The genre of place: three mid-Devon commons

I’ve always been a map nerd and I’ve been tracking down potential commons by spotting the pale yellowy-orange patches of Access Land. It’s how I found Wick Moor, up at Hinkley Point. OS Explorer 114 – Exeter and the Exe Valley – has revealed not an awful lot close to home, but North West of Tiverton, just due South of Exmoor, there are three noticeable patches. Witheridge Moor huddles around a crossroads, as many commons seem to. On the map, Rackenford Common looks like a triangular village green, nestling up close to the school, Old Rectory and All Saints Church. And there’s a network of heathland commons through which I’ve driven on the way to and from North Devon on the busy Great North Road – Rackenford Moor, In Moor, Knowstone Outer & Inner Moor and Hares Down. I found each to be an entirely distinct iteration of a common (I’ve recently found that, in Devon alone, there are pumps, ponds, bridges and stretches of river that are registered commons, so even the idea of common ‘land’ now needs to be rethought). Each prompted its own cascade of thoughts, moods and aesthetic interpretation. A question worth asking is: if this commons was a film, what kind of film would it be? 

Witheridge Moor isn’t very big, but it’s big enough for one to feel in a distinct place. It’s divided by the crossroads into three very difficult segments. One is easily accessible – true moor, wet underfoot, lots of winter-pale molinia, moss, clumps of birch and willow. It’s largely devoid of paths, and entirely devoid of well-trodden public footpaths, so most of the moor is a struggle to penetrate – a place existing for itself, uncurated. Nevertheless, a couple of Range Rovers pulled up while I was lurking there, disgorging a couple of families with their dogs – so it’s a local spot to spend time together.

Its longest side is a stand of trees leading into a plantation, and there are a couple of round barrows, one pretty impressively large and at one point fenced off. The barrows are grassed, or covered in bracken, showing the soil as distinct from the surrounding moorland.

The other large section is also moor, but is fenced off with barbed wire and the molinia appears to have been swaled (burned off). Drinking troughs suggest this section is grazed by cows.

The smallest section is, like the largest section of Luppits Common, apparently just a field, complete with a stack of gimp haybales and a knackered gate. Again, this was fenced off, and some day when I know what I want of such places, I’ll jump the fence and explore as is my legal right. So it was the first section where I spent time, and I loved it.

Molinia is heaven for photography as it throws everything into sharp relief, the paths followed dykes from when the moor was partly drained, and the place felt brilliantly low key. You’d have to be in the know to think of spending time there, and so every experience made me feel like I was sharing in a secret. The molinia always gives a sense of the weird, as does the wetland, and the weather threatened showers, even snow, the whole time I was there. There’s the deep time of the barrows, and the mysticism of the crossroad, so this is a place of fantasy, of haunting for me. It’s a place abundant with hidden corners – is, itself, a hidden corner. Paths vanish, enter from woodland, disappear off round the back of fields. It doesn’t conform to the OS map. It’s anarchic. It invites play. 

Rackenford Common was a five minute drive North. I arrived, pulled up beside the church, and was immediately beaten back into my dad’s old Honda Jazz by a squall of sleety rain, which nicely coincided with lunch. When I got back out, the temperature had dropped by several degrees and the tentative spring day had become an leaden-sky winter one. Nevertheless, Rackenford Common completely charmed me. It was full of love and thought and community spirit.

It’s had a basketball/tennis court built some time ago, and more recently a replacement thatched building to house the village pump, the inside of which is abundant with signage, A4 laminates of suggested walks, and a miniature Easter garden. Elsewhere is a death slide (or whatever less scary name they’re called these days), laminated Easter eggs for an Easter trail, thoughtfully placed bits of pallets to help one navigate over the squelchier bits of terrain, football post, and the remnants of an old building, in the process of being redeveloped (one of two signage boards tells me).

There’s lots of woodland, too – much of it just left to get on with its own thing, and evidence that the local kids are also left to get on with their own thing, judging by a few tentative dens, platforms in the trees and so on.

I’d love to know more about this place, its relationship to the villages and the villagers, if it’s all about the do-gooders and if everyone’s on board with this, what power games erupt (as they surely must) and how the management of the space is impacted by it being a common. In short – I’d like to speak to people. Interview them. Capture their voices. I’m curious about the social life of this place. 

Another five minutes, I parked up alongside a long, thin enclosure of beech woodland dividing the road and Hares Down from Rackenford Moor. You drive over the Great North Road to get there and it’s omnipresent. I struggled to get a handle on this place. It’s a managed place – the wide mown paths through the heathland, the carefully maintained stretch of the Two Moors Way with its duck boards over incorrigibly muddy marsh. Even the Exmoor ponies seemed thrust upon it somehow. And of course, that’s because it IS managed, for conservation and amenity, by Devon Wildlife Trust, and that is a fine and good thing, but I always like it when a place and its users seem to have a kind of unplanned autonomy, rather than being managed. And especially when those things come into conflict.

For what makes this network of commons particularly fascinating is that wretched, noisy road. In fact, it’s quite clearly made Rackenford Moor the place that it is – judging from the topography, a considerable amount of the spoil from the cutting ended up here, like some vast, agnostic barrow, a hill for nobody. A concrete bridge leaps the woodland around Sturcombe River which is filled with the roar and rumble of rubber on joints, the willow blossom thrown into profile from the deep, geometrically precise shadows underneath.

An old lane, now blocked off, is slowly being claimed by the grass as it leads down to a gate leading on to the Great North Road, across which I fled, knowing the speeds at which some cars have overtaken me there. A newly-laid, newly reconfigured old road leads up to a roadside parking area with a Swiss Chalet diner and a short walk up to a wind farm. The easy access has brought quad bikes here, which have churned up Knowstone Outer Moor.

And the view from the bridge, which gives out onto a stunning expanse of Exmoor, including Molland Common where I was just a few days ago, looks out onto overtaking signage and cars pegging it to make the most of the last few hundred yards of an overtaking lane as they crest another hill. What makes this place fascinating, though it does have its hidden corners, is the anthropocene, the aggressive arrogance of what we’re doing with the raw stuff of this planet.

The barrows of the early c.21st are the spoils of road cuttings. The flippant nihilism of roadbuilding, the inevitability of the car is surely an excellent analogue of the inevitability of capitalism – simply the best way of getting from a to b whether it’s spatially or economically. That’s not to say it’s an ugly place, or a charmless place – this is only a first, summary look, without exploring the hidden corners (it’s quite big and most of it isn’t reached on paths) but that the road is its salient feature. At all sides, it is in conversation with that road. And that’s fascinating. 

And so, the genre of each place: Witheridge Moor is a fantasy, a haunting, a place of shapes, abstracts and moods, of deep time, an Alan Garner kind of place. Rackenford Common is a place of community and personal history, battles and anecdotes, an Agnes Varda kind of place. Rackenford Moor is a place of psychogeography, the anthropocene, global capital, a Patrick Keiller kind of place. 

The other thing, and this is going to require its own post some time, or repeated posts, is that the way in to these places hasn’t been photography – that just let me consider them. It’s been writing. Writing is fundamental to the way I connect with place – or, rather, internalise, go deeper, expand on the cursory experiences I get when walking and photographing. As I realised with my photography course at Falmouth, to cut writing out of what I do as a creative person, artist, whatever, is to cut off a limb. 

Published by andythatcher

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

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