We’ve stayed in the same cottage in Bainbridge every other year for the past six years, so we’ve got to know the area around it reasonably well. The nearest town, Hawes, has an incredible bakery and is where we shop, and we always do the same nine mile walk from the cottage, up to Semerwater, up steeply to the rough pasture below Wether Fell, then back to Bainbridge along a Roman road.
I’ve already established that the rough pasture isn’t common land (the OS map names this ridge ‘Common Allotments’), but I’d never have guessed that Semerwater, a 27-hectare glacial lake, is a common. I only found this by using the DEFRA data map; meanwhile, the Commons Register tells me that it has one commoner with the right to fish there. When I say the lake, I don’t mean the banks, but the lake itself, though bits of bank are included. I’ve come across water commons before: a stretch of the River Plym on the northern edge of Plymouth and an ancient mill race in Tewkesbury are commons in their own right and these likewise have rights of common for fishing (known as piscary).
So, has the knowledge that Semerwater is common land changed the way I think of it? Not really. It’s certainly an interesting fact, which I can add to other facts I’ve learned about it, such as it being the source of England’s shortest river, the Bain, it being glacial, and Yorkshire’s largest natural lake (out of only three). It makes it seem a bit special, in addition to it having a ballad written about it in the c.19th and having been painted by Turner (but then again, where hasn’t?) And I’m wondering if this is because it, and its watery brethren, rather call into question the ‘land’ in ‘common land’ and ‘access land’. This knowledge actually made me feel rather excluded on this visit, as if I should be able to get out there but, lacking either a boat or the pluck to brave the cold water, I’m left hankering on the shoreline after that feeling of freedom I feel a common should inspire in me. The point of water commons is something I’ll have to investigate. Maybe they only have any sort of meaning to the commoner.
Semerwater wasn’t the only surprise common. There’s another parcel of land registered as a common which includes Wether Fell, another nearby hilltop called Ten End Peat Moor – and much of the A684 roadside as it passes through Hawes, including car parking, pavements, a bus stop, and a few neatly mown patches of grass. Some of this roadside is the site of the Tuesday market, which dates back in some form or another to 1307, and which happened to coincide with the day I went to photograph it.
The parcel is owned by the Lord Trustees of the Manor of Bainbridge, forty people have rights to cut turf or peat and one to graze sheep. Now, you’ll obviously not be grazing sheep or cutting turf on pavement or tarmac, though doing so does make sense out at Wether Fell and Ten End Peat Moor, so I wonder what on earth this is all about. The only indication is that the parcel is named in a 1977 court document as including ‘Waste land – Hawes’, and I’m assuming this has all been included for the sake of convenience somehow. And I’m also wondering if the commoners have to be informed every time the square gets dug up by Yorkshire Water. I doubt it, seeing as doing so isn’t exactly going to interfere with anyone mad enough to try grazing or cutting turf on the A684.
From a conservation point of view, the greens at the Western entrance to Hawes definitely are nice, but it’s not as if the resident parking bays are likely to be declared a SSSI. So what’s the point? Maybe there’s even less to be gained by extinguishing the rights here through the courts, so this is a ghost common, existing only in a few dusty documents and a few data sets.
And what about me? It was certainly nice having the opportunity to photograph some people for a change, and anomalies and tangents are things I’m alive to in this project. And knowing that the legal status still exists, that the rights persist, however impotently, is as much a link with Hawes’ past as the Tuesday market, even if you can’t see it. Perhaps it did give me a bit of a feeling of freedom on the greens, made me a bit more inclined to sit on the bench and enjoy the view, but it was only very marginal. This, surely, is a hauntological presence of common land, a living trace of a utopia unfulfilled. The apparent pointlessness of having these patches of roadside as registered common land isn’t a reason to reject them; quite the opposite.