To mark another beautiful September day, I drove down to West Dorset to have a look at some commons that had intrigued me when I came across them on mapping sites.
St. Mary’s Churchyard is a tiny common in the middle of a meadow south of the River Froome. The original church likely dates to the c.15th, but was largely demolished in 1828, leaving behind a small scattering of gravestones from the c.18th and part of the porch, including a c.16th ‘scratch’ sundial, a holy water ‘stoup’, and seating. The ruins are also a grade II listed building and of sufficient interest to warrant an information sign, now faded and disappearing in the brambles.
The site is currently almost entirely beneath brambles and nettles, and impossible to penetrate, so I didn’t see any of this – just a glimpse of the porch amongst the vegetation as it slowly decays. Quite why it’s a registered common is something I can’t find out through online searches. Maybe it was used as a pound at one point? I’m intrigued by this place, not least to see for myself what is beneath the undergrowth. It’s an enigmatic, haunted place and certainly appeals to my sense of the weird, but I can’t see, yet, how this helps with my thinking about commons. Even more than the microcommons of Surrey, there really seems no point to its registration as it doesn’t even have a registered commoner; I imagine there’s simply no reason to extinguish it and so it’s persisted. A hauntological phenomenon.
In the southwestern corner of the Hartland Moor National Nature Reserve are a couple of patches of grassland, an old tramway crossing them, and bordered in the East by a small wet wood which follows a small brook. These are Longton Wallis Heath – the grassland – and Moors/Middlebere/Slepe/Arne/Gold Point Common – the wood. The name of the latter is extraordinary, as the place names for which it is a common trace a line of many miles towards the coast and up a peninsula jutting out into Poole Harbour. I won’t speculate how it got to be called this, and possibly the reason is tediously administrative
Each parcel has rights of turbary (to cut 2000 turves per annum) held by one commoner, and there are no rights for grazing, something I would have expected given the surrounding heathland. This is even more peculiar given the heaths surrounding Longton Wallis in particular; this is extensive heathland, heavily managed by the National Trust (who own it and Longton Wallis) and Natural England to create huge expanses of heather. None of this is common land, though it is access land, and I’m left wondering both how such an expanse of heathland, so frequently common land, is in this case not, and also what difference making this common land – as is the intention to extensive heathlands on Lizard Point in Cornwall – might make.
In fact, just visually, if one were to ask which bit wasn’t common, the grassland of Longton Wallis, which is enclosed by fencing and disrupted by the tramway, might seem a strong candidate. Again, I can’t help but think that here is an anomaly. And yet, perhaps because of its status as registered common, this place has an identity as a specific place, rather than the rather anonymous expanses of the heath. And in that respect, like other distinct places, like Fremington Marsh or Dunkeswell Turbary, it feels like a place that is knowable for the purposes of this project. A possible direction is to take a selection of such smaller commons and get to know them very well over a long period of time.
One reason for choosing this trip was Longton Wallis’ position on such a vast tract of heath, with its (entirely erroneous) associations with Hardy’s Egdon Heath (though if you want a sense of that place, this is the place to come). The other was the discovery that the ancient town of Wareham has Anglo Saxon town walls which are a registered common in their own right.
These were a delight to visit, even if I hadn’t known anything about them, especially on a day of hazy late September sun. The Town Walls are low, sometimes very low, banks which almost entirely surround three sides of Wareham, the River Froome making up the rest of its protection from Viking attack, the reason for their construction. The town itself is fairly small, with a population of just over twenty-three thousand, and socially seems mixed – plenty of post-war and more recent social housing, but also very well-to-do cottages and Georgian town houses. It’s also a tourist destination, set on the edge of the Dorset AONB and with easy access to Poole Harbour and Brownsea Island from its quay, with pretty pubs and several short walking trails, including a Walls Walk with plenty of helpfully informative signage.
Along with Staines, Wareham is one of around thirty ancient manors which still has a court leet, dating back more than eight centuries. Wareham’s is much more active than is Staines’, meeting every year over the final week in November (except during the 2020 third national lockdown). Like Staines, it still elects a hayward, who here looks after the commons (there are four in all), an ale-taster, and a leather master, and this one investigates each of the town’s pubs. It also has its own Facebook page, as does the Warden of the Walls, and even its own songs.
Although it appears largely ceremonial, from what little I can glean, local issues are still discussed and motions passed for their addressing, along with plenty of drinking; doubtless it helps that the title Lord of the Manor has remained in the same family, the Ryders, for several generations. Other court leets in the South West include Ashburton, Bideford, Hatherleigh, Holsworthy, Northleach, Taunton, Watchet and Portland, which has retained more municipal powers than most. Interestingly, Laxton, home to one of the last remaining open fields, also has a court leet.
The Town Walls are very well-used. Aside from tourists such as myself, I found friends out for a walk and a chat, dog-walkers, a nurse heading to work at the hospital which sits at one corner. It probably helps that, being a common, it’s not fenced off and there’s an interrupted transition from town street to grassy slopes; the walls feel part of the life of the town, rather than just some heritage feature claimed by national organisations and covered with interdicts against unwanted behaviour.
They take you round the backs of houses, through small woodland patches, and in places expand out into water meadow and a lawn that may or may not have been used for bowling or jousting. They’re also fantastically free of litter, which is always a sign of a well-loved place.
Great Torrington is similarly dominated by its common, which likewise surrounds it on three sides, but Wareham’s town walls, being structures alongside the roads and houses, really feel like a part of the place, and I wonder what it’s like to live with them as a feature of daily life, what it’s like to grow up or grow old in their company.
I can’t help but think their status as common land, and their tie to the town through the court leet, might lend to the people of Wareham a real sense that these walls are theirs, or as good as theirs. As a counterpoint to Great Torrington, Wareham could be rich material.
I mentioned that Wareham has four commons. The Town Pound is literally folded into the fabric of the wall, and is one of seemingly hundreds of pounds around the country which are registered commons. Once used to impound stray or disputed livestock (and sometimes stray and disputed people), the pound is now a well-kept little garden with artwork courtesy of the local primary school. It has a couple of benches, and when I visited, a very elderly lady explained how, lacking a garden, she’d claimed it as her place to sit, as had a fair few others. Although only recently moved to Wareham, her fondness for the walls and the pound were obvious. I wonder how many of these other pounds, being protected as commons, have resisted reappropriation for building or parking and become similar quiet, pleasant spots.
The northwestern corner of the walls overlooks Wareham Common, which still has commoners with rights to graze cattle, horses and ‘animals’ (Gnu? Wolves? Porcupines?). Now crossed by the busy A351 on an elevated embankment (which no longer has rights of common but for which land was exchanged in 1973) it’s a mixture of pasture and flood meadow, with plenty evidence of cattle, and is an example of a town common according to Bowden, Brown and Smith’s 2009 report for English Heritage.
Following the wonderfully named River Piddle, it also includes a beautiful river beach close to West Mills and a potential stretch of Roman, or earlier, trackway.
Wareham Common adjoins Portland Meadow, which is part owned by Wessex Water Authority, and is more recognisably rough flood meadow, and had not been put under the mower, as had Wareham Common. I didn’t visit it, but it looks interesting; a river walk is always a pleasant thing. It likewise has rights of common for cattle and horses (no ‘animals’ this time) and also two rights for gather estovers, specifically ‘foreshore in hay’, something I imagine the hayward would know something about.
Everyone I met here was a dogwalker, though I imagine at weekends and out of school times, you’d find families and groups of young people out for a mooch. There’s signage telling you this is common land, and some signage showing you what nature to expect to see (it’s a SSSI) but the lack of fencing, closed gates and hedges generates a feeling of open space, freedom to roam (albeit within the confines of the hedges and fences surrounding it). It’s worth exploring again, but didn’t feel particularly special; however, were I to use Wareham in this project, the town’s relationship to it, and its connection to the court leet, will have to be explored much further.