Rods, poles and perches

Stand in the centre of Alnwick. Look around. One of the oldest features that you can see is the road layout. It’s impossible to put a date on this, but it certainly pre-dates the Norman castle. Another ancient feature of the town is the way that buildings are arranged. This is based on medieval burgage plots. That layout is obvious on old maps of Alnwick (this is Armstrong’s view from 1769). It’s less obvious on modern maps, or on the ground, but the principles are straightforward.

A burgage was a piece of land in a town that the lord rented out. The rent for a burgage plot was paid in money, rather than in agricultural labour. Every castle needed access to skilled craftsmen, and a supply of provisions. A plot of land, legal privileges and the protection of the garrison were used to attract desirable settlers into the neighbourhood. Each plot consisted of a long strip of land where colonists were expected to build a house. The charters that formed the Alnwick Borough and established the privileges of burgesses date from 1157-85. So these plots would have been laid out more than 800 years ago.

Be it known to all men present and to come, who shall see or hear this charter, that I William de Vesci have granted and by this my charter confirmed to my men who are burgesses of Alnwick that they and their heirs may hold of me and my heirs as freely and quietly as the burgesses of Newcastle hold of my lord the King of England.

As the medieval population grew more plots were needed, so some would be sub-divided. As time went on ownership would change, and some plots would be combined. Over time, on a well-established plot, development was intensive and ownership became complex. So only a limited amount of dividing and combining was practical. It has only been since the 20th century that significant changes could be made. When Conzen surveyed Alnwick in the 1960’s he found that most properties were still roughly 28 feet wide, or an obvious fraction or multiple of 28 feet.

In medieval towns the burgage plots were usually laid out to a standard width of two or three perches. A perch, a rod or a pole are all different terms for the same measurement, and all of these terms mean much the same thing. The word perch is derived from the French perche, which in turn comes from the Latin pertica, meaning a pikestaff. The length of a perch was defined in the Statute of Ells and Perches (about 1266-1303) as follows. “It is ordained that 3 grains of barley dry and round do make an inch, 12 inches make 1 foot, 3 feet make 1 yard, 5 yards and a half make a perch, and 40 perches in length and 4 in breadth make an acre“. So in the late 13th century a standard perch was defined as 15½ feet. At the time things must have varied or they wouldn’t have felt a need for these measurements to be standardised. Afterwards, with this definition it’s obvious that measurements would still vary from place to place and from time to time. Even 500 years later, the Weights and Measures Act (1824) would state that “the different Weights and Measures, some larger, and some less, are still in use in various Places throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and the true Measure of the present Standards is not verily known, which is the Cause of great Confusion and of manifest Frauds“.

So we imagine eight hundred years ago, the lord telling his surveyor to lay out plots in Alnwick, each the width of two poles. The most convenient pole that came to hand might have been a pikestaff from the garrison in the castle. Or it might have been the rod that the ploughman used to poke his oxen. Either way, it must have been about 14 foot long.

Whatever measure the surveyor used, his plot widths of 28 foot made sense. The size of an ordinary medieval house was limited by the distance that could be spanned by simple wooden beam, and the strength of timber that could be cut from a tree. It was expensive to span a room larger than about 15 foot in width. The surveyor was laying out plots that would be large enough for a house two rooms wide. Or (more likely) a house one room wide, with a passage alongside so that animals could be led between the plot at the back and the street at the front.

Today, the visual appeal of Alnwick’s town centre derives partly from our traditional Victorian and Edwardian shopfronts. And it derives partly from the classical design of Georgian stone-faced buildings. But we also need to thank a medieval surveyor for the regular pattern established by those 28 foot burgage plots.

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