In mid-August, my wife, daughter and I headed up to Bainbridge in the Yorkshire Dales and, as we’d done previously, broke our journey at the Stafford M6 Northbound Moto Services, staying at the Travelodge overnight. Now, the Stafford M6 Northbound Moto Services isn’t a bad spot. It has a pretty, landscaped lake with plenty of pretty ducks and geese, so there’s somewhere to go to stretch your legs (and you can even head into the fields from there if you fancy). It even has a cat without a tail. But since my fascination with commons stepped up a gear, especially given access to DEFRA’s mapping tools and taking out an OS subscription, I now can’t go anywhere without looking for a nearby common.
The Stafford M6 Northbound Moto Services has three nearby commons. In the village of Yarnfield are Yarnfield Green and, immediately opposite it, The Furlong. And on the outskirts of Walton is Walton Hill (or Walton Heath) Common. I’d thought to visit all three, starting with Walton Hill as it is the largest and the least complex to reach, but ended up staying there too long to navigate the fields and lanes to get to Yarnfield and back to the family. I want to mention that, though I was parked within a mile of each, I was unable to drive there. You can access the services either from the M6 Northbound or from Eccleshall Road, but the two entrances lead to different areas; you can only park in the Eccleshall Road entrance if you’re staff, presumably to stop people using the services is a sort of unofficial junction. This creates a bit of a strange effect: the Eccleshall Road entrance becomes a kind of portal to the ‘real’ world from the services’ not-quite landscape, not-quite hotel, not-quite coffee, not-quite food and so on. Don’t motorway services always remind you of a really bad theme park with all the rides shut? Anyway, they’d obviously built these services without thinking that anyone staying there might want to escape and so I clung to a series of verges to avoid being hit by oncoming traffic along what turned out to be a fast, busy B-road.
Passing an equally unreal housing estate, I found my first sign – literally. Common Lane leads up to Walton Hill Common (funny that) and once it had freed itself from the newbuild and the oldbuild bungalows, it became a rather shabby little lane (which is where the common proper begins). A slow, steady stream of dogwalkers, some on foot, some in their cars, flowed past me, suggesting what I might find ahead.
When Walton Common (as the locals call it) was registered in 1973 under the 1965 Registered Commons act, no landowner be found for it (or for Yarnfield’s commons for that matter) so, as the local council (now Stafford District Council) had been looking after them for years, it was decided to make them the legal owners.
Additionally, and interestingly, the National Coal Board were given the ownership of any coal lying beneath in Acts of Parliament in 1938 and 1943. Without doing any archival digging, it’s to be expected that the common, having heath in its name, was once just that, as are many existing commons. At some point, presumably, the heathland was given over to public use, and by 1973 had been playing fields for some time.
Walton Common has a great feel to it and people were friendly. The landscape around it is gentle and the hills give a sense of being in a wider area. It is surrounded by fields and while the signage is clear about entering them, the farm which makes up one side of the triangle is open, giving a sense, albeit illusory, of unbroken access into rural life.
The grass is well-tended, and the patch of woodland is carefully maintained, with a pretty path winding through it, and a bench along a wider path. It is an exemplary semi-rural recreational space. Of course, it’s a destination for anti-social behaviour, but find me a quiet spot on the edge of a residential area that isn’t.
It’s not going to be a quiet spot forever, as I discovered on the way out. There was a letter by the old changing rooms, on HS2-headed note-paper, that a survey of the land would be made in a few weeks. Phase 2a of HS2, running from the Midlands to Crewe, will claim a two-mile stretch of land beside the M6, first for a construction depot, and then a permanent maintenance depot. It will claim the land on the other side of the farm, although the common itself will be untouched – at least physically. But of course the noise, light pollution and chaos of a huge construction site will make the common a much less attractive spot. Sure, it will doubtless remain a playing field and a dog-walking destination, but its poetry will be lost. I can’t imagine anyone will bother maintaining the woodland path or the bench, and the illusion of rurality will be broken. I’m sure the anti-social behaviour will continue, and perhaps will increase as the trees become wilder and darker and the litter is increasingly left unpicked. Is this how a modern common starts to die? It’s a question I’ll be returning to. Did the presence of this one have any bearing on the siting of HS2 because of legal status – and have any commons been extinguished or altered because of it? It’s certainly happened during roadbuilding, as at Rackenford Moor, along the A361 near Tiverton.
But the big question is, of course, as always – what does this mean as a common? It’s a great space, but it’s indistinguishable from other, similar spaces. That question can’t be answered in one visit. It would take research into three interlocking strategies; the historical meaning of the common, one that includes its changing land uses, contests, uses, and the changes in the landscape around it; the legal meaning of the common, including the regulations applied generally to commons and specifically to this common; and lastly the qualitative experience of its users, how their relationship to the land is shaped by the knowledge of its status as common land.