The forecast for last Friday was glorious so I headed down to Dorset to binge on commons. Heading down to Dorset is likely something I’ll be doing rather more of as the focus of my PhD narrowing down to an area known rather problematically as Hardy Country. For the sake of my sanity, I’m limiting this to the area south and east of Hardy’s Casterbridge, or Dorchester.
I’ve visited three times previously. Wareham, Corfe Castle and Portland all impressed me, each offering very different experiences: coast, heath, town common, meadow. This time, I wanted to investigate some of the little bits of common dotted around.
Striking at the outset is how tampered with this corner of the country has been over the past century. Great sweeps were taken over by the military during WWII and much not given back. Some lands were then handed on to the Forestry Commission, now Forestry England, and so expansive heathlands have long-since disappeared, including the heaths of Hardy’s childhood, Puddletown Heath and Duddle Heath. Times change, sometimes for the better, and Forestry England’s role is now at least as much environmental and public-facing as it is to provide timber. Even so, it’s notable that so much of this part of Dorset has been excluded from the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Perhaps, as many hope, were Dorset to be given National Park status, the first for a county, that might provide a spur for change in this charming but disrupted landscape.
Right in the middle of this Area of (presumably) Mediocre Natural Beauty, in the middle of a vast patch of former heath which includes the MOD’s Tank Training Area at Bovington and Wool Heath and Forestry England’s Affpuddle and Moreton Forests, is a tiny sliver of common land known as Part of Throop Heath. This is an area Hardy would have known; the sink holes at Cul-pepper’s Dish just to the north appear in Return of the Native, so it’s believed. The common land runs alongside a minor road, tapering out from a point for half a mile to a 100 meter-wide clump of wet willow woodland. Judging from the amount of grubbed up roots still around, I’d imagine this area has only fairly recently been restored to heathland. With a cattle grid at either end, this is clearly a part of the area currently being grazed for heathland management.
Part of Throop Heath, bounded by a seemingly arbitrary straight line, and incredibly having four different owners, is an extraordinary anomaly, for it’s survived the enclosures, the military, even the Foresty Commission. And while other larger patches nearby – Throop Heath itself, Chamberlayne’s Heath, Bere Heath, Pallington Heath and more – all had their commons registrations refused, little Part of Throop Heath sailed through the process in the 1980s. There are no rights of common attached to it, and it’s just one patch of Access Land in a huge blob of the stuff thanks to Forestry England, so for all intents and purposes, these days it’s kind of a heritage common, its existence only written in statute. But I like its persistence, its stubbornness, and I hope it was a thorn in the side of all the terrible violence on the landscape which the Forest Commission was once allowed to wreak.
Nearby is Waddock Cross, a triangle of land at a crossroads, which is presumably how it got its name. Owned by three adjoining properties, it’s thickly overgrown with scrub – holly, birch, the usual – and some old beeches and huge logs from an old conifer. It seems to have an embankment around it, perhaps to create a flatter surface, or perhaps a remnant of the roads being cut.
I didn’t feel like struggling through the holly and birches to explore on this visit, so the visit wasn’t exactly satisfying. However, a bit of online searching revealed that Waddock Cross is also the name of an oil field on which it sits, one of three in the area including Europe’s largest onshore field, Wytch Farm. The oil company, Egdon Resources, takes its name from the vast Egdon Heath, a composite creation in which Hardy’s Return of the Native is entirely set.
I didn’t even get to stop at the common registered as North East Corner of West Holme Heath; there wasn’t anywhere to park safely nearby unless it was in someone’s driveway. Like Waddock Cross, it’s a thick patch of scrub wood, and it’s surrounded on the road by red flags spaced at intervals warning the unwary of a vast military danger area which stretches all the way down to the coast in which you might come across tanks, live machine guns, and probably people shouting at you (and quite rightly so) should you be especially unwary. Like the areas around Throop Heath, attempts were made to register these heaths as common land, and, likewise, MOD objections prevailed. I’d be curious to know how this little patch snuck in there. Interestingly, the Danger Area includes an area called King’s Standing. Just like its namesake on the Ashdown Forest, East Sussex, this is a throwback to when Purbeck’s brief status as a royal hunting forest (forest in this case having nothing to do with trees and everything to do with kicking out undesirables and their undesirable ways so that the deer supplies remain plentiful).
Black Hill Heath was a real respite from all this military-industrial messing around. The common is a stretch of hillside stretching down towards farmland and the hamlet of Turner’s Puddle. The hillside is thickly grown with bracken and there are few footpaths, official or otherwise. It’s a SSSI, too, home to plenty of reptiles who manage to dodge the illegal bike trails that sprang up during the 2020 lockdowns as they did and still do in so many secluded hilly places.
At the crest of the hill, looking out over a good sweep of the Purbeck Hills, is an old boundary stone with a strange cleft, known locally as the Devil’s Stone, and which a few enthusiastic souls have declared a megalith. The other slope of Black Hill is Access Land too and I’ve not been able to figure out why; it’s certainly nothing to do with a nearby tree-planting project of Queen’s Brian May. Both sides seem to be managed pretty similarly, so you’d not know which bit was common land unless you knew about DEFRA’s Magic Maps site. Down at the bottom, a narrow footpath threads through classic and gorgeous heathland pine, gorse thickets and little heathery clearings, an overgrown cattle trough suggesting it may have been grazed, maybe still is.
Black Hill Heath is a fairly classic hillside waste common, similar to ones I’ve found in the Black Down Hills and elsewhere. After walking all those closed-in footpaths to get there from Turner’s Puddle, I definitely caught that sense of freedom I always look for; even if it’s difficult to stray from the path, at least I knew it was an option if I could be bothered. Bracken, gorse and heather might be annoying to walk through, but I’d rather argue with prickles than an irate landowner or landowner’s minion. But beyond that, I don’t have an awful lot to say about the place. Unlike the other commons, I failed to find histories of conflict, or violence against the land. Other than the Devil’s Stone and the mysterious Access Land, I didn’t come across anything to fire my imagination. It’s not really a place for a walk, or even somewhere to linger, but it certainly makes for a pleasant interlude, somewhere to enjoy walking through. Though perhaps with a bit more digging, and some local contact, that could completely change.