You might not think of Surrey as the birthplace of enduringly influential radical politics, but it is. And more than once, because not only is Runnymede where Magna Carta was (most likely) signed, but The Diggers conducted their two experiments in egalitarian communal living near to Weybridge and Cobham in the aftermath of the English Civil War. Should you wish to investigate for yourself, you can follow The Diggers Trail here.
The Diggers’ founder was Gerard Winstanley, an unsuccessful tailor who drew on the Levellers’ agitation for egalitarian governmental reform, expanding it into an entire way of living. The True Levellers, as he called his faction, moved onto common land on St. George’s Hill, near Weybridge in April 1649, believing they would make this waste fruitful, and remained there until August. Everything was against them. The Lord of the Manor sent organised gangs who used violence against these very hard-pressed people. Although squatting was a long, if problematic, aspect of the contemporary commons, The Diggers were despised by the commoners who saw them, not inaccurately, as intruders. And then, of course, the methods needed to convert heathland to productive agricultural land were still a century away. Some of the evicted Diggers went on to Little Heath, near Cobham, where they remained, creating a marginally more successful community until again being evicted in April 1650. Winstanley later became a Quaker and, eventually established himself as a reasonably successful tailor, with the help of some land gifted to his wife.
Winstanley can appear a marginal figure and the Diggers an ephemeral movement, especially given the failure of both communial experiments. However, the pamphlets Winstanley wrote were widely read and other Diggers groups around England took his lead, some with considerably more success. Importantly, Winstanley’s development of contemporary revolutionary thought into an entire way of living has had a lasting impact on other radical communities, both in England and ultimately globally. His foundational ideas have helped shape anarchist, socialist and communist thought, to the extent that he is memorialised as an outstanding thinker on a 1918 obelisk in Moscow. Winstanley also stressed the equality not just of all men, but all men AND women, although he was not alone in this radical thought at the time. He is also memorialised in the 1975 film Winstanly, (dir. Kevin Brownlow), which plays on ideas of communal self-sufficiency found in the contemporary counter-culture (which in turn forms the basis of the BBC’s The Good Life, which began running that same year). Winstanley is, then, an important thinker and due to his legacy perhaps the most important English radical thinker since Wat Tyler in the c.14th.
Little remains of the extensive commons of this part of Surrey. Over time, they have been swallowed up by industry, agriculture, housing and golf courses. Bizarrely, St. George’s Hill is now home to one of the country’s most exclusive gated communities, home to footballers, hedge fund managers and Russian oligarchs and indeed, every other road in this corner of Surrey seems to have private roads leading off it. And yet Weybridge Heath, a portion of the Hill’s flank, remains common land, as do small pockets of Little Heath, now a local nature reserve.
It is impossible to consider any kind of land use without considering power, and I approached these three commons (there are two parcels at Little Heath) with the Diggers very much in mind. Weybridge Heath is itself rather overgrown other than where it forms a thoroughfare up to Weybridge Station, a green at its northern tip and some woodland tracks at its southern end, closest to St. George’s Hill. The roads leading away from the common and the B-roads which intersect at the station are to private roads, a very posh boutique hotel and pub, a private college – and a GlaxoSmithKline R&D facility surrounded by very serious-looking anti-climb fencing.
Other than the green, where I found a man gleefully tickling his dog and a young mum out with her little one, I could glean little sense of communal space here, certainly only the faintest echo of Winstanley via the memorial to him which looks unfortunately like it might be something to do with a water main unless you go right up to it. Here and there were the pyramidal forms of dens built from fallen timber, and evidence of some mildly antisocial behaviour, but Weybridge Heath largely felt a place to walk through, which I imagine is because it follows roads.
It is, however, home to one of the largest areas of flytipped garden waste I’ve ever seen, which seems to have been going on for a very long time indeed and maybe the question needs to be asked as to whether flytipping is in any meaningful sense a form of communing any less than squatting (given that many common land squatted properties over time have become established dwellings and communities).
These impressions were, of course, formed on a very gloomy afternoon and I was fortunate to meet up with a chap involved in the local nature group, out striding purposefully with his pitchfork. We talked for some time about heathland, bats, newts and so on, and he explained to me how a small clearing for heathland has been made and is being maintained. It does, indeed, have those characteristic sandy paths, and some of the heathland plants are returning, but I can’t help but wish it were extended – I’m doubtless not alone in this, but time and money aren’t exactly abundant for projects such as this, however worthwhile they are. It is a noble effort, a rallying point for locals who care about their patch of common land, and a rather peculiar inversion of The Diggers; a community voluntarily restoring St. George’s Hill to heath.
Little Heath was no less difficult to engage with. Most of the site is no longer common land and comprises the thick birch and holly woodland which often replace heathland, as at Tunbridge Wells Common, and there is also a large pond, an old gravel pit, surrounded on one side by some rather anonymous and very large houses with gardens leading down to it. The pond does make it a destination for a potter and a sit, and benches have been put around the publicly accessible side. However, a 2017 drowning there and it having been used to conceal evidence in a national news 2016 murder do rather put a pall on things once you know about that, as anyone local would.
The parcels of common land are tiny. They include a patch of woodland with an inaccessible pond at its centre (one parcel) and two bits of verge along the access road for the very large houses (the other parcel). I can’t help but find more of Winstanley’s spirit of unofficial appropriation in the old notice warning against anti-social behaviour than in the signage about frogs beside the pond; I found it difficult to engage with this place.
I need to point out that I’m not just making these visits to explore and learn, but also to take photos. My photography is, as much as walking and reading and chatting, a way of engaging not just with each common, but with the themes and moods which they suggest to me. Little Heath presented a challenge. Whereas the contradictions between land use, power and authority were relatively easy to read at Weybridge Heath, that was not the case here; the place appeared at the time all rather nondescript as I’d been looking at exactly these kinds of woods all day. And so I stepped off the path, went into where I wasn’t meant to, and got bitten by a nasty little fly in the process.
Squatting in the middle of the dense patch of woodland, batting away flies, I’d removed myself from the official uses of this woodland, contemplated how I might use them for my own ends, and the things that weren’t meant to be beautiful but are. I became immersed in the weird, the sinister, grabbing what I want to feed my imagination. Taking something for nothing and dreaming. It was a feeble gesture and I’m aware of just scratching the surface. I still don’t know enough about Winstanley and his inheritors, but it’s a way of looking, thinking and acting I suspect I’ll be returning to from time to time in years to come.