Eton College and Eton Town are surrounded by an extensive block of common land which reaches West along the Thames and continues on past the small town of Eton Wick. This seemed to me fittingly bucolic, of a piece with those other commons-wrapped bastions of the elite, Oxford and Cambridge Universities.
I’ll admit my trip up there, on the afternoon of my visit to Runnymede, was born out of perversity and a sense of bafflement. I mean, given that commons have frequently attracted the ire and covetousness of the very wealthy, given their subversiveness and their whiff of welfarism, it seemed odd that they here in abundance, at the cradle of the ruling class. What I wasn’t expecting was just how fascinating and complex these commons are. I was also expecting Eton College to loom large in the landscape, while in fact, for the most part, you’d hardly know it was there (unlike the omnipresent towering wedding cake of Windsor Castle).
My visit was perhaps more than a little shaped by where I parked. After ten minutes of crawling around Eton Town’s one public car park, feeling inadequate in my Honda Jazz amongst its flotilla of SUVs, I decided to try my luck in Eton Wick. Being only a couple of miles from Eton College, and surrounded by fields, I’d imagined a perfectly posh, sniffy little Surrey enclave. But Eton Wick is none of these things, but somewhat down at heel and refreshingly ethnically mixed. After overshooting and finding myself in the cow heaven of Dorney Common, I found a free car park outside the village hall and opposite an evangelical church having a community barbeque with bouncy castle, tombola, and everything else you’d expect from a village fete. I entered the commons from there, through the playing fields and on to a field of waving corn.
This, it turns out, is the best way to appreciate Eton’s three commons, for the rights of common are attached to Eton Wick and not to Eton Town. The landowner for the most part is Eton College, and before the other land deeds were transferred to local municipal authorities, they were held by two old farms at Eton Wick, Manor Farm and Saddocks Farm. Little Eton Common and Great Eton Common stretch from Eton Wick right up to the college in a long, thin corridor with grazing rights for cows, sheep, horses and geese.
The other common, by far the largest and made up of a series of fields of varying sizes, is registered as Lammas Grounds. In law, this means that the people of Eton Wick could (and still can) graze their animals on this land between August 1st (Lammas Day) and October 31st (I think you know what that’s also known as) once the crops, mostly hay, were gathered in. Local records show that rights of Lammas were still being exercised perhaps up to the mid c.20th and Eton’s Lammas Grounds are amongst the last remaining commons still holding legal rights of lammas. Oddly enough, up the road from where we used to live in East London, in Leyton, was another lammas land, Marsh Field, which caused an uproar in 2002 when a local, entirely legally, used this old playing field for grazing their goats and geese.
It’s particularly curious that such a large expanse of common on extremely valuable land has remained unenclosed. In fact, during the c.19th, several attempts were made to do just that by a succession of owners of Manor Farm. I’m mindful that the process of enclosure wasn’t always simply the callous, self-aggrandising land grab that more left-thinking writers portray, but in the case of the Eton Commons, that’s exactly what happened. The people of Eton Wick, seemingly historically a poor area, were to be left very exposed by the withdrawal of the lands and, as sometimes happens, were saved by a technicality to do with the complexity of the boundaries. This forced a delay in this enclosure act’s progress through Parliament until, possibly, old Etonian MPs quashed it, subsequent applications for enclosure drawing a more definite no from Eton College itself.
As I mentioned at the start, it’s curious that Oxford and Cambridge Universities are similarly situated adjacent to common land and I don’t believe for an instant that any of these institutions were too bothered about subsistence farmers and their geese. Rather, I imagine that the mechanism of rights of common have proven a handy spanner in the works preventing development of extremely valuable land, leaving each crucible of power in a vaguely bucolic, surprisingly archaic landscape which symbolically stresses the rightness of the social order, based on traditions from time out of mind.
I spent a fair amount of time here. The commons are well used by all sorts of people, from day trippers walking the Thames path, to gangs of teenagers, to young families, to hen parties wobbling off boats, to solitary drinkers, to – of course – dog walkers. And the presence of the railway and junction of the A335 and A332 which cross the commons on a viaduct and an embankment respectively stop things from getting too bucolic.
Though the commons are kept fairly free of litter and fly-tipping, there is evidence of agricultural waste, homeless encampments and plenty of graffiti in amongst the waving wheat, neat playing fields and trim paths. It’s a place that encompasses modern society in a way that’s quite astonishing. The juxtapositions of class, wealth and modernity were also fascinating, and great through a lens.
I do like a bit of weird, as I think is probably obvious if you’ve seen my work. A bit of mystery and ruination get my imagination going. And so scraping through a bramble choked kissing gate to Eton Great Common at the end of my visit, I was delighted to find a scruffy playing field with a pretty but entirely unkempt little pond and the most extraordinary old building which appeared to have a tree growing out of it. I like a bit of sinister with my bucolic and here I found it.
I have many questions about Eton’s commons, and the light and time of year didn’t show it at its best. It may be I return some time. But then there are just so, so many other commons still to see.