Many of the commons I’ve visited are well looked-after and well-used, either by the public, by commoners, or both. They’re attached to community groups, they have Facebook pages, the council has an action plan for them, a charity nurtures them for bats. But many of the smaller commons – and some are very small indeed – appear to be rather unloved, or at least the will of those caring for them doesn’t match the will of vegetation to take over, fly tippers to desecrate, or planners to jeopardise.
Weybridge Heath is a case in point, much of which is choked with thick holly and birch, with only one wonderful, tentative clearing to allow heathland to regenerate. When I visited Horsell Common, I walked up to Coxhill and Milford Greens, which almost connects with Horsell’s northwestern corner. Given their village locations, I’d rather expected them to be just that – village greens – but on arrival, I found thick, wet woodland, impenetrable aside from the public footpaths which cross them.
Milford Green has several ponds, but even the largest of these is accessible only by climbing through the hedge surrounding a care home car park and battling through laurel to an area mostly of mud – though presumably, in winter and spring, the pond is much wetter. The greens are managed by Surrey Wildlife Trust, and so they’re not exactly uncared for, but the change of use here is stark – presumably, originally, this was a green, surrounding a pond. After all, there are many commons which have access to ponds, even are ponds. And so, while the vegetation and wildlife are nurtured, the human life here has for the most part lapsed.
Of course, it should be argued that conservation is human life in action, and maybe my mourning the disappearance of a pond beneath scrub is just me imposing expectations drawn from a twee wish that village greens stay village greens. After all, this is no longer a farming community: the bordering farms are now nurseries and riding stables and this being rural commuter-belt Surrey, any geese likely to be put out to graze on the green will be those of affluent retirees looking for an unusual hobby, not subsistence level, impoverished cottagers. I firmly believe that commons should reflect current needs, and the need for a place for nature is now amongst the most pressing of these. In this respect, Milford and Coxford Greens have remained current.
A different case can be made regarding the many Staines commons. I’ve already written about the glorious Staines Moor, but on the northern periphery of Staines threads a peculiar patchwork network of places known as Shortwood Common, Birch Green, The Moor, Knowle Green and Church Lammas. It’s difficult to name places here, as the commons register, the OS map and the DEFRA data are contradictory, so I’m just going to refer to Shortwood Common and Church Lammas.
I arrived at the former from an access road for what seemed to be a traveller site, crossing the River Wraysbury and passing a private fishing pond to a dense bit of scrub woodland. This, as with the rest of the parcels of Shortwood Common I visited in Staines’ northwestern corner, had no footpaths, only traces that people tried to penetrate the scrub for some reason or other. In the first parcel, this seemed to be to poach fish from the pond, judging from the signage and aggressive, new fencing; I suspect these poachers camped here from time to time, else the fire I found could have been from a homeless encampment.
Further on, I found a rather shabby green, untended by anyone save the occasional council mowing and a couple of dying flower pots beside a bench; judging from their age, I’d guess they dated from the spring 2020 national lockdown, a local person trying to add a bit of love and care to an overlooked place which suddenly had become a great deal more important.
You could see this green had once been glorious: a pond, a fair sized lawn, a pub (now a private house), a couple of really old cottages. Opposite the green, a footpath had once connected another parcel with Staines Moor via a railway crossing, now sealed up and battled over for more than fifteen years. This parcel has become an impenetrable thicket of nettles, long grasses and cow parsley, surrounded by wet woodland.
Further on, an open space of nettles leads down to a brook and along to a paddock which, though common and access land, is barricaded off and used as paddock, and which stretches to the encircling A30 Staines Bypass. And on past thick scrub woodland and beneath the A30. I can’t help but feel the neglect here reflects the poverty of this corner of Staines; common-land bordering Horsell’s larger properties is kept trim, and punctuated with well-maintained footpaths.
Of course, Horsell Common has an association to ensure such works take place, but here the lack of will seemingly reflects society’s lack of interest in the lives being lived here. Solitary signage shows it has not always been so: half-submerged in a pool of nettles, one forbids parking, another would explain the bylaws had it not been covered in lichen, and yet another has become entirely mute. These are forgotten commons; their use has lapsed, and while any kind of green space is to be welcomed, such spaces could be helped to flourish with support from community groups or charities, as at Weybridge Heath or Milford and Coxhill Greens. Further east lies more of Shortwood Common, and these appear to be well-used municipal spaces, but I only saw these through a windscreen and so I’m not able to comment beyond that.
Church Lammas is a separate common, and for more information about Lammas look at my entry on Eton’s Commons. This common still has rights of common attached to it for horse or cows, presumably between August and October, and presumably belonged to the nearby St. Mary’s Church. At some point, these fields were mined extensively for gravel and sand, and so the remaining common is a network of thin, overgrown footpaths around some ponds bordered by housing, the B376 and a benign-looking water channel apparently so dangerous it needs to be heavily restrained by fierce-looking fencing. Over the B376 is the very busy Lammas Park – not common land but presumably originally also Lammas land. Church Lammas has a distinct feeling of neglect.
At one time, money had been injected into it, creating benches, viewing platforms and signage, but now, as so often happens as council budgets are ever more squeezed, the benches have views of walls of scrub, several viewing platforms are collapsing, and the cheery little duck at the entrance stares longingly across the road at the well-maintained Lammas Park through peeling paint and graffiti.
There’s little point coming here – unless, of course, you fancy engaging in any of the activities forbidden by the council, of which there was plenty of evidence, or you fancy looking at the grebe family with its flotilla of little grebes. And like the pond at Little Heath, there’s been a death in the past five years.
I thought this was neglect, but I’d seen nothing yet. I headed up towards the pretty little village of Harmondsworth, which is about to be half destroyed in the name of Heathrow’s third runway, taking with it the village school and the peace of those left behind. West of Harmondsworth is Harmondsworth Moor, open parkland seemingly once restored from industry and with a considerable amount of cash injected to it, judging by its distinctive wooden structures, paths, steps, benches and the fact that it once had a visitor’s centre. I only know this because the signage is still there, pointing along a path that leads to a blocked up fence. In the depths of thicket is a climbing frame, slowly rotting. Presumably, the arrival of the runway, which will wipe this spot out, has meant that whoever was maintaining it has simply given up on the idea. It’s a very depressing spot.
Harmondsworth Moor includes three commons – just patches of river bank alongside two different braids of the River Colne, and one commoner still has rights to fish here. If they’d been determined, that is. ‘Land in Accommodation Lane’ is choked with Himalayan Balsam and brambles. You can’t see or even hear the Colne.
‘Land in Moor Lane’ is the name of a patch thick with trees on one side of the Colne as it’s crossed by a closed road bridge, and the name of another patch on the other side, mostly blocked off by the corrugated iron of a car parts yard.
I’d intended to walk to the other three commons, closer still to Heathrow, but the path to them now crosses the fast, three-lane A4 and so I had to drive there. This was a stranger patch still, parked up in an impromptu layby, planes almost directly overhead, and yet people were parking up in amongst the litter and noise, getting their dogs and kids out. The first common, ‘Land at Bath Road’, was inaccessible. It’s another patch of river bank, but fenced in a meter below the level of the road, and completely choked by scrub. So inaccessible, in fact, that it didn’t even have evidence of littering.
I walked up a track to ‘Land at Coln Bypass’, passing a stolen bit of airport luggage, gutted for its valuables, its contents strewn amongst the cow parsley. This common might not be fenced in, but it is completely overgrown, though quite pretty with its blackthorn berries and spikes of deep orange sorrel seeds: a feast for the local wildlife. I came across a young family scrumping wild apples, presumably from the nearby villages of Poyle or Longford, that of which will be bulldozed beneath the runway. It was a dilapidated, sad bit of land, and I didn’t know whether I felt hopeful that, even so, it was being enjoyed, or depressed that human life has reached this point. Probably both.
The final common, another ‘Land at Bath Road’ was easily the most depressing of the lot. It’s underneath the bridge over the River Colne and was once accessible from a lane, now blocked off with its entrance partially destroyed. This hasn’t stopped it being used for something or other, as the bit of river bank is awash with fast food cartons and cans of lager and energy drinks. At least, I guess, it’s the only common of all those I looked at still being used, but it was also the most abject by a long way. Dirt, noise, pollution, concrete, junk food. There are still fish in the Colne, which will later pass on through Staines Moor and on to join the Thames, but I wouldn’t eat anything I’d caught somewhere like that.
All these commons will most likely cease to exist in the next few years, but their retreat from usage seems to have been going on for quite a while thanks to the airport and the infrastructure around it. I’m possibly the only person ever to photograph them – who else would? It’s extraordinary they’re still registered commons, and I can’t help but wonder if somehow, maybe, if only that one commoner with his rights to fish beneath road bridges, in amongst Himalayan Balsam, could put his foot down, assert his rights of common and stop the whole, terrible, reckless project. Unlikely, but you never know.
I often wonder about the ‘point’ of registered commons in the modern age. More often than not, there’s a very good point indeed, but sometimes one that needs to teased out. But here, these patches of land have no use for anyone or anything, being so despoiled and indistinguishable from surrounding land. They are unprotected in the face of ‘progress’, there is no-one to fight for them, and aside from being anomalies on a map and a data set, they are pure eccentricities, severed from their histories. I left this area feeling really very down and in need of a whisky.