As its traditional to reflect on past events at Christmas and New Year, an invitation now to return to long-past schooldays, and the carol Good King Wenceslas, sung with gusto in the school hall.

It was surely complete coincidence that Tennyson and Christmas came up at around the same time, but these unrelated events raised some key questions in this writer’s then young, inquisitive mind. I began wondering what exactly this ‘league’ was that authors mentioned so often. It seemed to me the writer of our seasonal little number – who must have been a true journalist as he never reveals the peasant chap’s name, or what his dwelling actually was – could have chosen a more obvious yardstick by which kids singing his carol aeons later might gain a clue about how far the poor bloke had to walk home. Then Tennyson got in on the act. All in all, some things really worried me at school. Yes, I know…  

As the carol singers trolled those so-familiar words again this Christmas – you’re lucky to get a full verse these days, never mind a complete carol –  the memories came flooding back… After Wenceslas and Tennyson, those infernal leagues cropped up yet again – in Jules Verne’s book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by which time I was old enough to find out once and for all what a league was.Frankly it was comforting to discover that today’s internet-researched answer, obtained in a few seconds, tallied well with the hard-won revelations resulting from hours spent in a dusty school library. I discovered then, and have lately confirmed, that a league varied a bit depending on where you were, so English 5 differed from Scottish leagues – and it had nothing to do with the quality of the football.

No, a league in England was and presumably still is about 3 miles, though Mr Verne’s submarine rather put the shark among the fish, leaving me pondering if leagues related to nautical miles – over a thousand feet more than a mile in Dad’s Ford Zephyr. But it couldn’t be, because the Light Brigade had been charging around Death Valley, and I knew from Dad’s Turtle Wax car polish label that it was tested in Death Valley – in Arizona.

Thus comforted, I was convinced that Jules Verne’s book therefore concerned submarine activities well over 6,600 miles down – until the literature teacher helpfully pointed out with several cracks of his ruler that 20,000 leagues was the distance travelled under the water, not the depth at which the journey took place.

Yet all in all, the league served literature well. Verne’s classic just wouldn’t have been the same entitled “6,666 Miles Under the Sea,” and with hindsight you can almost sense Tennyson’s frustration – if the league had not existed – seeking a measurement to scan properly in his half-written work. 

Virtually all ye olde England’s distance measures were either far too short, or far too cumbersome, to have worked in that context. Try changing the words of Good King Wenceslas and Tennyson to suit today’s favoured measures: “a good three miles hence” or “one and a half miles, one and a half miles, one and a half miles onwards” – or equivalents in kilometres – just don’t offer snappy flexibility to slip un-noticed into carols or classic literature. But the league fitted perfectly, and the rest, as they say, is history.

To conclude, I’m afraid Shakespeare was always way out of my, ahem, league, but maybe you know something about this well known seasonal and cultural tale.

When icicles hang by the wall

And Dick the shepherd blows his nail

And Tom bears logs into the hall

And milk comes frozen home in pail,

When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul,

When nightly sings the staring owl,

Tu-whit; Tu-who, a merry note,

While greasy Joan doth keel the pot…


For your homework tonight, I’d really like to know if Dick the shepherd was having engine trouble with his old car, and if not, precisely what he was blowing… and  question two: what, exactly, was greasy Joan doing with her pot? 

If you know the answer to this turkey twister, send to [email protected]

Have a great Christmas and New Year!

Dave Moss
Dave Moss

Dave Moss has a lifetime connection with the world of motoring. His father was a time-served skilled engineer from an age when car repairs really meant repairs: he ran his own garage from the 1930’s to the 60’s, while Mum was the boss’s secretary at a big Austin distributor. Both worked their entire lives in the motor trade, so if motor oil’s not in Dave’s blood, its surely a very close thing.

Though qualified in Electronics, for Dave it seemed a natural step into restoring a succession of classic cars, culminating in a variety of Minis. Writing and broadcasting about these, and a widening range of motoring matters ancient and modern, gathered pace in the 1970’s and has taken over since. Topics nowadays range across the modern motoring mainstream to the offbeat and more arcane aspects of motoring history, and outlets embrace books, websites national and international magazines, newspapers, radio programmes, phone-ins and guest appearances. Spare time: hard graft on the garage floor attending to vehicles old and new. Latest projects: that 1968 Mini Cooper S has finally moved again after 30 years, and when the paint is finished, the 1960 Morris Mini 850 will also soon be ready for the road again…

Share This