As June’s heatwave intensified, Ruby and I headed East, where it was even hotter, and then on the hottest day of the 2021 thus far, I headed up to London, where it’s always hotter still. But that was OK because I was spending the first part of the day common-hopping in leafy Richmond.
It’s astonishing just how many commons there are in London. Some are famous – Hampstead Heath, Blackheath, Clapham Common – while some are mere scraps of commons – a piece of grass opposite Turnham Green’s now-closed Post Office anyone? I started with one of these little offcuts – Cholmondeley Walk, a stretch of riverbank running just a few hundred yards alongside the walled gardens of Asgill House and Trumpeter’s House. Originally waste land owned by the crown following a river reclamation, it was until the 18thCentury the only public stretch of river in Richmond, much already being taken up with the deer park.
I’m curious to know about all these riverside commons – in this part of London, especially on the other side of the Thames at Twickenham, there are several such stretches. Presumably, as commons, they preserved rights of access to the river for washing, fishing, transport and so on, and that makes me wonder whether some of Cornwall’s beach commons – including a slipway – also preserve access. Along the Plym, there’s a stretch of the riverbed which is common. Who does one ask, I wonder?
Nowadays, Cholmondeley Walk is just another stretch of river path, dotted with anglers, populated by runners and couples out walking. You’d not know it was common. But right here in an area such as Richmond, awash with the power of breeding and capital, can be glimpsed a persistence of public right in the face of that.
I walked on to Petersham Common, a small patch of thick woodland sandwiched between Richmond Park and Petersham Meadows. Originally grazed, with the rise of Richmond as a playground for the wealthy in the c.18th, it was already overgrown by the late c.19thand ownership was transferred by parliament to the council to better look after it through a board of conservators. Its dense woodland became a feature of the area and was painted by Turner. It’s actually three patches of land: the main wood, into which the extraordinary Star and Garter intrudes, a patch between the B353 and Richmond Park’s outer wall, and a long wooded walk beside the A307.
It’s a delightful spot. The very well-established, rather anarchic woodland contrasts with the well-mannered meadows and gardens around it, and warnings of CCTV, a barrier to prevent horse riders entering, discarded running clothes, and the remnants of some art project, show this to be a place rather less well-mannered than one might expect of Richmond. There are wild roses and thickets of cow parsley, and the fencing-in of the deep wood somehow reminds me of the park in Blow Up, as if somehow the trees need to be corralled for fear they might run riot. It’s not parkland, nor painstakingly-managed woodland; Petersham Common seems to be neither especially about amenity nor about conservation, not intersecting with those political conversations, but rather simply allowed to be itself. I wonder if that’s because the conservators, rather than a charity or the council with their political visions, are responsible for it.
I walked from there into Richmond Park and out again, the heat building, and grateful for any shade I could find. I was looking for Pesthouse Common and the A-Z wasn’t very helpful – it seemed that the named common included playing fields which appeared to be attached to a school, and I couldn’t imagine that to be Access Land. When I came across it, I found a verge common, a small patch of grassland bordered by mature plane trees. There was a helpful information board explaining it to me – how the Pesthouse was a plague hospital, now pulled down, and that the common is a vestige of a much larger common which stretched to the Royal Park, until even that was enclosed for a workhouse and burial ground. In many ways, Cholmondeley Walk and Pesthouse Common are quite similar – you’d not know either to be commons really, and both are long and scruffy. But they’re opposites, for if Cholmondeley is a reminder or access preserved, Pesthouse is a reminder of it withdrawn. And though, of course, any patch of green space is a good thing for wildlife, Pesthouse didn’t seem to have any kind of human life past that historical signage; there were no paths through the long grass, no graffiti, not even any litter. Pesthouse Common was chipped away at until it became an irrelevance.
I walked on to East Sheen Common, a long triangular patch of woodland criss-crossed with metalled paths and illegal mountain bike trails. It leads up to the brick wall of the Royal Park, entry given at Bog Gate, and in one corner is a cricket club, a bowling club, and tennis courts. It’s owned by the National Trust, and the Woodland Trust are involved somehow or other.
It reminds me of Tunbridge Wells Common, a well-used, wooded urban amenity area with a recreation ground, a real contrast to Petersham Common. It’s been carefully thought-through and well-tended, a pleasant, deeply English and uncontroversial place to be, unless you happen to be involved in the mountain bike trails. I liked it, but I can’t say it made me reflect much.
I walked along some very posh streets and then into Richmond Park at Sheen Gate, remembering just what a stunning place this National Nature Reserve is. Originally all common, Charles I had it enclosed in 1637 as part of the New Park for Richmond Palace; the commons of my walk are all vestiges of a vast area of commons. Apparently, this was a deeply unpopular move, even though Charles did allow pedestrian access, and I wonder how much this was a bellwether of Charles’ fate just twelve years later.
I left Richmond Park and walked alongside its wall through my final common, Palewell Common. The site has extensive playing fields but by this point it was too hot for that and the woodland alongside first Beverley Brook and then the wall was deliciously cool. The wall fascinated me; of course, Richmond Park is now a heavily used and much-loved asset of London life, but the walls and the gates persist, a tangible sign of power and ownership and the Park is locked to vehicles at night and to pedestrians during the deer culls. It remains the property of the Crown, and not the people, and I can’t help but think that this ability to lock up the park is retained in part for its symbolic force. The public are permittedaccess to the park. It is not ours as of right, unlike the commons. Walking alongside the wall brought that home perfectly, and then up to the scruffy green at the top end of the Palewell Common where one can still see in the different layers of growth, a remnant of a pond, marked now only by this manhole cover. Beneath, hidden beneath all these layers of tampering, the Pale Well is still there, if only one cares to look, research and exercise a little imagination. I guess that’s in many ways a perfect summation of Commonplace.