With the easing of lockdown and general frustration at being caged indoors as spring takes off, I’ve been doing some exploring of commons.
The first trip was following a walk near to Shaftesbury in the Cranborne Chase AONB, from a Pathfinder walking guide to Wiltshire, The Mendips and Somerset – this series has been central to my wellbeing for years and has introduced me to places that have become part of my DNA. I’d chosen the walk, starting at the tiny village of Tollard Royal for the way it looked on the reprinted OS map outlining the route – curious, long strips of access land, sometimes spreading out like crow’s feet, interspersed with large fields. I also chose it because Cranborne Chase, presumably, is old Norman hunting territory, and so very much part of the story of the commons.
I came across the first bit of access land within minutes of starting the walk – a rough, steep and long stretch of hillside – the area is full of such coombes. And looking further at the map, it became obvious that these patches of common are all thus – the steepest, and presumably, least useable valley sides. The enclosed lands, which include other steep valley sides, have been painstakingly ‘improved’ with lush green, rather than scrubby, grass. Thus, the commons here are, yet again, wastes – the least desirable bits of land, the offcuts, the bargain basement grazing for sheep. For that is mostly what seemed to be happening in these bits of common. In fact, the presence of sheep in this landscape seemed to indicate a common. Walking through one vast expanse of chalk and stalk, the common was out of sight, plunging down below on the other side of a barbed wire fence, its presence only detectably by bleating. Only one interesting anomaly – and that indicated by a name. One patch of common is, on the OS, named ‘Quarry Bottom’ – and I wonder if the commoners had the right to quarry, or if they simply had the right to graze.
The connection with hunting and game is still strong in the area. Between two commons is a large, partly wooded coombe (which I was supposed to walk up, but took the wrong path) and around this is a huge, recent fence, which can only mean that game is supposed to be kept in. Something that can jump, by the look of it, so either deer or, most likely, pheasant. I (mistakenly) walked through the huge, open fields above the coombe and, in the rather unsettling light that day, was reminded of just how unnatural the English countryside often feels. It’s an unavoidable tragedy of getting to know the countryside, this becoming aware of just how utterly manmade and industrial the whole thing is, and has been for hundreds of years. And yet that’s precisely what makes it unsettling – a haunted place, haunted by promises of the pastoral that no longer is – or maybe no longer even was. It’s that which I’m drawn to time and again as a photographer, as an imaginer. And yet, seeing how the non-human world finds its home in this strange habitat, how it just goes about its business and makes the most of things, is always affirming.
Except…except… The only registered common, it turns out, was the funny little pond and green at Tollard Royal. It turns out that these steep coombe sides are Access land, but not common. And they’re access land because they’re registered as rough grass/ heath. So all that philosophising about commons, wastes and so on – utter hogwash. In fact, so important is the game in this area, that Quarry Bottom has been removed from being access land for fear of accidentally shooting a member of the public, mistaking them for a partridge. And so, blinded by the promise of all that access land, I entered the myth of the commons. But what a pity – it was such a nice idea and it would have been great returning. But the pond is paltry – I didn’t even take a photo of it. It’s not worth a 90 minute drive for that. But Wiltshire’s registered common bathing spots – game on.
Research, m’boy. Do your research!