The day after our luxury stay at the M6 Northbound Stafford Moto Services was a beautiful but breezy one and the journey to Bainbridge was swift enough to reach the iconic Ribblehead Viaduct before lunchtime. Our book of Yorkshire Dales walks includes an under 7-mile route starting there and, as it’s largely flat, that made it teenager-friendly. Of course, that the viaduct is on Blea Moor common, and that it follows a glacial valley hemmed in by commons, this wasn’t a deciding factor. Not at all.
As it happens, Ribblehead Viaduct ISN’T on common land – quite. At some point, rights of common were extinguished immediately around and beneath it, presumably for legal reasons, but that doesn’t stop it being a common with an iconic feature, up there with Clifton Downs’ suspension bridge and Corfe Castle’s commons. The viaduct is visually striking, beloved of photographers, and playing on the appeal of such places should be part of this project. It makes a common instantly more interesting, unexpected and familiar, and offers opportunities for memorable visuals.
The viaduct was constructed between 1870 and 1875. During that time, Blea Moor was home to around 2,000 mainly Irish navvies. Aside from the viaduct’s iconic status, the moor itself – and thus the common land – is a place of enough importance for the remains of the camp to be both scheduled historic monuments and the subject of an ITV drama series called Jericho, an area of the site. I’m fascinated to know, especially with regards to HS2, how this worked around commoners’ rights.
In 2017, a planning proposal was submitted for better access, parking and drainage between the B6255 and the viaduct. The application was legally obliged to take the needs of the three active commoners into consideration (Blea Moor has rights for cattle, sheep and geese). There would have been notices posted at the time, such as I saw near Sizewell. Without any registered objections, the court decided that their rights were not infringed upon – and neither did the application adversely affect public or environment – and so the work went ahead.
Blea Moor is one common out of a block of commons – and there are further huge stretches of common land as you go north from there. Adjoining it is Littledale Pasture (on which stands England’s most isolated manned signal box, recently upgrading for superfast internet connectivity) and beyond that several others. One of these, Scales Moor, I’d come across in reading Contested Common Land (Rogers, Straughton, Winchester & Pieraccini, 2010), which looks into different forms of landscape management from a legal, historic and ecological perspective, especially with regards the turn to managing ‘nature’ rather than farming. Scales Moor was notable because it’s never been ascertained exactly who owns it. This has created problems and opportunities for the commoners, who act as de facto owners. Unlike Walton Hill Common, however, it has never been transferred to any specific owner. There’s this wonderful assumption that someone, somewhere owns the moor but simply doesn’t know it. The rights are perhaps buried deep in some church archive, or a legal document slowly rotting in the attic of a holiday let. That, maybe, actually, no-one owns it somehow seems an even more ridiculous notion. It flies in the face of the most fundamental values on which our culture is built. But maybe, just maybe, Scales Moor and other parcels of land like it are vestiges of a time when land simply had never been claimed by anyone. Who knows.
We didn’t visit Scales Moor, but we did cross a patch of common land at the bottom of the parcel of land, Brows Pasture. A legal investigation to get to the bottom of who owned all these bits of land was mounted in 1976 as part of the 1965 Commons Registration Act. A farmer, a Mr. E. T. Bailey, claimed that land he’d bought at auction in 1955 alongside his uninterrupted use of the land for grazing a specified number of sheep (a sheep-gate/gait, or a stint) and shoot rabbits demonstrated sufficiently that Brows Pasture was his, along with two other parcels, Brocket Holes and Brunscar High Fell. Other applicants suggested that the land was theirs too. The judge, however, said that no-one’s claim was sufficient to confer ownership, and it remains unclaimed to this day. I wonder if this is why Brows Pasture isn’t in the commons register (though is in the DEFRA dataset I use for mapping) – or if it’s in fact one of the mysterious parcels of land referred to as ‘Moorland W of Chapel le Dale’. The confusion between these two sources is something I need to get to the bottom of.
Whatever it legal existence, Brows Pasture is a bit of grassland so rough it’s not even suitable for cattle. You reach it at the top of a winding, wooded lane and you know you’re on common as soon as you leave the gate. All formality drops away, everything gets a bit wild and there’s a feeling of expansiveness, looking out beyond walls. An unenclosed world. Except that’s increasingly seeming an untenable position. When we walked on Weathertop, near Bainbridge, a couple of days later, the land was if anything more expansive, more rough. Sure, there were a couple of walls and gates, but commons, as I’m finding, often do have them. But Weathertop isn’t common land, and in fact, Brows Pasture was once enclosed. So, again, what makes it a common, especially given it isn’t even in the register? It’s access land, but then so is all Woodland Trust-owned land.
The concept of common land as something fundamentally important generally is illustrated in some website content for The Railway Inn which nestles beside the viaduct, which lists amongst the location’s attractions as there being ‘plenty of common land at the back’. This contrasts with one blog entry about Blea Moor, which dismisses the hill from which it gets its name as ‘unremarkable were it not for the Blea Moor Railway Tunnel’ (it IS a remarkable tunnel, to be fair). This contrast illustrates how the concept of common land can transform a landscape, becoming important, powerful, historic and personally meaningful. Again I’m reminded of my own lifelong relationship to commons: they’re not just patches of land with legal status and histories of usage, however fascinating that might be. They’re cultural and psychological symbols.
Rogers, C. P. et al. 2016. Contested Common Land: Environmental Governance Past and Present. London: Routledge.