The stretch of the River Plym from Marsh Mills Bridge to Plym Bridge is a registered common. Not the banks, but the river itself, and there’s just the one lucky holder of rights to fish there who probably doesn’t even know their right to do so is protected in law. It’s not the only local river to be designated as a common – the River Bovey, as it flows through Lustleigh Cleave is a common registered separately to Lustleigh. But taking you on a walk from a medium-sized industrial estate to a much-loved National Trust woodland via beaches, a caravan park and accompanied by a steam railway, it’s exceptionally interesting.
I find it slightly bewildering that anyone can own a river. As it’s something that has its own agency, as it’s something that is famously liminal – an fleeting excerpt from the life cycle of water – as it’s somewhere that people generally don’t belong, it’s always seemed to me to exist in parallel to the human world. It’s wild land, no more plausibly ownable than a flock of starlings. Nick Hayes shared my bewilderment at some length in last year’s Book of Trespass.
I’m glad to report that, in the case of this stretch of the Plym, no-one actually does know who owns it. When it came to be registered, rather late in the day in the 1980s, the MOD claimed the stretch south of Marsh Mills to the Laira Bridge, while the stretch north to Plym Bridge was claimed by Plymouth County Council and what was then one of England’s largest engineering firms, Siebe PLC (now part of Invensys). When this was queried by the commons commissioner, neither PCC nor Siebe produced documentation and with an almost audible shrug let the river lapse into a state of ownerlessness in which, so far as I know, it languishes to this day.
Ownerless it might be, but unexploited it is not. Up until at least 1946, the stretch between Marsh Mill Bridge and the quarries at Leigham snaked through the undeveloped land of Coypool Marsh. At some point before the 1980s, it was canalised and tidied up as the area became at first factories and latterly an industrial estate, now much cherished on a Sunday morning for its 24-hour McDonald’s drive-in by queueing devotees and for the boutique boot fair nestled in one corner of the Park and Ride.
Up until the quarries, the extent of registered common follows the neatened river faithfully, but beyond that for some reason follows that of the former, untamed Plym as between faithful stretches of beech woodland it deviates around bends now found only by plunging into thickets of rhododendron or fancifully imagined beyond the limits of granite embankments and through recycling units. To comprehend common land is to address the partisanship of maps.
Walking up this stretch of the Plym took me and my companions Phil Smith and Helen Billingshurst past families out skimming stones, the tide pushing its way across sandy river beaches, accompanied by dippers, kingfishers and parakeets, up to a coffee van parked at the c.18th Plym Bridge. It was almost always possible to follow the river along its banks, and would have been possible to wade along for much of it given the right footwear. Only occasionally did we encounter barricades – the National Trust preventing us from plunging over fast-eroding river cliffs, and a private community of, we believed, retired military officers putting up notices warning us to get orf their land.
Most wonderful of all was finding that the common embraces an eyot, just short of Plym Bridge, a well-loved destination for teenagers of a summers evening, and dog walkers after a photo shoot of their pooch on a chilly November Sunday. The eyot, at least, is accessible without waders, and its liminality, its ownerlessness, just heightens its potential for any kind of adventure: Swallows and Amazons, Plymouth-style.
I’ve been to numerous commons where I’m left thinking how little it seems to matter that this patch of grass by a busy B-road, this playing field, this village, this corner of a heath are commons. Here, I’m left feeling that common is how all rivers should be.