Ford Heath and South Heath are a single, large parcel of land not far from Wareham and owned by a vast international water and waste management corporation, the Suez Group, with headquarters in Paris. That fact alone should set the tone already, for although this patch of common land, one of the largest in Dorset, is seemingly Access Land, most of Ford Heath is a sand quarry. Of course, sand has been quarried on common land for centuries, but its importance as a building material has skyrocketed over the past hundred years, as the rapidly vanishing sand banks of China’s river deltas demonstrate. It’s curious, then, that the very material which made heathland useless for anything other than rough grazing or a bit of charcoal burning or furze gathering has now made it valuable. To those eager to transform land into currency, sand was its liability; now it has become its asset.
Driving down Puddletown Road, I was aware of both the heathland – including a Dorset Wildlife Trust nature reserve – and the quarries before I even got to Ford Heath. And kept on driving. And driving. Because there wasn’t anywhere to stop, let alone park. I drove down the narrowest of one-track lanes, ended up on the A352 at its southern edge, then finally decided I could park mainly off Puddletown Road if I lurched my Honda Jazz at a slightly alarming angle onto a bit of verge. I didn’t get far before a local driving past – to my great fortune – pointed out this was a very dangerous road, too fast, especially the HGVs heading to and from the quarries, known as Binnegar Quarry. I finally found a layby on the A352 and headed up to see what on earth this place looked like.
Heading up from the road, Ford Heath, presented itself as a dense wall of pinewood choked with rhododendron and I threaded around the edge of the quarry, the woodland sloping up steeply as it had grown up on these towering spoil heaps. I wondered at what point I’d get to feel like I was on the common, not just shoved to its edges. Eventually, warning notices shoved me out into Binnegar Lane and up to a crossroads leading into the next part of the common (crossing from South Heath to Ford Heath).
One brief patch of woodland later and I was stuck on a track skirting a now-defunct quarry. Oddly enough, this pleasant woodland track, branching down to a ford, wasn’t actually the common land – the quarry was. Even the track itself appeared to be made from spoil. Nothing appeared as I felt it was meant to. And so I walked on, until, right at its northern tip, I came across a charming patch of not especially old woodland, crossed by a couple of tracks. Despite being somewhat suspicious of just how flat the woodland floor was, I idled amongst the trees, gratefully.
I retraced my steps, forking off down an old HGV track only to find weather-beaten signage telling me to keep out of yet another quarry. I followed the track around its edge, ending up at a long, incredibly dull stretch of track trapped between Puddletown Road with its fast HGVs and the vast sand pits which I could just about catch glimpses of over the brambles if I stood on tiptoe and raised my camera over my head. The novelty was wearing off by now.
Across Puddletown Road, however, and now firmly heading back towards the car, I found myself in a decent-sized stretch of restored heathland, openly accessible (so long as you ignored the nagging bridleway signs). This gave reason for hope. In fact, however bleak and ugly the pits might currently seem, in twenty years’ time or less the entire common is to be restored to heathland. This is precisely what is now happening to the Black Hill quarry at the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths, the restoration of heathland being a legal obligation central to the license to extract – though I need to put in the caveat that the Pebblebed Heaths aren’t owned by the quarrying company, and are in a (now National) Nature Reserve AND an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Nevertheless, whoever Suez have brought in to restore this section of the common has done a good job – the site is home to all six of England’s reptiles, and the nationally rare pennyroyal.
One big change in recent years has been the extinction of rights of common over the section of Ford Heath which is now the active quarry. This area had been wooded, well-loved locally especially for its bluebells. Following the Commons Act 2006, a replacement must be offered to ‘release’ common land (and if not deemed an adequate replacement for any number of reasons, this can be contested in the courts, often successfully). This exchange has added two fields to the south of South Heath and a stretch of old landfill along Binnegar Lane. Not the most exciting of additions, and it would be interesting to know whether or not they’d been used locally already. It certainly seems a poor substitute for a bluebell wood, even if a screening row of trees had been left around the site. Clearly bluebells are not a compelling enough argument.
Suez’ application was deemed complex enough to need a full public hearing and, on balance, it was decided the application should be approved. Suez have said they will return the new quarry to common land when the restoration work is complete, making Ford Heath a larger common than it had been, and this helped their case. Certainly, the restoration work has gone well so far, but it’s hard to see how the gaping void north of Puddletown Road can ever be made good. Sure, in time, it’ll settle down, all the usual vegetal suspects will find a toehold and flourish, but I can’t imagine it’ll ever shake off the sense of weirdness and violence. The flat areas will be too flat. The slopes will be too uniform and geometrical. It’ll be a kind of Minecraft simulacrum of heathland, at least aesthetically. Not that the gorse or lizards will care one way or the other, of course.
I’m deeply curious about this place – curious to hear from those working there, and those living here. Very curious to have an excuse to poke around the sandpits waived through thanks to doing a PhD. That said, it’s not exactly a pleasant place, at least currently, and it brings one face to face with some of the stark, violent realities of the present.
Tolpuddle Green, then is the antithesis of this; a violent past seen from a pleasant present. For those who don’t know the story, I’m only going to summarise very briefly. Tolpuddle Green is seen as the birthplace of the modern trade unions movement. In 1834, beneath its then-200-year-old sycamore tree, six farm workers were sentenced to deportation to Australia for forming a ‘friendly society’, demanding no less than ten shillings a week at a time when rural poverty was rife in Dorset. In the aftermath of the French Revolutions, trade unions had at this point been effectively outlawed. After nationwide protests and a petition with over 800,000 signatories, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, as they are now known, were pardoned and returned to England.
The sycamore is still there and thriving in its gnarly way, with a 2002 plaque declaring it one of the UK’s fifty most important trees, and is joined by a thatched wooden shelter, contributed by the TUC to mark the centenary of Martyrs’ sentencing. Every July – or at least every July when Covid-19 hasn’t been messing everything up – the village is alive with the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival at the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Museum. It’s all very celebratory. And on a sunny December morning, it’s a tranquil spot to spend time. Even on bin day.
Of course, the Martyrs’ story and the green being a registered green have little or nothing to do with one another, but linking the two in my mind is an entertaining thing to do. For, surely, the impulse behind trade unionism – to demand fairness in employment – and also behind the persistence of rights of common down through the centuries – to ask for a right to basic subsistence – are reasonably similar, even when those impulses have of occasion been mutated into less-than-noble expressions. Both demand personal dignity from those who might take more than they need. And thus both the Tolpuddle Martyrs and common land act as powerful metaphors in the popular imagination. Myths, if you like, and in a good way.