A country mile

It it believed to be the Romans who first introduced waymarkers, or milestones, into this country

It’s a constant mystery to me why we in this country have not settled on one system of measuring things like weight and distance. When my children were born, their weight was recorded in pounds and ounces, and yet their height was given in centimetres. I’m not sure how old they were when we started to measure their height in feet and inches, but today I know my oldest son is six foot three, but I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head what that is in centimetres (it is actually around 192cm, but I had to look it up!).

Similarly if I read that someone is 165cm taIl I have to really think about what that might look like. I will visualise how high a metre might be (because we were taught about metres and centimetres in school) then add about two thirds of a metre on to that to give me a picture of their actual height. If, however, I read that someone is five foot five inches tall (which is around 165cm), I wouldn’t need any time to think about that as I know what that looks like straight away.

Other European countries have fully adopted the metric system of measurement, using centimetres for height, kilograms for weight and kilometres for distance. If any of my European friends tell me they weigh 65 kilos, I would not immediately know that that it is around 10 stone. I’d get there eventually, but it’s not something that comes to me instantaneously.

The Americans are a bit like us in that they use metric for some things, and imperial for others. They prefer to use just pounds for weight and centimetres for height. However, like us, they are one of the few countries that still uses miles to measure distance.

I do wonder why the UK did not adopt kilometres like the rest of our European neighbours, although there was a time when we did seriously consider changing our system for calculating distance. As my dad writes in his column from 19th July 1980: ‘I wonder how long the mile will survive in our modern society? Already our children have learned nothing about inches and yards, and talk only in centimetres.’

As with many things, the Romans taught us a thing or two about measurements, and it was they who started to put distance markers at the sides of roads to help with understanding how far on your journey you’d gone, and how far you had yet to go. These markers were also a way of reminding Roman Britons of who was in charge, with the name of the ruling emperor often inscribed in prime position at the top of the stone.

There are around 100 of these ancient markers still in existence today, and one of the most well known lies just off Dere Street, the ancient Roman route that linked Eboracum (York) and Caledonia (Scotland). Some of today’s modern routes follow Dere Street, including parts of the A1 and also the A68 northwest of Newcastle. It is just off this road, at West Woodburn, that the ancient granite milestone can still be seen.

Milestones became much more important with the dawning of the age of the stagecoach, helping coach operators establish timetables for the drivers to adhere to. Having said that, the distance between each milestone wasn’t always accurate and some ‘miles’ were much longer than others. The Roman mile was about 1600 yards, but in 1593 Queen Elizabeth I introduced the ‘modern’ mile which was 1760 yards. Despite this statutory measurement being passed down by Royal decree, many localities kept their own measurements for the mile, and so there were wide variations depending on where in the country you were. In Yorkshire alone, there were ‘miles’ measuring from 2,200 yards to 3,300! It was the Turnpike Act of 1766 which decreed that milestones be compulsory at every crossroads, although it wasn’t until the 1800s that the 1760-yard mile became a nationwide standard.

In 1980, Dad was convinced that we would eventually adopt the kilometre: ‘I suppose we’ll soon have kilometre posts in place of milestones, and when that day comes, I very much doubt whether the Yorkshire kilometre will be any different from the others. Well, that’s the price of progress.’

Well, Dad, clearly we haven’t made any progress yet!

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 17th July and the Gazette & Herald on 15th July 2020

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