In late August, I spent a couple of days with my parents in Tunbridge Wells before heading up to Staines to visit the important and fascinating commons in that area. I passed most of my childhood in Tunbridge Wells, a town dominated by a mostly wooded common close to its centre and extending some distance towards one edge, and Tunbridge Wells Common (Waste of the Manor of Rusthall, to give it its registered name) was part of my life from playing Star Wars with friends to depressive teenage retreats from the world. It’s still a top destination every time I visit, either for a family walk or, more usually, part of a 90-minute run that takes in lots of the other woodland with which the town is blessed. My personal history is bound up with it and remains that way.
I made a thorough exploration of the common, as we’ve always called it, back in late 2019, and it’s due a more thorough trip now I know so much more about the subject. However, this time around, I wanted to visit two commons in nearby Southborough. Curiously, Tunbridge Wells Common only appears on the register and DEFRA map as 4 acres’ worth of bits of verge, while Southborough Common only appears at all in DEFRA data, in spite of still having commoners with rights to fish, graze and gather wood. Only Hilly Field, also in Southborough, appears on both. But these aspects weren’t what particularly interested me this time around.
First, I’d never heard of Hilly Field, which seemed odd seeing as my parents have been in the area for over forty years and between us, we know a fair amount of the local woodland and green space. Hilly Field is perched on the edge of a steep descent into Coneyburrow Wood and on into farmland, tucked away down a dead end residential road on the edge of Southborough.
When I visited, I could see why I’d never heard of it, a rather overlooked bit of park leading steeply down into scruffy, Himalayan Balsam-choked woodland. It’s perhaps a good entry point to the weald below, and seemed reasonably well-used by dog-walkers, smokers hanging out on the bench, and teenagers hanging out in the undergrowth. It presumably once had a commanding view out towards Pembury, but as with so many viewpoint benches, there’s little to see now the trees have matured. It’s maintained an identity, but one of neglect, as Coneyburrow Wood, which surrounds it, seems much better cared for.
I’d not visited Southborough Common since my childhood. It was always the other common to visit, and as traffic has worsened over the years, there’s seemed little point in struggling through for a visit as Tunbridge Wells Common is so much nearer and larger. And yet, it’s always existed as a gently magical, slightly mysterious place in my mind. Beyond the terribly, terribly English scene of a church facing a cricket pitch is an overgrown graveyard, a steep, dark slope covered in old beeches, quiet roads meeting secretly at woodland crossroads, a formal pond where no-one ever seemed to go.
My visit didn’t just revitalise these feelings, but added to them, especially after finding the little community at the gorgeously named Modest Corner, once housing for artisans using the common.
Especially after finding a mysterious camp deep in the old gravel pit with improvised benches and fences and strange stacks of rock and wood used for cooking – something. Crack? Ice? I only wish I’d looked a bit longer on the dedicated website so I’d known to look out for holloways, a lynchet, traces of an old windmill and charcoal burning.
It interested me that Walton Hill Common was known by people I asked as Walton Common or simply the common. Dropping names like that makes a place more personal, as if to say: to me, this is the common; there may be other commons but they are just that, other commons. One might just as well add the prefix my or our common. For me, Southborough’s is an other common while Tunbridge Wells’ is the common. I wonder if this experience, of having a common that felt like it was mine, is a major reason for embarking on this project. Most likely, it is.
I came across a tree hung with decorations and messages close to the church. This seems to be becoming a feature of open space, as I’ve found them elsewhere, including Bristol’s Durdham Downs. Like Bristol’s this one has been a focus for difficult feelings around the covid pandemic.
As I investigated, a group of people gathered as their paths crossed on their walks, both with and without dogs, and a friendly bit of banter began between them. One spotted me with my camera and, half-joking, told me to make sure the common stayed secret: her common.
There are several reasons why it’s like that in the first place. One is that, unlike Tunbridge Wells’ common, Southborough’s is on the edge of town. Another is that it lacks facilities – a car park, toilets, and now also the ubiquitous coffee van, and it doesn’t have the draw of the handsome sandstone outcrop of Wellington Rocks, site of countless childhood games.
There’s perhaps another reason why it’s an other common. Though Southborough and Tunbridge Wells sprawl into one another, Southborough is its own place, with its own council and mayor. It’s also close to the industrial and heavily terraced area of High Brooms, a more settled working class area than you’ll find in Tunbridge Wells, where the working class areas are mostly on peripheral post-war estates. And so its social history is different and the people who have been using it for decades are more mixed (Southborough was also where the ultra-rich and royalty often stayed when taking the waters in Tunbridge Wells). I could sense this difference in the slightly rough-around the edges gathering of commons users: people came up to me and started asking questions and talking to me, an informal manner I’ve never experienced on Tunbridge Wells Common, which though friendly, is a little more reserved.
One final comment about borders, because I can’t resist talking them. First, the beechwood slope, Whortleberry Wood, though part of the Southborough Common area, isn’t actually registered common, nor is it even access land. Not that you’d know; it belongs to the place of Southborough Common as much as Holden Pond or the Cricket Ground and I’d even go so far as to say that, for me, it’s the deep heart of the common, despite being at the edge. The existence of a medieval wood bank around the wood, revealed in an archaeological survey which suggests it might have had iron railings too, is a physical manifestation of this, and in fact it once belonged to a separate estate. Its enclosure, the survey suggests, was to keep out cattle and deer to grow wood for timber and protect the chalybeate springs at the bottom of the slope. What my own experience tells me is that, to no small extent, we create our own affective and aesthetic maps of commons as with all places which defy, ignore or transcend the power structures around them. In other words, Whortleberry Wood is part of Southborough Common because that’s what it is for me.
Second, there are a few houses on the common itself. One of these faces onto the green and its grassy lawn blends into verge past a public bench. Right at the bench, as you’ll see in the picture, there’s a change in the way the grass is mown, presumably because the verge is mown by the council and the private lawn by the householder. And yet there’s no little fence dividing the two, just a subtle little change between the public and private. It all looks like a very amicable relationship. I hope that’s the case.