Corfe Castle is just about do-able in a day trip from Exeter, at least in the summer of a pandemic which has spilled more caravans and motorhomes than usual onto Dorset’s narrow, winding A-roads. I’d several reasons for visiting: first, it’s incredibly famous and I’d never been; second, I’m dipping my toe in the water for a possible Hardy focus on Dorset commons and third, Bowden, Brown & Smith’s An Archaeology of Town Commons (2009) portrays the three commons around Corfe itself as exemplary of town commons.
Town commons are commons once or still used by townspeople making a living from trade, craft, or providing services, rather than agriculture. They can have multiple uses, including growing food or keeping livestock, but also grazing for horses and donkeys, fairs and gatherings, sport and weapons practice, as well as estovers and quarrying for building maintenance and turbary for fuel. Corfe was once was once a much larger place, important for its clay, which was quarried locally, including at the commons’ fringes; some existing tracks across them are likely to be remnants of bringing clay to the town on foot or by sledge.
Middle Halves is a long, vaguely rectangular common leading from near the church to the edge of Corfe. At the top, it’s very municipal and its lush mown grass sports a playground, basketball hoop, picnic tables and a toilet. After that, it’s mainly meadow, the cottages backing onto it each with their own gate, with trees dotted around the edge. In the centre is a fenced off area surrounded by trees which splits the meadow in two, and in which something or other is allowed to graze from time to time, though it wasn’t there when I visited, whatever it is. There’s also a small, wooded enclosure, not access land so presumably not common. There are plenty of benches and, especially with the long, swaying grass, there’s a real feeling of leisure. Originally, the Halves were used for strip farming for subsistence crops, like allotments are today. I was glad to be pointed in the right direction for the main common by a couple of residents, and pleased to see a long chat being had with a postie, as it was all too easy to see the place as a tourist trap; the almost oppressively photogenic castle looms over all these commons.
Corfe Common is in two parcels and I didn’t have time to visit both. Both have active commoners. Together, they make up the largest expanse of common in Dorset, according to the National Trust who seem to own or manage the one I didn’t visit, given the characteristic metal signage I found at one of its entrances. The one I did visit is both managed by hand and grazed as heathland, an expanse of undulating land crossed by lanes, a busy B-road which looks across Corfe to the castle. A stream idles through a slight combe, gathering around it the signs of dampness: willows and rushes and duckboard crossings. When I visited, the common was filling up with lime-green bracken and its paths were dotted with lesser heath orchids from deepest to palest pink. It’s also fenced in due to the grazing. There are eight round barrows on its highest ridge, possibly indicating settlement going back 8,000 years.
The parcel I didn’t get to is largely meadow – a considerable expanse of it. It’s split by a railway, mainly steam but also occasionally national rail, and I was lucky enough to be on the rail bridge when a locomotive went past – all very BBC period drama. On one side of the tracks is meadow, the bit I didn’t get to, but on the other is scrubby wood and grazing for horses. Some fancy-looking ducks had also barged in from a neighbouring property, hurriedly returning when they caught sight of me.
I’m never been much drawn to Hardy but neither have I tried. We did The Mayor of Casterbridge at school and that didn’t endear me to him. The only significant connection I’ve ever had is with the description of Egdon Heath at the start of Return of the Native, which I’d used for teaching literature to EFL teachers. Like so many literary places, Egdon Heath doesn’t really exist but is a composite of places, including the expansive heathland just outside nearby Wareham. You can see it clearly, even on a day as humid as the one I chose to visit, from Purbeck Ridge; in the middle of it, somewhere, is a remaining patch of common called Longton Wallace Heath.
For practical reasons, I’m considering basing this project in the South West. Much though I’d love to explore the literary commons of the Brontës, it’s a long way from Exeter when you have to be around to do dinner, so the South West ‘literary great’ is obviously Hardy. Visiting Hardy country certainly makes me more minded to develop this connection, and the time of his writing, at the tail end of the Parliamentary enclosures and the rise of valuing commons as amenities, also makes him interesting to include.
Aside from visiting a couple of historically and visually interesting commons, my trip to the Isle of Purbeck was to some extent one of chewing things over. It came the day after being accepted by both Bristol and Exeter for this PhD, which was one of the reasons for thinking regionally – had my original choice gone further, I would have been based at Manchester, where my chosen supervisor had been teaching until just a few weeks ago. It’s possible that one of my supervisors at Bristol, my new choice, is a Hardy expert, hence a reason for thinking more about Hardy. So this visit, more than any other to date, really did feel like a proper step along the way for my project, rather than simply enthusiastic dabbling. It was also the first visit chosen following research, which I’ve mentioned above.
Perhaps this turn to pragmatics is why I’ve started thinking more about what I’m doing with my photography. These trips are essentially me scouting for locations, and the photos I take are as much note-taking as anything else. As I don’t have so long to get to know the places as I do when visiting close to home, I’ve less of an eye for immersing myself in the landscape, developing a feel, seeking out fantasies, playing around with colour, texture and idiosyncrasy. Many of the photos are demonstrative and I’ve found myself dismissing these as lesser as they’re less personal, less ‘arty’. This, I now see, is a stupid way to be thinking. I’m simply engaging with another mode of photography, one with its own very rich pedigree, allied to exploration and science since its inception. I still have an eye for frame, line, and all that, and if I do come across something a bit more me, like the dead tree I found on the ridge west of Corfe, then that’s a bonus. I imagine this tension will, in time, translate into moving image, so I’m noting its existence here for thinking about further.
Bowden, M., Brown, G., & Smith, N. 2009. An Archaeology of Town Commons in England. London: English Heritage.