Some years ago, my wife and I did a six-mile walk around Horrabridge, near Tavistock, close to the Southwestern corner of Dartmoor, a pleasant but unremarkable walk. I recently dived into the infuriatingly incomplete Commons Register to draw up a list of Devon commons to visit, with an eye on the unusual. It just so happens that commons at the Medieval Huckworthy Bridge and a ford known as Watery Ford (or Waterford) lie on the route, as do interconnected greens at the tiny village of Sampford Spiney (I remember these being rather magical) and two small patches of open-space common land – Huckworthy Common and Knowle Down.
It was the first day of some really hot weather but, remembering the route as mostly shady, I braved the heat. The route also lies south of several larger patches of common which I fancied looking at – Whitchurch Common and Plaster Down – which form a continuous corridor linking Tavistock with Dartmoor. However, even the briefest encounters with being in the open, even before 10 am, was like being hit in the face with a hairdryer and I ruled these out.
This being the case, the first common I came across was Watery Ford. According to the Commons Register, it’s 0.05 hectares, by which I presumed that meant it was just the ford itself. And yet there are 19 registered rights of estovers, 16 of turbary, 15 of common in soil – and 28 of straying (that cattle might end up there by mistake). That’s seems an awful lot for what turned out to be a pipe under a road (council records show that it does indeed become a ford in the event of very heavy rain).
It’s true there are grassy verges and boggy woodland around the ford, the same scrappy verges as I’ve seen in other similar mini-commons. But all that seemed a lot less than 0.05 hectares. A data search on Devon County Council’s Open Data pages shows the common land to be precisely the verges around the ford. So which is right? And in either case, how is the present life of the spot – the water channels, the verges – affected by its being registered common? I’m drawn back yet again to the question – why does it even matter that it’s a common? Isn’t this all just some redundant, archaic relic?
Huckworthy Bridge definitely isn’t a common, which was a bit of disappointment; I liked the idea of a bridge being a common. The common might be called that on the register, but the entry then states ‘Located at Huckworthy Bridge’ and the Open Data page shows the common to be the pleasant little patch of grass and shrub with some nice shrubs to one side of the bridge.
In fact, there aren’t any bridges which are registered commons, although there are other structures and features to do with water – such as pumps, ponds and river beds – which are. Indeed, there are lots of waterside commons – Cholmondely Walk in Richmond, the Waste Land at Ford Bridge in the Blackdown Hills – which, where grazing is mentioned I assume to be so to allow cattle access to water in addition to rights to fish. But why not also doing the washing? Or bathing? Or crossing from one side to the other? Limiting thinking around common as essentially about animals and gleaning casts them into a rural world, often a historic one, with which few of us have any direct connection. Thinking of commons as access to resources important to us in whichever era we live in – be that hanging the washing (there is such a common still used as such in a Midlands town) or a place to play with the kids, as at Corfe Castle – continues that meaning into the present. I don’t want commons to appear in this project as archaic anomalies. I want them to haunt the present. I want them to trouble it. And I want them to act as exemplars. But still – why no bridges?
Sampford Spiney’s green was just as pretty as I remembered it. I found it odd when I came across the sheep, unattended in a village, but then sheep have a profound sense of place and belonging, seemingly inherited through their genes. As with many commons that one just stumbles across, there’s a sense of ambiguity, a sense of just drifting into it, a lack of borders and demarcation. The commons register shows identical rights of common to Watery Ford – though with lower numbers of those holding these rights, in spite of it being larger. I sense the hand of the same registrar, as I found with the Blackdown Hills commons I visited. The imperfections of the 1965 act shown yet again. There were signs of ash dieback here – reminding me of how the global iterates in the local.
Before I turned away from Sampford Spiney, I could see up the road to the fairly extensive Whitchurch Common. After walking between enclosing hedges, space opened out, as at the green, and as later at Huckworthy Common and Knowle Down, the common appearing less managed and thus more accommodating and inviting.
I didn’t venture far into it, but wanted to recapture that experience I had a couple of months back on my Gidleigh walk – though rather than walking from the open to the enclosed, this time walking from the enclosed to the open.
Huckworthy Common is a fair-sized patch of bracken, pockets of well-grazed grass, dotted with hawthorn, blackthorn and ash. In its SouthEastern corner is an enclosure, which was full of indolent cows. On the OS map, the enclosure is separated from the surrounding farmland by a thin strip of access land. However, arriving at the land, I met with a gate and a track extending the enclosure into the neighbouring field, well-trodden by those cows.
Beyond the gate on the other side of this track, I could make out an overgrown path, presumably the remnant of this strip of common land. The Open Data site shows it to be accessible only on foot (not on horseback) unlike the rest of the common; there’s a story here. Like the narrow ways I came across in West Penwith, I do wonder what role these passages played. Are they for cattle? People? Wildlife? I got a real thrill being able to read this hidden corner. Again, the same rights of common but with different numbers of rights holders again.
Knowle Down had been quarried at some point in the past and there are tracks across it, along with the wonderfully Dartmoorish stepping stones by which one enters it. By this point, it was really getting too hot and I’d lost the will to engage properly with what I was looking at, though I did find one or two eerie hidden corners. I didn’t see any sheep, but a cattle grid at one corner suggests that something or other grazes it; the rights are there, and three commoners with the right of piscary, presumably in the brook.
Additionally, Plymouth City Council have rights of construction and to maintain water pipes; this is something I’d not thought of – access to resources on behalf of others. A type of commoning for a more complex world – reminding me that I’d wanted to think more about urban-bound water on Dartmoor.
So would I use these commons in the project? Unlikely. The bridge and the ford turned out to be less idiosyncratic than I’d initially imagined, land near a ford and a bridge (though there is a ford common in Nottinghamshire) and the other commons didn’t strike me as ones I’d be especially minded to use. Some useful thinking-through on this trip, though, and some enjoyable researching. The car air-con, however, would argue otherwise, silently giving up the ghost as I explored through the heat.