Great Ridge Wood in Wiltshire, also known as Chicklade Wood, is a substantial area of mixed woodland on the same ridge as Grovely Wood, bordered by the Wylie Valley to the north and split by the busy A303; it was once a highway robbery hotspot. The same Roman road runs the length of each, and both were once part of the medieval Grovely Forest – forest in the original sense of land with the primary function of nurturing game for aristocratic sport and feasting, principally deer. In this sense, they’re like siblings who might have grown up in the same family, but have grown old in markedly different ways. That makes Great Ridge a valuable means of thinking about Grovely.
Grovely is common land and Great Ridge is not. That said, according to W.H. Hudson’s A Shepherd’s Life (an inspiration for James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life), Great Ridge was still used for the collection of firewood at least into the early c.20th. These days, you’re legally allowed to walk nearly anywhere you want at Grovely, whereas stray from Great Ridge’s public footpaths, byways and bridle paths, and you’re technically trespassing. However, the wholesale conversion of common land to Access Land is a very recent change, and in fact Grovely was brought up in the House of Commons as a reason not to do this. It’s my belief, and I’m speculating here, that at the root of this difference, and what’s driven these two sisters apart more decisively than the dual carriageway expansion of the A303, is hunting.
Aside from forestry, Great Ridge is still used by the Fonthill Estate for hunting. It’s not hard to find the occasional cartridge, and I assume the only reason for the presence of a pizza oven beside the Roman road is to fill the bellies of hunting parties. The wood’s periphery quivers with pheasants, and there appears to be a pheasant nursery close to the eastern end. Walking down into a deep combe called Longdean Bottom, and you’ll find yourself in well-managed c.18th-style parkland. Indeed, on the map, the very bottom of that combe is Park Bottom.
I have my suspicions that hunting may have been behind the attempted enclosure of Grovely in 1809. It appears to have been landscaped around that time for this purpose. A lengthy avenue of beech leads from stables up to the ridge and along the Roman road to Grovely Lodge, which is, even now, set in what looks like parkland. Could it be simply that the Earl of Pembroke didn’t get his way at Grovely, while the then-owners of Great Ridge did? I imagine it’ll take a lot of work to figure this out. Whatever the case, I like the idea that while Grovely is a continuation of sorts of the ancient woodland rights of common enshrined in Magna Carta, while Great Ridge is a continuation of the slightly less ancient repressive Forest Law which Magna Carta in part sought to moderate.
The experience of woodland is markedly different. Both woods might be largely carved up into neat grids of plantation, but Grovely has more unruly deciduous woodland. Even the wood stacks are markedly different; those in Great Ridge are neatly industrial, marked out in day-glo spray paint for buyers, whereas Grovely’s active wood yard is a maze of reappropriated old vehicles and whimsy – and a picnic spot for walkers crowned by a plastic pigeon. In both cases, the forestry is private business, and yet whereas Great Ridge’s is the sober and orderly-minded practice of the improver, Grovely’s is the roguish scruffiness one might expect of a commoner. And whereas, walking the rights of way in Grovely, paths lead off to ruins, to haunted ancient trees, to dens, one walks straight through Great Ridge, admiring the work of forestry as if flicking through the pages of a book.
Over the past fortnight, I’ve been enjoying a series of online symposia from the University of Leeds’ Environment and Culture, a series of conversations between geographers, historians, cultural and literary scholars, several of which I’d already come across in my research. A frequent theme was the call for a more ‘bottom-up’ way of researching place, starting with social encounters and site visits, before progressing to ‘top down’ research such as data sets, archives, and previous scholarly work. Such research, it was suggested, can say more about lived experience, and discover and capture things which cannot be gleaned from a screen or a crumbling document. That’s on top of walking being known to promote specific ways of thinking and prompting ideas perhaps unavailable while sedentary.
All this seems akin to my way of working over the past few years, to which I might add that engaging aesthetically and autobiographically with a place also prompt novel lines of thought. I’ve often found a site visit not just instructive of history, but just as importantly, of how history creates and inflects present experience.
More even than this, my walk at Great Ridge helped me think over something fundamental to my PhD. I’ve been asking myself time and again if there’s anything inherent to a given river bank, patch of moorland, playing field, woodland, which makes it a common beyond its legal status and history. Superficially, visually, there generally isn’t, but in comparing Great Ridge and Grovely I’ve seemingly divined several. Nevertheless, to do so has taken a close understanding of cultural signs rather than raw sensory sensation – forestry styles, signage, traces of public activity, patterns of rights of way – and applying to this my emerging knowledge of the history of common land. This being so, when I come to make my film over the coming years, it will never be enough to create an immersive, sensory experience of place for the viewer to communicate the meaning of common land; I will need to provide an enculturating experience too. Finding a way to strike this balance is where the intellectual heavy lifting of my PhD will take place.
There’s yet another way the experience of history is changed by directly encountering it physically. The meaning and history of rights of way significantly overlaps with that of common land and so is an area of interest for me. While walking a right of way, I’m physically experiencing this history, enacting it, and through the tiny changes to the landscape made by my passing through it, I’m both perpetuating and subtly changing it. To walk the land, is to BE history.
My trip to Great Ridge was intended as a means of getting to know Grovely in its wider context. In doing so, I’ve not simply expanded my understanding of Grovely, but through also expanding my awareness, I’ve come to see the direction of my project very much better indeed.