East Devon Roadtrip.

Everything’s just got too familiar with me and commons over the lockdowns. It’s become just about what I read in books, the commons I remember like Tunbridge Wells and Walthamstow Marshes, and the commons I come across in research like the wet meadows bordering Hinkley Point, which I’m dying to visit. For medical reasons, I’m allowed to seek out open space, which is really lucky, and I’ve been visiting the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths regularly for months. But there are so many types of commons, and because the heaths are a nature reserve, and a pretty massive stretch of land, it’s easy to forget that most commons are pretty much overlooked bits of land dotted here and there. I spent this morning visiting some new ones. 

First was Harpford Common, at the end of a long ridge overlooking Sidmouth and from where you can see the Pebblebed Heaths. It’s a Local Nature Reserve, managed by the Woodland Trust and, I believe, owned by the Forestry Commission (all of whose land, I now realise, is Access Land). The views are stunning, even by East Devon standards, and it’s obviously a well-loved place, the car park bustling, dog walkers, runners, young families, horseriders very much in evidence. It’s not very big, and the site has been expanded by the look of it by the Woodland Trust making former private woodland Access Land – that’s judging by the presence of embankments between the heaths and the woods. It was very wet after last night’s rain and a huge shower that had just passed through. Mainly heathland, open across the top, but with woodland at the edges and at the bottom, where the common plunges down the ridge. It’s a kind of miniature pf what you find at the Pebblebed Heaths and Mutters Moor, towards which it looks across the valley. In other words, a nice spot, and great to have such a view of the heaths (you can see Harpford Common throughout these) but very much familiar ground. 

Harpford Common, February 2021.

I drove further along the ridge, decided not to explore Westgate Hill (a wooded common, which I must see some time) and went to see Gittisham Common. I parked up and splashed along a bridle path cutting across one corner of the common, heartened by a gate and a sign telling me I was welcome to walk there, declaring the common as Access Land. It’s an odd place – rough heathland – and what gives it a real edge are two huge radio masts at one edge. The common slopes very slightly down from them, so they dominate, wherever you are. The common is around 300 acres and triangular. It’s very much in the raw. There are no footpaths, no information boards. It’s just a patch of land for you to make of what you will, and go wherever you can find a way through.

Gittisham Common, February 2021

With the wet ground, there wasn’t much doing through that gate, so I tried a trackway the OS map insisted existed along one side, but alas has become overgrown by beeches. I drove further up, following a tractor trail to where birch is being cleared, but the tractor trail only went to the copse being cleared. There was a fair amount of litter – beer cans, crisps – recalling the unofficial uses of commons – the same at Harpford too come to think of it. A final stop, just past the radio masts, and I walked down a metalled track to Faraway Farm (surely not its original name?) Lots of hopeful little signs and stiles, most of which led nowhere or were in the process of being absorbed by the vegetation, as if there’d been a concerted effort some years back to engage the public more, but little interest thereafter. Oddly, one side of the track was classic heath, the other much more heavily grazed, through still with plenty of gorse and heather. One end has been let go to clog up with birch – and why ever not? I walked through one of the cleared firebreaks (?) until a deep pond forced me to turn around. It’s a great place. Full of character, and just a bit of anarchy and neglect. 

Gittisham Common, February 2021.

I drove on through Honiton to Luppits Common, which is long and narrow and straddles a B road, bisected by a crossroads. I’ve not seen verge commons, so was looking out for signs and pretty soon was driving through scrubby narrow woodland – the commons extend along thin slivers of verge to the north and south. Even so, I still wasn’t convinced, had to turn around and come back. Driving slowly back, it became obvious that this common is actually farmland. It’s fields for grazing, and there’s nothing to show you it’s common land, or even Access Land. There are no footpaths across it, and one quadrant – the roads divide it into quarters – is both hedged in and wire fenced in. The only thing that suggests common is the open gate leading into the widest expanse of grazing land – somewhere to go back and explore with more time. It’s intriguing – it just looks like a field. I wonder how it will feel different? And I wonder what the story is here. 

I drove on to Dunkeswell Turbary – Turbary being the common right to cut turf. REALLY liked this little patch of mainly bracken, but with well-trodden paths (this is in the middle of nowhere, so who is coming out here on a regular basis?) Woodland around the edges, wet willow wood, beech, birch scrub and pine. In one corner, I found looking back at the OS once in the car, is a row barrow – which I’d never heard of. Again, somewhere to return. No notice boards, no signs, no clear paths, just the land opposite some huge farm buildings – a hay business and some factory farmed chickens. Then down the hill to Broadhembury – a hill I’ve walked up a few times, including with my Mum, and also the first time away from Exeter at the end of the first lockdown. Drove up to Kerswell which has a common called Great Moor, a triangle like a village green. I drove past, didn’t stop. The grassy moor was fenced in, presumably for grazing (can easily imagine geese on here) and on the opposite side of the road was a BMX track which I later learned they parish council have been trying to get rid of since at least 2017 as it’s on the common land. However, as no one knows who owns the land, no one seems able to do anything about that. Who on earth built the track? This is an encroachment, clearly. Modern day squatting. I drove on to Colliton Moor as it started to rain. Colliton Moor is, appropriately, wet wood and wet meadow and in the rain with so much rain already on the land, there was no point in stopping to explore. But I will! There are other commons to visit around there, little patches of the things. 

These felt, very much, like commons in the rough. You’d drive past them without knowing what they were – though the heathland at Gittisham is a bit of a giveaway. And I like that the land is able to give up its own story. The Pebblebed Heaths are a special place, but they’re primarily for amenity and conservation. They’re nationally important, have their own website and are well-used and well-loved. I want to find other commons with stories that are harder to tease out. I came across a few today. 

Published by andythatcher

Photographer - filmmaker - writer - researcher Environment - wellbeing - politics

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