Today’s trip to a couple of tiny, scrubby little commons not far from Wareham, Dorset, are a real illustration of why the larger landscape needs to be engaged with to make sense of a common. Burton Heath and Knighton Common, a track at the southern end of Knighton Heath, are on opposite sides of Winfrith Heath, a large and ancient expanse of heath believed to be a considerable influence on Hardy’s creation of Egdon Heath, both setting and character in Return of the Native. Hardy opens his novel with two chapters describing it in distinctly sublime terms, repeating and emphasising its antiquity and timelessness, pointing to its many tumuli and barrows, and ancient, rutted tracks.
Of course, there’s nothing remotely timeless about heathland; heaths exist because animals are led to graze there, and once they stop heaths become wooded in a very few years. In the landscape of intensive farming, most heathland can only continue to exist if managed, as at the Pebblebed Heaths NNR, and the modernday Winfrith Nature Reserve displays the careful scrapes and pruning of gorse and bracken, all to allow a glorious display of heather which has only just come into bloom. Arguably, this isn’t so much management as gardening.
Any land holds a multitude of stories. Here we have the Bronze age, enclosure, Hardy, the rise of environmentalism. But we also have another occasional feature of common land, and one with perhaps the deepest time of all, though into the future rather than the past: the rise and fall of the atom. In 1957, a sweeping expanse of Winfrith Heath was subject to a compulsory purchase order for the building of experimental nuclear reactors, numbering nine by the time the site was wound down from 2002 onwards. When the question of common rights was raised, an Act of Parliament was rushed to extinguish them – even before it was decisively ascertained if anyone did still have such rights, let along who they might be. And now the site is being wound down, to be returned to heath in just a couple of years – though this process is so secretive that I was warned by a security guard to point my camera away from the security fence. Whatever.
And is there anything more hauntological than the decomissioning of a nuclear facility? Any greater evidence of the failure of the better world begun in earnest in the late Forties? Any darker terror haunting childhoods endured in the 70s and 80s?
Burton Heath is finger of scrub woodland between a tamed stretch of the wildly meandering River Frome, farmland, Puddletown Road and what is now politely referred to as a ‘Water Recycling Centre’ (in plain speech, a sewage works). There’s only one way in – over a gate and down a track to another gate. The common land ends with the bridge. And other than the fabulous view of the Water Recycling Centre, it’s just dark willow and ash and excitable plants like ragwort and bramble.
Given that, even in Hardy’s time, a considerable amount of the wider Winfred Heath area was already enclosed, one wonders how this little patch has held. I’d guess is that it’s just so completely unloved that no manner of improvement has ever dragged it away from being waste. As a novelty, it was good to find it, a relic of the ancient open heaths, but not really a relic that reflects them. It’s curious that the impressive, restored heaths (the tanks of nearby Bovington Camp inflicted considerable damage on them, another frequent heathland fate) are more representative of the commons without actually being commons, are more accessible than commons without being commons, and are still grazed, albeit as part of conservation efforts rather than the hard business of farming. But, actually, that was all the charm of Burton Heath. I love patches of land that are just allowed to get on with it.
You have to go around the old Magnox nuclear research site to get to the sliver of Knighton Common. Which was no terrible chore as it was so fascinating. Strange to see the land at the perimeter, though much restored to heathland and wood, is not access land. So after one challenge from a security guard and a cheery good morning from another unbothered by my meagre telephoto, I reached my destination.
You’d not know Knighton Common was a common. It’s just a track with a bit of overgrown grass and some uninteresting trees – though one verge is ablaze with some garden escape or other. People seemed busy tending to their drives and their windows, and there was something a bit anarchic, something a bit old-fashioned about this corner of Dorset. Unfussy, unpretentious, no neat boundaries between house and road, an acceptance of the wilfulness of vegetation beyond one’s perimeter. It reminded me of countless lanes growing up in Guernsey, an absence of that anal anxiety of the suburbs which must have everything accounted for and organised; that is the pavement, this is the lawn, there is the house. Here, everything kind of blended together, and I wonder if the common had anything to do with it, or if it was simply because the place was just so very tucked away from the world. Who knows?
Some helpful soul had put up signage showing the changes in Knighton Heath over the years, which is how I know that enclosures predated Hardy here. It’s strange to think that neither of the two last patches of common in any way recall the great Egdon Heath – and yet, somehow, they are more connected to what Hardy was trying to say about the wilfulness of place than the carefully managed nature reserve – however beautiful it might be – and certainly than the truly blasted land of the Magnox site. But it is odd that Knighton Heath isn’t common while Knighton Common is. How did Knighton Heath have common rights extinguished and remain heath (and now be Access Land) and how did Knighton Common survive? Magnox? I’d love to know.
Thinking ahead to filming: this, of course, can’t be got across visually, at least not in a straightforward look-at-this-place kind of way. But the two commons, charming though they might be in their own ways, are not visually arresting enough; to make a film, they would have to be fitted back into the landscape, into their histories. But, in doing so, the nature reserve and Magnox site would loom too large over them, and I’m brought back again and again to the idea that a Hardy film might be a good idea – a Hardy road movie – looking for the old sites around here, Corfe Castle Common, Wareham Town Walls, Langton Wallis Common (these last two will merit trips soon). Connecting Burton Heath and Knighton Common to these via Winfrith Heath would allow the commons to loom larger collectively. I think that’s the way forward.