Cornwall is abundant in coastal commons, and that’s not simply because it’s abundant in coast. Along with clifftops, salt marsh and dune systems which I’ve visited in other counties, Cornwall also has beaches, harbours and slipways which are more unusual. These might be found elsewhere in England, but the frequency here is exceptional though perhaps unsurprising; after all, Cornwall is historically dependent on the sea.
In a county that’s already geographically and culturally apart from the rest of the country, the Lizard always feels at yet one more remove. Geologically, it’s not even part of Cornwall, having drifted in from somewhere else many millions of years ago, a flat plateau out of keeping with the undulations and granite upswellings of the rest of the county.
I’d been to Britain’s Southernmost point a few times while living in Penzance in the Noughties, and fancied returning, especially to Gunwalloe Church Cove, a favourite Sunday morning destination. While wanting to concentrate on three beach commons, I also fancied taking a look at Lizard’s town square and recreation field, and to see how much of Prendannack Downs I could see from the public bridleway along the perimeter of what is now a Naval airfield.
I arrived at Church Cove before ten, with the morning sun still rising, and the car park still almost empty. It’s a popular tourist spot, owned by the National Trust, and a place where you can get some clifftop walking and beachcombing done without walking too far or dealing with any stiff climbs. It’s also home to St Winwaloe’s Church which dates back to at least the c.13th.
DEFRA’s map shows the common land to consist of the beach itself down to the low water mark, and a small strip of grassy dunes where the beach meets the land. A 1979 registration would have included the surrounding cliffs, but that effort failed. The rights of common are difficult to unpick between different sources, but there seem to be up to five commoners with rights to take either sand or shingle or both, some of the confusion here stemming from a 1609 Act of Parliament which for a time allowed people living in Devon and Cornwall to take beach sand to improve agricultural land. Of course, that means that for much of the time, the common is underwater, but unlike Semmer Water near Bainbridge, at least it’s not permanently so.
When I posted pictures from here on Facebook, a friend said she thought that beaches were for everyone. Of course, coastal margins are another zone of ambiguous ownership and like common land, popularly associated with feelings of open space and personal liberty. I’d not actually thought much about who owned the sand on which I walked before making this trip. Walking the sands at Church Cove, now knowing it to be common land, didn’t really change anything for me. So how is it different?
Just over the cliffs to the south is another each beach common, also owned by the National Trust, and much more bucket-and-spade, with a surf academy, a beach hut restaurant and lots of young families. Local farmers actually did take sand from Poldhu Cove, up until Kerrier District Council putting a stop to it in 2007. Claiming ancient rights and a need for cattle shed flooring, according to local news they’d show up in JCBs and in one year took an estimated 3,000 tons, a huge problem for both local ecology and for tourism. I wonder how many of these farmers were of the four commoners with the right to take shingle, and if any of them stopped to pick up some of the seaweed as their rights of estovers permitted them. I also wonder if talk of common rights and the 1609 Act simply got mixed up with gossip and wild talk to become a justification for a very modern-day assertion of individual needs. It happens, just as the Magna Carta was recently used to justify opening a Yorkshire hair salon during a covid-19 lockdown, and then a gym, and then a Plymouth coffee shop.
These laws and these rights were, of course, made for the world in which they drawn up. The questions have to again be asked: if the laws governing commons have such ancient roots, what is their purpose, function and role in the contemporary world? How have they changed, and how stayed the same? These are question I’m no in any position to answer, not yet, but hopefully through asking them again and again, and eventually to people qualified to answer them, I’ll begin to do so.
My next stop was even more of an enigma. Predannack Downs and Higher and Lower Predannack Downs are two parcels of common land part-owned by the MOD and by the National Trust, but entirely used as Predannack Airfield by the Royal Navy, largely for fire and helicopter training. None of the common land is publicly accessible, although tantalisingly, the base has had open days; like other restricted areas around the country including the abandoned village of Imber on Salisbury Plain, this is a relic of a World War II military land grab. Given that the commons are now dotted with abandoned aircraft, it is now high on my list of places I have to visit, given my fascination with the aesthetics of the weird and the eerie. In many ways, it’s a partner to St. George’s Wharf, Avonmouth, which is a deep port of 70s construction, also off limits to the public, and yet still has a right for sheep grazing (and even, bizarrely, is Access Land, at least according to the OS map). The walk along the northern tip, which I took only briefly, skirts the actual registered common area, but a public bridleway at the Southern end is more extensive; something for the future, whether or not the Royal Navy listen to the pleas of a PhD student to let me in.
Geek that I’m becoming, I’ve been wading through legal documents pertaining to commons registration and its evil twin, deregistration. In the case of Predannack, it appears that the registration took place for the farmer at Teneriffe Farm to claim compensation for the reduction in his cattle herd resulting from the closure of the land for grazing. Not that doing so negates it having been used as a common, rather that it was the impetus for registration. That complete, all that seems to remain is some documentation, some patterning on DEFRA maps, but not a lot else. And yet it’s heartening to know that, should the Royal Navy practice setting off smoke bombs elsewhere, a legacy has been left which means that the area will have to be protected to some extent, either for the public, or for conservation.
Curiously, the process of registering commons locally is still active, as the Open Spaces Society are in the process of registering a couple of patches of roadside near to Teneriffe Farm, the result of an incomplete registration from the 1970s. Again, I can’t help but wonder why they’d bother. Is there an important principle at stake, is there something special about these verges or is it some need for tidy completism? Perhaps all three?
The commons registrations following the 1965 Act have often created strange problems to do with cattle allocations (I’ve come across someone who’s allowed to graze 0.385 ponies, another 27.854 sheep) and also with boundaries; the Act was a somewhat flawed legal instrument. Pre-existing buildings have sometimes found themselves on registered common land with all the legal issues that entails and a 2015 deregistration of someone’s garden hinged on a photo from 1968 showing children playing in front of a well-established boundary hedge.
A tiny stretch of my next beach common was deregistered earlier this month, a clifftop patio area in front of a second home overlooking Cadgwith Cove. The argument here took in the c.13th fort which was once nearby and a compromise was reached which granted the terrace for deregistration but not the rocks around it.
Cadgwith Cove has three commons. Cadgwith Beach describes the area between the foreshore, the road and the buildings, though not below the high water mark; its slipway is home to the fishing fleet of Cornwall’s last fishing cove. The Bank is an overgrown bank with a telephone box in one corner and a car park at the top, and Little Cove is – well guess. A bench is at the upper end of The Bank, looking down at the village, now more than half of which are second homes and holiday lets. There are no rights of common, and it seems that the commons registration hinged on it being impossible to determine who owned these bits of land; I wonder if this is still the case.
The Cadgwith Fishing Cove Trust was established to acquire three c.17th buildings which have been used by the fishermen for generations, and which border Cadgwith Beach Common. The Trust was worried that, if put up for sale, the buildings would become holiday lets, thus ending fishing in the cove. The Crowdfunder appeal for £300,000 took just 26 days to reach its target, in part through having appeared in the national press. I can’t help but wonder if, in some subliminal way, the presence of these commons, and their active role in the life of the cove has helped to foster a sense of independence that supplants even that typically found amongst the native Cornish. I wonder what exactly is the fishermen’s relationship to them. Here, certainly, is somewhere to return to and get to know. Visually, it’s a feast.
There were other commons I’d wanted to visit – other beaches and a patch of moorland near Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station – but was running out of time, so headed to Lizard, which also has three commons: Cummings Memorial Recreation Ground, The Green and The Square. None of these have rights of common either and the Recreation Ground was registered for its recreational use for sports, making it more like a town green (a specific kind of common and not generally appearing on the register). England’s southernmost common has sweeping views towards the lighthouse and the ocean, and given the slow creep of new housing at the town’s northern end, it’s good to know it’s got that protection.
The Square and The Green are car parks which adjoin one another; The Green is grassed and The Square, very much smaller, tarmacked and home to a bus stop. I can’t glean if they’re ever used for anything else, and there seem to be quite a few car park commons currently around the country, but keeping the grass from being put under more tarmac is a good thing, even if parking there was a bit treacherous after the previous day’s very heavy rain.
A successful visit, all in all. And with a few more sites to visit, a few to return to, it’s a good thing I know someone who lives locally for the years to come.