Anyone who’s driven up the M5 south of Bristol, between Junctions 21 and 22, will have noticed a peak soaring up just north of Bridgwater and from which the Mendips ripples eastwards. Modestly clothed in gorse and heather, through which poke patches of calcareous limestone, it seems to promise glorious walking; I’ve meant to head up there for years.
There’s something primal about an itch to get up high, and there’ve been other peaks I’ve hankered after beyond the windscreen. Evolutionary psychology tells us, albeit speculatively, that our attraction to high places is down to a need to get advance notice of sabretooth tigers and marauding neighbours. Whatever the actuality, being up high reduces the complexity of world to that of an OS map and all but removes troublesome human individuality.
I’ve gleaned very little about Crook Peak, and the hills which stretch beyond them – Compton Hill, Wavering Down and Shute Shelve Hill. At least, the internet isn’t giving up their secrets readily, and so this entry is going to be quite personal in nature. And that’s as it should be, because Crook Peak is part of my personal landscape, the M5 connecting Exeter, where I live, with Bristol, where I’m studying, have studied in the past, gone on family trips, made films, and even gone to meditate with Tibetan Buddhists. In fact, although you can’t see either place from the limestone outcrop at the very top of Crook Peak, known locally as The Razor, it takes small effort to work out where they sit in the landscape; just past the end of the Blackdown Hills lies Exeter, while just beyond the hills to the North and along the coast a bit lies Bristol.
It was great to have an excuse to visit. Crook Peak marks the western end of an eponymous (along with Compton Bishop Hill) 241-hectare common, and immediately beyond it lie the several commons on Shute Shelve Hill. And in a week of awful weather, the forecast remained steady for a late September Wednesday window of autumn sun and warmth and so I headed up the M5 early.
Crook Peak/Compton Bishop Hill has been owned by the National Trust since the 1950s, when it became a SSSI. It’s also part of the Mendip Limestone Grasslines Special Area of Conservation and its calcaerous grassland is nationally important. Rare flowers, such as the Cheddar Pink, and rare birds are found there, and at its foot, comedian Frankie Howerd spent the last twenty years of his life. Long before Howerd’s arrival, his ancestors were up there leaving flint axes lying around, so its been inhabited for a long, long time.
The common includes the ridge of high peaks and their southern and western flanks down to the agricultural land sloping down to the flatlands of the Somerset Levels; north is enclosed and given over to grazing. There are rights of common to graze sheep, goats, cattle, horses and pigs and also estovers (collecting fallen or dead vegetation) and turbary (collecting peat or turves for fuel). There are rights for ‘coveys’, which either means partridges (it’s their collective noun) or is a misspelling of ‘coneys’, meaning rabbits. I suspect the latter, given the extensive burrows, and the existence of pillow mounds on Shute Shelve Hill (which has near-identical rights).
I parked at a neatly-kept car park on the Webbington Road and was greeted by enthusiastic National Trust signage suggesting a 6 mile walk, with the timid caveat that it was hard work. I ignored both the walk and the caveat, and headed straight up. And up. And up. Crook Peak is largely bare of trees, so the only thing that changes in the view as you climb is elevation. Even from the car park, you can see around Bridgwater Bay to the Quantocks and Hinkley Point with Exmoor rising in the haze, follow the Mendips past the vast shiny pancake of Cheddar Reservoir, and take in most of the Somerset Levels, up to Glastonbury and beyond the Polden Hills to the Blackdown Hills. Had I been walking with a friend, there’d have been lots of excited pointing. And heading up and up, the view keeps on improving.
There are a fair few high places which are common land, in the South West and elsewhere, largely due to the unsuitability for agriculture of much uplands. This legacy has translated into what is now Access Land, and so two powerful metaphors for personal freedom – height and open space – combine. On a day such as mine, when the weather is favourable, it’s not far off being an ecstatic experience, walking along the ridge, swathed in views. The limestone escarpment also lends itself to a feeling of triumphal climbing, and is surrounded by all kinds of other expressions of personal freedom – names written in rocks, a labyrinth, cairns, a huge arrow (presumably for drone filming) and the West Mendip Soaring Association, a model aircraft club who visit when the wind is in the right direction, as it was on my visit.
Crook Peak has long snagged my attention for another reason. At its foot is the Webbington Hotel (and Spa), which looks like the kind of early c.20th place that Agatha Christie might use to steadily kill off a motley band of incarcerated and naïve characters. Although I’ve not found any evidence of anything of the sort, I was excited to learn that in 2017, the hotel was the scene of an apparently unprompted mass brawl following an illegal boxing match which put two people in hospital and led to a £6,500 fine for the hotel’s owners.
Although the hotel isn’t on common land, it is bordered by it, and I headed steeply down a track towards it. It was hard to see into the hotel, making it all the more tantalising, as did the dead sheep blocking one gate leading to it, and the neglected steps leading to the other.
This is another kind of common land experience I cherish; trampling around in neglected, sinister woodland is a counterpoint to wholesome striding out on the uplands. Such woodland is where the devils, the hostile locals, and the junkies hide out. At least they do in my imagination.
These hidden corners were the focus of the best bit of photography work I did during my MA, to which I added the weirdness of high summer’s evening sun and twilight. And of course, the weird and the sinister, folklorically and historically, and into the present day, are part of what commons are. They’re a place where people often perceived as a threat – highwaymen, gypsies, counter-cultural types, gay men out cruising – can make use of the less repressive assertion of land rights that go with common land.
As hidden corners go, the woods around Webbington Hotel are up there with best, not least because of the intense tangle of clematis vines swirling this way and that. And, as a photographer, it’s great to work on access land, because I, too, have more right to be there, and less need to be questioned, than if I were crashing around in the neglected corner of a park or an industrial estate. For that, for me to common (kind of) the landscape to feed my art, my curiosity, and my need to escape.