it’s good for exercising the grey matter – if you can take just a little bit more, it’ll be worth it!

If all else fails, try a stiff whisky before reading on…

So there you have it, ‘Rod’, ‘Pole’ or ‘Perch’, they’re all the same! As is a ‘Lug’ by the way, but I’ve yet to find an explanation of this term – does anyone else know of it’s derivation?

Now, I hear you say, what has all this to do with your Allotment? In it’s simplest form, here’s how all of this links to the size of your plot at Sunnyside which will be either 5 ‘Poles’ or 10 ‘Poles’ in size.:- As explained, a ‘Rod’, ‘Perch’ or ‘Pole’ equals 5½ Yards in length = ¼ of a ‘Chain’.

A ‘Square ‘Pole = 5½ yards x 5½ yards = 30¼ Square Yards.

This was the amount of land that could be dug by a ‘fit peasant’ with a mediaeval wooden spade in just one day (not bad going ‘eh considering the mainstay of their diet was Bread and Beer!).

A typical 10 Pole Allotment –

Was 10 poles x 30¼ Square Yards = 302½ Square Yards = 10 days digging!
Number of ‘Poles’ per ‘Acre’ –
Is therefore 4840 Sq. yds divided by 30¼ Sq.Yds = 160 Poles per acre.
Number of 10 Pole Allotments per Acre. –
Therefore, the number of 10 Pole allotments in one Acre = 16 (ie.160 divided by 10).
Finally, how big an area is Sunnyside Allotments? As far as I can ascertain, on SS Old plus SS New there are 235 Plots of 10 Poles = 2,350 Poles. If you then take your trusty calculator and divide 2,350 by 160 poles per Acre you should find that Sunnyside allotment land area is approximately 14¾ acres. So there you have it!

My thanks go to ‘Old Pete’s Ramblings’ from the NASLG News which provided the historical context for this article.

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