I’m getting an increasing sense of excitement about tracking down and visiting commons, and I’m finding myself more interested in the obscure and the idiosyncratic than the great and iconic. A village pump near the A303? Bring it on. The problem here is that, for the very small commons, tracking them down becomes a matter of guesswork without shelling out for the largest scale OS maps.
This is demonstrated amply by trying to work out which patch of riverbank beside Ford Bridge, near Monkton, is the common. Both patches are tiny and logically, it’s the bit that isn’t fenced in and into which you can pick your way from the roadside. Logically, it provides easy access from the road for cattle to drink at the river and to fish (cattle and piscary being mentioned in the rights) and, at least presently, it is more wooded and so there’s some possibility of albeit meagre estovers. But places – especially river banks – change over time and so the rights which might go back many centuries might not actually be possible in 2021. The barbed wire fence should have persuaded me, because common land is Access Land and barbed wire rather bluntly tells you not to be so silly, go play somewhere else, there’s a good lad. But as I was to be reminded repeatedly throughout the day, it’s nowhere near as simple as that. That said, I wanted it to be the more wooded of the riverbanks, because I liked the way it looked, it felt inviting, and I’m not a fan of hopping across barbed wire, especially not on a relatively well-used country lane.
Dumpdon Hill is up the road, a hill fort owned, I found on arrival, by the National Trust. It has magnificent views, gorgeous trees, is rich in birdsong, and crowned with a beech wood into which is carved more graffiti than a 1980s New York subway car. The National Trust have given over almost all their land as Access Land, not really surprising as one reason they were created was to buy up and thus preserve commons in the mid-19th, born of the same intense, Ruskin-inspired set that gave us the Commons Preservation Society – now the Open Spaces Society. But from the trainspotterish point of view of tracking down the actual common, the National Trust muddy the waters. It’s very possible that only some bits of Dumpdon Hill are common, while all of Dumpdon Hill is Access Land. Clearly, it’s still used for grazing, but the old beech wood is surrounded by barbed wire in which there are access gates. My guess is this wood is enclosure, especially as there’s a bank around it, and it could also be that the flat, lush grass of the grazing areas aren’t common either, but the steep sides are.
Why does this matter? Why am I being so particular? Well, simply, because if I start saying ‘Access Land’ rather than ‘Common Land’ then this brings me into a completely unwieldy area. Where do I stop? Do I start visiting National Trust-owned parkland? Go back to the patches of scrubby hillside of Tollard Royal? But, without hard research into each and every common, I’ll never know. And, as I’ve mentioned before, I like the mythical aspect of commons – the mythical aspect that let me turn Leamington Spa’s Newbold Comyn Park into a common during a terrible year and, because I did so, quite possibly prevented me becoming institutionalised. So I need to live with ambiguity – track down the sites, but know my conclusions will be imperfect, a record of personal immersion. I will need to tread carefully with facts in this project, be speculative, playful. Be essayistic.
I walked from Dumpdon Hill to Wick Green, which is both clearly marked on the map and identifiable from its description. It’s a verge common, along a track, which runs for a few hundred yards, gradually swelling to be about 20 feet wide, then shrinking away again. It provides access to a nameless stream and is thick with willows, blackthorn and, when I visited in mid-April, soon to become awash with bluebells. Like all the commons in this parish – Luppitt – it provides access for cattle and sheep, estovers, piscary and turbary (though how much turf you’d usefully get here is anyone’s guess). On the basis of this, I’m imagining that these commons, while all separate, were created at the same time, as part of the same act of enclosure.
It’s a nice, quiet little spot, but I doubt there’s many people who’d realise it was a common without local knowledge or a geekish fascination for the subject. It’s just a bit of woody, scrubby, hedgerowish bit of land no different from hundreds of thousands of similar overlooked patches around England. I very much doubt it’s commoned, and there can only be a handful of people who have any sort of understanding of it as such. If, for some reason, I decided to use this common for my project, I would have to intervene. It wouldn’t be enough just to rock up with a camera and immerse myself in it, as I’ve done in various other places. I’d need to conduct and demonstrate research, interview people, create a voiceover. Else, I’d have to take a more abstract, mythical angle – make the place look strange, ancient, different. Set someone fishing in medieval garb. Set up a Maypole and concoct a tradition. Otherwise, it’s no different to visiting Kings Walk Shopping Centre in Gloucester because it’s the site of a Roman wall and just filming people shopping (I’m sure there are plenty of filmmakers who’d jump at the chance to do this but I am definitely not among their number).
I drove a little futher up the road to Beacon, at the foot of a ridge – Hartridge – from where begins one of three patches of legally incorporated but physically distant commons. Hartridge begins as scrubby woodland, then rises up to steep, brackeny slopes running along the ridge. Parts of the top are enclosed, so once I’d climbed up – and it is quite a climb – I skirted the first field fenced in with barbed wire, hoping to encounter the heath or grassland I anticipated. But found another field. Then another. In fact, the crest of Hartridge is all grazing meadow and all fenced in. Like the verges at Wick Common, you’d not know this was common land or Access Land unless you looked on an OS map. So – how to bring this alive as such? This will take considerable thought.
In fact, I was even deterred from using a track by being sternly told via a sign it was not a public right of way by the Luppitt Commons Trustees. This was, of course, true. But that doesn’t mean the public don’t have right of access down it – just that it’s not a right of way. The sign had been scratched through several times – a sign of ongoing battles of rights of access. But it was lunchtime and I didn’t fancy finding myself in my own battle and so sat on a bench admiring the stunning view, and making an appointment on my phone to get my first Covid vaccine jab through the NHS website. Such are the days we live in. I did get chatting to an enthusiastic couple out walking (the first of several) who enthused about the walk along the public footpath which I’d missed completely (though it is signed) and then along the track back to Beacon. This runs along the common, beside the fields. It’s neither a public footpath, nor is it signed, but I strongly suspect it’s been used as of right for some time – quite possibly since time immemorial (even if that is only twenty years, as the law requires).
And that train of thought got me thinking: so these days no-one needs to fish in a little stream for their way of life. No-one needs to collect gorse for the fire, reeds for the thatch, or if they do, it’s by way of tradition and for the sake of heritage. But what people do need is a nice walk across fields to walk their dog, space for their kids to play, a wood to hear the birds, a view to see the sun set, somewhere great for photography, a river for a swim (I’ve recently noticed that a popular but privately-owned river beach near Exeter has been closed, presumably due to lockdown hordes descending on it). Those, surely, are the things these days that people need to take from the land, and especially if that means getting away from the towns and cities, from our own little worlds, and so the non-local becomes just as important to us as the local. To an extent, we common Access Land, and though there are limits placed on what we can do there, that’s also in the tradition of commons anyway. This is something to think on further, another strand to the project. If estovers etc. are the rights of common of times gone by, what are the rights of common befitting the modern age?
I tried to tackle Hense Moor, which is long and narrow and incredibly wet, and when after struggling through bog and stream and mud I came across a field of cows having only gone about a tenth of the way, I decided to leave it for another time. It is a fascinating place, there are houses backing onto it so that private yards and gardens blend into scrub, it’s full of deep gullies, woods, and when I drove to its other end, I was greeted with a hearty sign from the Luppitt Commons Trustees telling me this was Access Land and I could wander where I wanted. I wondered why the change of heart. Maybe I have to return to figure this one out. Maybe they’ve left it to the cows to frighten people like me off.