Councils revive medieval tradition of lengthsman
It is a medieval solution to a very modern problem. The ancient role of the lengthsman, who would “walk the length of the parish” to ensure ditches and drains were clear, is being revived across the country.It is hoped the practice will help cash-strapped local authorities by spotting highway problems early before they become too expensive to fix.
Nottinghamshire County Council is the latest authority to reintroduce the scheme, planning to create 40 jobs.
In addition to checking ditches, modern recruits will trim grass verges, clear snow from roads, clean grates and report potholes.
Martin Suthers, deputy leader of the council, said: “There is considerable benefit to local communities. It will ensure local concerns are quickly acted on, nipping minor problems in the bud before they become significant and costly.
“It will also provide local employment and help communities take pride in their areas. It’s not a new idea but more about trying to adapt it to modern circumstances.”
The council plans to spend £54,000 on a one-year trial involving four lengthsmen and is hoping the scheme can then be extended to a team of 40 workers, with parish councils meeting half the bill.
Each parish or town council would benefit from the services of a lengthsman for around 135 hours a year under the scheme.
The position of the lengthsman dates back to the Middle Ages when parish councils employed men to maintain an area or length of road.
But it began to fall into decline after the late 1880s when road maintenance became the responsibility of county councils.
By the 1960s, increasing mechanisation of maintenance and the labour costs involved in keeping a lengthsmen saw them disappear - and with them their close knowledge of local highway networks and the communities they served.
But recent years have begun to see them return, with parishes in counties including Worcestershire, Lancashire Surrey and Dorset reviving the role.
The term lengthsman was also applied to those employed to maintain a stretch of canal and sometimes live in a lengthsman’s cottage close to a lock.