When I was planning my five-night stay in Staines, I spent a while poring over an OS map of the area and spotted a large expanse of common land between two of the area’s great reservoirs – Wraysbury Reservoir and King George VI Reservoir. Being the largest expanse of common land near to Heathrow Airport and also bordering a major rail route, the M25 and A30 Staines Bypass and crossed by pylons, I was expecting Staines Moor to be a bit of an edgelands mess.
Certainly, the approach to it is classic edgelands – scruffy fields with heavily graffitied concrete, neglected suburban patches choked with nettles and flytipping. However, once the other side of the A30 underpass, I was greeted with an expanse of classic meadows, well-stocked with ponies and cattle, the River Colne threading its way lazily through it and the River Wraysbury doing likewise around it.
Even on yet another gloomy day, and in spite of the ceaseless roar of road and air traffic, Staines Moor was beguiling. It’s big enough to feel expansive, and the landscape felt somehow more ancient than any of commons I’d visited thus far. In fact, it’s been a common since 1065, when it was given by Edward the Confessor to the Monks of Westminster Abbey, making it, at least technically, the oldest common I’ve visited to date. To add to its antiquity, it’s home to Britain’s oldest known anthills, which have clocked up more than two centuries and if that’s not an impressive enough statistic, the site is also home to one of Europe’s largest yellow ant colonies.
Also a SSSI due it its 330 plant species and c.65 bird species, Staines Moor is actively commoned, each commoner having rights to graze either one horse or two cows up to a total of 200 horse or 400 cattle. Commoners are traditionally anyone whose smoke could be seen from St. Mary’s Church and whose interests are represented to the Lord of the Manor, Brett Aggregates, by elected Moormasters at Court Leets, the most recent of which happened in 2014. The traditions of these courts are very ancient indeed, and the functions of the Moormasters include haywarden (to prevent theft of hay), ale-conner (to check the quality of local ale), and a town crier.
And it’s very, very well used by local people, for dogwalking, running, hiking, nature watching – a real civic asset for the people of Staines which was, at one point, declared a Country Park (though there’s no evidence of facilities here). In 1866, the Metropolitan Commons Act extended ‘Rights of Air and Exercise’ to the Commons of Staines; today, its Facebook page numbers 624 followers.
It even appears in Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling, painted in glowing colours: “It was as if someone had taken a square mile of best Suffolk countryside and dropped it into the space between the A30 and M25”. Which pretty much sums it up.
The moor has, incredibly, survived in more or less its current form throughout all this time. A railway, now disused, sliced off one side of it, and the A30 slicing off the bottom where it connects with Staines. A huge mound in the north is a remnant of rifle butts, originally constructed for training riflemen, following an explosion in interest in rifle skills following the Crimean War; you’ll find rifle butts from the same period on many town commons. The biggest threat to moor occurred in the 1970s, when it was bought by its current owners, Brett Aggregates, for gravel extraction; it took ten years of petitions and court appearances to save it. And while Heathrow’s controversial – reckless, in light of the climate crisis – third runway is to devastate the pretty little village of Harmondsworth, as I’ll be talking about in a later post, Staines Moor is left mercifully untouched. For now.
There’s nothing profound about this post. I believe the facts speak for themselves. I can’t think of a better example of why the ancient rules of commons have made modern life richer. It certainly made my day richer and formed an important counterpoint to the distressing, depressing mess which was to come over the course of the rest of the day as I headed out of Staines and on towards Heathrow.