Great Torrington’s commons are huge (365 acres), varied (meadow, parkland, wood, golf course, wet scrub, river bank) and almost entirely circle this ancient, small town. Where do I even begin with them?
First, it’s worth testing out what I now know about common land with what I found on the commons register. Here, it says that there’s one unit in three parts and there is one entry each for grazing animals (the list is exhaustive and includes both mules AND donkeys), estovers (gathering fallen timber and plants such as bracken for domestic or agricultural use), piscary (fishing), turbary (taking turf or peat) and common in soil (i.e. taking minerals for housebuilding).
Historically, however, the commons were given to the town in 1194 (interestingly, BEFORE the Charter of the Forest), and this is borne out by torringtoncommons.org, which is run by the conservators, which states under Public Access that the public are allowed to graze animals ‘by arrangement’, collect ‘fallen wood for personal use only’ and the Residents of Torrington ‘are permitted to fish in the River Torridge where it borders the commons’.
Historically, the three units were, in fact, several different commons: Mill Street Common and Castle Hill Common (the steep wooded hillsides leading from the town to the river), Norwood Moor (the area of scrub and meadow to the North East, the site of a rifle range until at least the late c.19th) and Great Torrington Common (the main body of the commons) but were unified (and extended slightly).
It’s possible there were other sections brought into the act, such as Furzebeam Hill (now the golf course) and the isolated patch of meadow at Tanton’s Plain. The map accompanying the 1889 Great Torrington Common Act, which transferred management to the conservators who manage it to this day, also shows areas which are now green spaces used by the public (meadows by the river) managed by the conservators but which aren’t legally part of the commons.
So that’s where I’m at with understanding the place and evidencing my growing commons geekery. And it’s all very interesting, at least it is to me, but how does it relate to this project? Well, first, it helps me begin to define the place as a common, rather than simply a municipal area of parkland and that helps me understand what I’m looking at. It also helps guide the building of a relationship with the place; it suggests where I look, what I photograph, what I pay attention to.
And, should I use the commons for this project, which is strongly possible, then it will also be at the core of how I relate to the people I involve. I will find out who collects fallen wood, who grazes their mules (if anyone), who fishes and, especially, how the knowledge that it was given to the townspeople coming up to a thousand years ago shapes the relationship Torrington people have with both the commons, their town, and their sense of identity as Torrington people. Of course, the bits of ephemera – the old rifle range and quarries, the golf course – which are characteristic of town commons can be dropped in as factoid, or become digressions – why not interview one of the golfers?
A thing that interests me considerably is the upcoming bonfire, and it’s something I’m going to have to get cracking on before the start of my PhD. The Torrington Cavaliers have been running charity bonfires for fifty years, even getting recognition from the queen (Torrington was for the King in a strongly Parliamentarian area and a major Civil War battle happened here in 1646 in which the Royalists were defeated). They were due to celebrate the 400thanniversary of the Mayflower last year by burning a replica (social media was, with disappointing predictability, up in arms about this). The pandemic poured cold water (not literally) on this and so the replica is due to be burned this August 28th.
Now, this isn’t some ancient tradition (like the Mayfair which dates to 1554), though the Civil War connection could be promising for the project, nor is it a right of common. But public bonfires typically take place on privately- or municipally-owned playing fields, so is this event in some way encouraged or made possible by its being on the Old Bowling Green (at one time, the golf course)?
The Old Bowling Green certainly feels like a special place: a huge, free car park, with ice cream and burger vans, a large and well-resourced playground. When I visited, it was full of bikers, the final stragglers of a primary school sponsored cycle ride, picnicking stoners, and a local Morris Minor owners club, who’d even brought their own banner to set up. This was on a Thursday; you’d be hard pushed to find a more thoroughly-used civic space in even the most densely-populated corner of the capital. So is the meaning, whether legal or cultural, of common land in effect here? People were certainly incredibly welcoming when I bumped into them along my walk. Only immersion will tell me this.
What I’ve not done in this post is talk about what the place was like to visit. It wasn’t the greatest day weather-wise, but I did love exploring. What’s fascinating is how the different commons have retained something of their separate identities: Castle Hill is a stately park (now a bit scruffy), with its Waterloo Monument, viewing benches, helpful steps down to the river, even a platform for civic piscary. Mill Street Common is mostly bracken scrub.
Norwood Moor, which scarcely even has any footpaths, is wild, sinister, wet and impenetrable. The two patches of meadow are rich grassland. Great Torrington Common is municipal parkland along the ridge, woodland trails and ponds down below. Furzebeam Hill is a golf course. The uses might have changed over time, and it’d be interesting to know what grazing still takes place, but the individual commons have retained their own identities.
I think such diversity and richness is one compelling reason for including the Torrington Commons in my project. Another is the clear connectedness of the life of the town and the commons. I wouldn’t assume that Clifton and Durdham Downs in Bristol are any less beloved of its local community, but with its use by the zoo, for football and for major events, there can’t be the same sense of intimate belonging. It’s also perhaps useful to mention that Beaford Arts is only a few miles away and that the area is in the area photographed extensively by James Ravilious – and also by two times Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins.