I’ve only been to a handful of the common land which DWT manage, something I’m slowly putting right. Having long since planned a trip with a friend to their Chudleigh Knighton Heath reserve near Bovey Tracey, it made sense to also include a trip to nearby Ideford Common while out that way. To make it a trio of visits, I also spotted yet another patch of common land called Ramshorn Down (allegedly it looks like a ram’s horn from the nearby hills) southwest of Bovey, and just within Dartmoor National Park.
There’s next to nothing about Ramshorn Down online beyond the blogs of ramblers and professional dogwalker. It didn’t look terribly exciting on the Ordance Survey map, either – just a splodge of Access Land with a few footpaths running through it. I’ve gone out my way for less than thrilling patches of common land before, so I ummed and ahhed about visiting and probably wouldn’t have gone were it not for the peculiarities of getting off the A38 (then back on again) to get to Knighton Heath.
I’m very glad I bothered. The morning was in the middle of a week of glorious autumn weather, the air clear and crisp. The peak of this hilltop common commands views of the edge of the Dartmoor granite instrusion as it soars up to Hay Tor, down the Bovey Valley as it heads towards Lustleigh Cleave, and across to Haldon Ridge, the Teign Estuary, and deep, deep into the South Hams. At some point recently, Teignbridge District Council have plonked a little stone circle there with a flat stone at its centre; engraved in this is a compass which points out what you’re looking at and how far away it is. The effort of doing this suggests that enough people have strong enough feelings about Ramshorn Down to let it eat up a portion of the council’s budget, just that such people haven’t been minded to take their enthusiasm to the worldwide web.
I wonder if this is in part because no-one knows who owns this 42-acre common (not quite as unusual for common land as one might think). I love this idea – presumably buried in some archive, or lost entirely, there is – or was – documentation proving ownership, so right now someone is walking around oblivious to their ownership of a hilltop southwest of Bovey Tracey. These, surely, are the lost-and-found commons.
There are registered rights of common, for cattle, sheep, horses and livestock, as well as estovers, turbary, and a right for cattle to stray, whatever that means. Not that you’d be able to graze anything, without putting in fencing and a cattle grid, as a Dartmoor Ranger explained to me; no one would want to risk cattle straying onto the nearby A38. Rather, it’s being managed for conservation and recreation; the ranger was there to meet a local farmer to flail the bracken to help a protected butterfly. The pearl-bordered fritillary lays its eggs on dog violets and lives its short life around bracken, weaving in amongst the long stems like a bird in a forest, as the ranger rather beautifully described it.
While Ramshorn Down might have an owner heedless of his special bit of land, it isn’t being left on a shelf, like some of the forgotten commons of Surrey I visited, and I imagine that’s in no small part due to it being within Dartmoor National Park and thus incorporated into the fiercely protected and fought over Dartmoor Commons.This is just as well, as it’s currently in need of protecting from off-roading SUV idiots.
It was clouding over a little as I headed to Knighton Heath. There are two parcels, a small patch of wet heath and wood south of an old railway line (which is not common land along its length) and a much larger parcel north, which extends across several roads, taking in several pylons, Chudleigh Knighton’s old school playing field, and large stretches of heath and scrub woodland.
The largest portion of the common is, however, inaccessible due to clay quarrying, currently by Sibelco. The Bovey basin is, DWT’s Matt Boydell explained to me, owned by clay-quarrying businesses who over the course of the next few hundred years are likely to very gradually dig up the whole basin, and have the rights to do so (though this is assuming human civilisation lasts that long – frankly, I have my doubts).
They’ve dug up a fair amount already, as anyone who knows the area can tell you, but when the common’s previous owners tried to argue that the common rights had been registered incorrectly, a lengthy court battle ensued with its commoners until in 1981 the registration was upheld. The battle has left behind it a lengthy document weighing up the competing claims, investigating c.18th manorial leases and a c.19th court leet’s hiring of a poundkeeper (a very strong indicator of common rights which leaves me wondering rather excitedly if the court leet still exists in some form).
I’m also keen to know a bit more about the plans for the patch of the common still inaccessible due to quarrying, given DWT’s management of the site. Certainly, you can’t go far without being reminded of their involvement, whether signage, or rather frustrated laminated notices about dog poo bags on trees, or the occasional arrow with an ant on it, one of their brilliant little self-guided site trails (Knighton Heath is one of only two spots in the UK where you can find the narrow-headed ant, the other being the nearby Bovey Heath).
Knighton Heath is in between several small towns – Bovey Tracey, Chudleigh and Kingsteignton, and bears all the marks of this proximity one would imagine – fly tipping, the litter of car parties, burned-out vehicles. It’s a strangely liminal place; if there’s a kind of place between edgeland and actual country, it’s that. Overlooked by Hay Tor, abundant in wide patches of heathland, it’s surely one of the only places where one can walk from a town and hear nightjars, and yet the evidence of urban life is all around. Perhaps it was the weather, perhaps the fact I’d just visited an unexpectedly stunning place, but though I found it intriguing, and could see its huge value to local people and to wildlife, I struggled to warm to this common.
Ideford Commmon has only been managed by DWT since last autumn and they’re still planning for its future, including introducing grazing. It’s a triangle of gently sloping heathland, bordered by thin woodland, with views towards the hilltop common at Little Haldon and along Dartmoor’s southern flank. It’s also home to a gypsy encampment that has been there, so I’m told, since the 40’s. There’s a long history of gypsies on common land; I can remember traditional gypsy caravans on Tunbridge Wells Common in the early 90s, and Farnborough Hospital, where I was born, borders a Gypsy Common. I’d be curious to know a bit more about this persistence of an old tradition. While being mindful of just how divisive the subject is; having witnessed first hand the problems caused by travellers at an Exeter green space, I’m at the same time entirely aware of their centuries of persecution and the increasing struggle to accommodate their way of life in an increasingly built-up country. Something to come back to and do right – either that or not at all.
Ideford Common is part of the Clifford Estate and, like Knighton Heath, comprises two parcels: the main common, and a long, thin strip alongside a bridleway at its north-western edge. Comprising 2% of Devon’s lowland heath, it’s home to beloved heathland birds like the Dartford Warbler and the nightjar, a large and reasonably intact cairn, and is scattered with flints, all that remains of a layer of chalk which had been laid on top of the local sandstone an unimaginably long time ago but has long since dissolved.
Across the minor road which makes up its Eastern edge, a former Forestry England plantation is now being restored to heathland; Forestry England land is frequently Access Land, as here, and on a map it seems to be part of the common – which, presumably, it was at some point in the past. In time, the distinction between the two bits of land may be no more than the road, some legal documents and different management strategies.
I liked Ideford Common’s manageable size; it’s easy to get to know, but diverse enough to be interesting. I also liked its presumably complicated present life with the gypsy camp and the sense, with DWT’s new management and the heathland restoration, that this is a place of intense and vibrant current interest; as my friend and I were leaving, we passed a beautiful new picnic bench being readied for use by workmen. It’s a local’s place, too, not just for dog-walkers, but for trail bikers along the bridle path and for birders, who have hung up feeders in the car park. Yes, I liked Ideford Common a lot. But I have to say I liked Ramshorn Down the most.