In early February, I failed at a long walk around Chagford and Gidleigh Comnons, on the North-Eastern rim of Dartmoor’s high moor. The morning had started off sunny and though I could see the occasional shower from my vantage point on Kestor Rock, that also meant rainbows.
But dark clouds were towering up beyond the great plantation at Fernworthy. At first, I was determined to sit them out in the shelter of the tor, but as the moor began to blur and dissolve, all those years of accumulated stern warnings about low visibility and featureless moorland made me flee back to the car. I reached it just as a hailstorm crashed down onto my windscreen.
Being during the height of yet another lockdown, this plunged me into all sorts of shades of unhappiness for I was desperate to escape the cage that my house has become over the past 18 months. The rainbows turned out to be too easily forgotten.
I tried the walk again a couple of Sundays ago. Determined to make it an even better walk, I added in a second walk, making it all around ten miles or so. This time, the meteorological issue wasn’t hail but heat, and I’d factored that in by walking across open moor in the relative cool of the morning, then plunging into the wooded lanes and tracks before noon.
It’s this split character that’s particularly interesting. The open moor is, of course, common land, and thus access land, as is most English open moor. From Scorhill Down, the eye roves along a long, long ridge between Fernworthy and Codsdon Hill, giving an immense sense of space because the only things preventing you from just walking and walking are the mires and, occasionally, the Army firing live ammunition. That sense of freedom is a key aspect of this project, whether it’s actual or not, an aspect that the commons had thrust on them. From the late c.18th onwards, walking and enjoying the countryside became an activity in their own right, and this has nothing to do with the original function and meaning of commons – a densely-planted open field certainly wouldn’t have encouraged one to take stroll to enjoy ‘all that space’.
The transition from the expansiveness of Scorhill Down to agricultural land is gradual. If you look on a map, you can see little islands of dry-stone walled enclosures, white on the OS map, which gradually grow until they become a wall against the pale ochre of access land. It’s like the way that a mould grows, small outposts on rotting bark gradually linking up until the bark can’t be seen.
Walking it, the first thing heading towards the line of trees marking the rim of the open moor is one of the island enclosures, within which is, mid-June, rich, buttercup-dotted meadow rippling in the breeze and outside of which is bracken, gorse, heather and rough moor grasses. And flighty sheep hiding from the sun. It’s like a pastoral idyll in there, a private walled garden, and a little further along was a sign reminding everyone of this.
I head on, encountering some fierce bog and for the first time glad I never made that walk in damp February. The common flattens out, dotted by splodges of bramble thicket, the grass neatly rabbit-cropped and becoming less rough and wet, more docile and familiar. A road appears and I follow it for a while as it heads towards a thick, enclosed woodland through stone gateposts. I plunge off down a track signposted to Aysh and the common narrows, close enough to a house to get a cheery hello from a woman supervising her naked and noisy young children, becoming pincered between stone walls, until it’s just a rocky track. Then it’s across a little clapper bridge and it opens out onto another rabbit-cropped green before one final, terminal plunge through a gateway into the lush shade of a lane.
I stay on lanes and tracks until I’m back at the car. It’s a beautiful walk, with the dappled light, June wildflowers, stone walls, occasional chuckling brook, indolent-looking pubs, solitary postpoxes and Methodist chapels. This is familiar territory. It makes me want to exclaim how glorious the English countryside is. Oh to be in England in the summertime!
But the feeling couldn’t be more different to the open moor. There might be the illusion of freedom to choose between lanes, bridlepaths, tracks and the occasional field-cutting footpath, but actually, geographically, I’m less free than if I were in a city centre where at least I could go into shops, galleries and cafes. There’s a sense of being guided and directed by unseen authority. In many cases, the authority is explicit in the abundance of signs which have bloomed since March last year, when the shop- and pub- deprived English population turned to green space as their sole remaining means of escape.
Sure, the lanes are beautiful, but they’re rarely beautiful enough to be worth the walk in their own right; it’s the woods and fields and views which swell around them, beyond hedges and walls, which make this all so aesthetically rich. Actually, there’s almost that feeling of walking through a town centre and looking in on all those shop and restaurant windows, except in this case they’re beyond reach. This knowledge doesn’t make me enjoy the richness of the walk any less, but I suddenly feel that all these years I’ve been slightly cheated. All these years, I haven’t really been IN the countryside. Rather, I’ve been squeezed in BETWEEN it.
Borders and barriers interest me, and it’s one of the things that interests me about commons. What I think I’m starting to explore here isn’t just what they are and what they mean, but how they feel, how that acts on my experience and understanding of the world and of myself, especially when those borders and barriers are implied rather than stated.