Sunday, I was still waiting for the car’s air-con to be fixed, but it was cool enough after a week of heat to drive for an hour, so I headed off to Langport, in the South-Eastern corner of the Somerset Levels. Langport has a couple of commons on its North-Western edge, and I found a decentish walk heading into the levels themselves to make more of a day of it.
I’m currently reading W.G. Hoskins’ classic The Making of the English Landscape, the second edition of which was written just around the corner from my daughter’s primary school. It’s a beautifully-written book, both with the insight of the detailed researcher and the enthusiasm of the passionate amateur; a rare thing. I imagine a fair amount of its content is now out of date, but as a general narrative, and a work of literature, it’s excellent. My growing awareness of commons has made it quite clear to me that to understand any common, you have to place it within its landscape, particularly the way that landscape has been shaped and used. Enclosure has been, whatever the passionate Marxists might argue, part of the picture of land use for a very long time indeed; as I currently understand it, open field farming was regional, cultural and epochal and even existed cheek-by-jowl with a bit of private, enclosed farming. Open fields and other commons – heathland, woodland, salt marsh, whatever – are a part of the picture, and an utterly essential one for those in an economically precarious position, but intimately tied with the enclosed land and properties around them.
So to understand Langport’s two commons – Northstreet Moor and Langport Common Moor – it’s important to understand the Levels a bit more. Langport is one of the Levels’ earlier towns, being at the start of higher land (once the island of High Ham), at a crossing point on the Taunton-Glastonbury ancient track at the River Parrett and close to the important Muchelney Abbey. This corner of the levels was drained by the Romans and so the wet meadows, still prone to flooding, have been cultivated for a very long time indeed. More recently reclaimed land tends to be more of a business enterprise, and fenland communities were kicked out across East Anglia as a result of this (though there are also ancient reclaimed areas here too).
There are few commons on the Levels, and these tend to be close to settlements, or on slightly raised land. Street has a couple of allotments, and there are two considerable networks of droves near to Cossington, to the north of the Polden Hills which cut across the levels, and which I must go and visit when the narrow tracks are less likely to be clogged with nettles and cow parsley. Langport’s commons lie along the Parrett and the names around them – Aller Common Moor, Huish Common Moor, Common Moor Clyses – suggest the commons were once more extensive; evidence of enclosure. The commons register gives rights of common for horses and cattle on Northstreet Moor only, but nearby are the placenames Langport Eastover and Langport Westover (both corruptions of estover) suggesting other uses. A recent landscape study from Somerset Council talks about ancient and more recent enclosures. So, really, I’m just scratching the surface. Once I’ve decided on commons to work with, some deep research will be essential.
So what was it like? Well, first, having walked a five mile circuit taking in Muchelney Abbey, disused railways, and plenty of fields and roads, I had a good feeling for the general area. I recall a famously swamped car on the Muchelney road appearing countless times on TV during the catastrophic 2014 floods; the Levels, surely, are on the front line of sea level rise. Whether ash dieback on Dartmoor, or flooding on Levels, there’s no getting away from the anthropocene.
I suspect the two commons were retained as town commons. The proximity to an ancient town suggests it, as do the countless entry points from the properties bordering it (almost all of which are now fallen into disuse). The commons are dominated by the Paddington line which bisects them, a series of Victorian rail arches, an iron bridge across the Parrett, and some embankments currently being given a bit of love. Northstreet Moor had a fair few cows grazing it and it’s popular with dog walkers and families. Recent signage at a small municipal garden provides a bit of info and suggestions for footpaths, some of which have recently been resurfaced. Langport Common Moor, the other side of the railway, is smaller and, while I was there, wasn’t being grazed. It’s got more of a feeling of pasture, less of grassland, and is dotted with willow, bounded by dykes (called rhynes locally). Plenty of cow poo present, though no cows when I was there.
I liked the commons, just as I rather liked Langport, and I particularly liked the feeling of a slightly lapsed and then revived town common. For its size, it was quite a cacophony of moods. But I’ve found a couple of really great town commons, so it wouldn’t do for them. I want to use reclaimed land, and I already have the commons near Hinkley Point and now possibly the drove commons, which are all more visually interesting, more of the Levels – and one, Catcott Heath and Droves, is a Somerset Wildlife Trust reserve. So as a thinking exercise, thinking about commons in history, in the landscape, it’s been really useful, but I’m not sure I’ll be back.
I was a bit excited to note that Langport is close to Tintinhull, a pretty village near to the A303 with a small National Trust property with an excellent little garden. Tintinhull is home to, according to the commons register, eight commons. These are a bit unusual, which is why I wanted to visit. In addition to more usual mini commons – verges and a pound – there is a car park, a village pump and a tree, the Coronation Tree. Now, there are quite a few car parks and village pumps which are registered commons – again, a reminder that commons are about access to resources as much as they are about land – but I don’t think there are any other commons that are trees. Alas, I was just days away from discovering DEFRA’s (also incomplete) data maps of registered commons, which would have pinpointed exactly where all these places are, so I had to use a bit of sense, Google Maps and asking around. No-one knew where the pump was, but I tracked it down from a photo on villagepumps.org.uk (where else?) It’s rather folorn and not at all enlivened by its commemorative plaque from Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.
Opposite the pump is a little triangular green with a slightly sinister conifer, which is surrounded by railings with a gate into them (and guarded by a fire hydrant crowned with a small plastic gnome). The railings make no sense (as if the gnome has been placed as commentary on this) because you can’t stand up and be within them. I suspected, and have now been confirmed by DEFRA’s data, that this is The Coronation Tree (or at least the site of it) and which is, so it seems on the parish website, a bit of a point of contention when it comes to health and safety and Christmas lights. I’m wondering if maybe it was common land before the coronation, whichever one that was, and this is suggested by its classic triangular green shape.
All the other patches of common are close by, and I must return to look at them. It was such an odd place, and shows the peculiarity of the commons register. Take the commons at Portland, for example: one unit of 655 acres that takes in Portland Bill, stretches of cliff and quarry and a very considerable portion of Chesil Beach. Whereas here are tiny scraps of common, each its own common, and each registered at 0.1 hectares (though very much smaller than that). Anyway, I’d love to return and ask people what they know and what they think about it. Village resources: grass and a pound for the animals, a pump for the people.