When I headed up the M5 to Crook Peak, I was also chasing another, very different, kind of commons experience. I spend a fair amount of time online exploring the nation’s commons by zooming in and out of DEFRA’s map of common land, and I noticed that just south of Crook Peak, starting at the southern edge of the hamlet of Cross, are a skinny network of droves registered as common land: Middle Rhyne, Cross Moor Drove, and Land SW of Cross Moor Drove.
As you can probably guess, if you don’t already know, droves are tracks along which cattle is driven, sometimes very short, sometimes very long distances. I’ve come across these before – there are networks elsewhere in the Levels, including Catcott Heath, an extensive area managed by Somerset Wildlife Trust. In fact, you find droves commons around the country and one even leads right up to the Scottish border near to Coldstream (beyond which it becomes just another track, there being no common land in Scotland).
I’ve found not a word written anywhere about these liminal places. I’ve long since known that verge commons exist, and found that quite often a more recognisable patch of common land will extend for some distance along connecting roadsides. I’m assuming these were for the use of animals passing along a road, but droves are often just the track itself. I wonder if their status as common is about access rights, much like public footpaths or bridleways are today. I’m going to need to do some digging around on this.
Middle Rhyne is actually more like a long, narrow field than a verge common, which is how it’s described in the official record. It runs alongside a drainage ditch joining the rivers Axe and Cheddar Yeo and which largely separates it from the old Bristol-Taunton coach road and the OS map shows it to be access land. I liked the views and the neat combinations of straight lines, but didn’t find much of interest here.
Cross Moor Drove follows the Cheddar Yeo, starting at Cross before heading across the A38, past some stables and agricultural storage then makes a left before vanishing. The beginning has been taken in hand by some civic-minded people, who keep it neatly mown, have planted a few flower beds, two benches and a memorial plaque to Maggie Pritchard after who the patch has been named Maggie’s Corner.
When I visited, the opposite end was blocked off and was being grazed by a rather grumpy-looking pony; the public footpath runs parallel on the other side of the river. It’s a track like thousands of others on the Levels, shaggy with grass and umbellifers, and though it ultimately leads into gates and private land, it’s nice being able to wander down them with purpose. The other common, Land to the South West of Moor Drove, is another drove track leading into a field.
I liked being here, and I enjoy photographing the Levels for their straight lines and their agricultural abstractions, especially on a day with beautiful clouds, and with Crook Peak, Compton Hill and Wavering Down glowing gold and green half a mile away. I’ll definitely be visiting the more extensive drove commons north of the Polden Hills, and putting in a bit of research to bring to light the story of these uncelebrated roads. As with the commons near Heathrow, I also liked the sense of being in on a secret; this is definitely not what most people think of when they think of common land, and that, too is worth getting into more deeply. I wonder who else knows about them and what, if any, impact being commons has on them.