To see the thick, gently-waving grass of the long, long and narrow Corse Lawn Common, Worcestershire, you’d assume a gently pastoral connection with its name. You’d be wrong about the pastoral, just as you would with the gentle.
Corse, in this case, is possibly of Welsh origin and means marsh or bog, while Lawn means (as it does originally) glade, woodland or heath. The name applied to an extensive landscape around the present-day thirty-acre common which, for many centuries prior to enclosure, was made up of just those elements: marsh, bog, woodland and heath. Over those centuries, an uneasy tension existed between commoners and gentry, who used it as a hunting chase, the legality of which is questionable. The commoners repeatedly had their rights restricted to protect the deer and their habitat; in 1642, at a time when Charles I was intensifying forest laws across the newly unified nation, protesters massacred six hundred of the guiltless ruminants. A few years later, the nation entered a bloody Civil War.
Corse Lawn became increasingly cleared and drained for pasture; a few crops were grown in common in small open fields around Staunton and Corse. A final push to clear the last of the woodland preceded the Parliamentary Inclosure Acts of 1796 and 1797. Corse Lawn Common and Eldersfield Marsh, a mile to the northwest, are today all that remains of a once extensive and ancient common land landscape.
Corse Lawn came to my notice because of the deer massacre, an event macabre enough to appeal to my imagination, especially as so many of these major protests around the English Civil War era are tied up with threats to common land. There’s even a 1999 essay on it, Dan Beaver’s The Great Deer Massacre: Animals, Honor and Communication in Early Modern England in which Beaver argues for it being a community-wide protest against an absentee landlord, not simply a protest against forest law and in which the unfortunate deer were symbols of aristocracy generally.
Its shape is also interesting – two miles of verges and greens – making it more appealing. Even better, it’s just a mile or so from Chacely, the main filming location for Penda’s Fen, a cult classic wyrd rural BBC drama from 1974 which peels back layer upon layer of repressive Englishness until it reaches and then delves beyond the Christian. Literally and metaphorically peels back, for in one early, memorable sequence shot at Eldersfield Marsh, a signpost pointing to the village Pinvin (actually seventeen miles north east, in Gloucestershire) becomes Pendafen becomes Penda’s Fen, named after the last pagan English king. And there’s a real sense of this in my own work, wandering about these ignored bits of England, peeling back the layers of the seemingly timeless pastoral to find something more alive and much less reassuring.
Corse Lawn Common, known locally as ‘The Common’, has a few public, mostly unmaintained footpaths, a few unofficial footpaths around its edges, but for the most part, it’s clearly not walked from end to end nor intended to be. The common follows the surprisingly busy B4211 and there’s little in the way of verge to walk along at its narrowest extents – just a few feet in places. In places, a more orderly-minded homeowner has mowed a path into the meadow around their plot, and occasionally these join up, but frequently, I was having to wade into the thick grass hoping to goodness I’d come out again without any stowaway ticks joining me. There are rights of common for three properties to graze cattle, sheep and horses, but no evidence of that having happened recently, though a Birmingham Post & Mail article from 1999 refers to cows.
The common itself has little in the way of features. A section has been mowed into a small cricket pitch with a pavilion built on neighbouring land, and the owner of a stables has tamed the grass into a trimly respectable and boringly proper lawn right up to the road. There are a couple of ponds, dried-up when I visited and with rare pollarded black poplars which are characteristic of the area. A larger, stone-lined pond out front of the Corse Lawn Hotel is an old coach wash from when the hotel was a staging inn where Cromwell is reputed to have stayed after the Battle of Worcester and is today enclosed behind hedges, something for the residents and the tourist brochures. There are two milestones.
The other main feature is the long, uneven drives which lead off the B4211. None are tarmacked and this, it turns out, is because they are on the common rather than simply crossing it. I can’t help but wonder how many people have bought the beautiful properties at this beautiful location without realising the damage about to be wrought on their car suspensions and exhaust by the ancient laws protecting common land from development.
At its widest extent, another enclosure of farm buildings and dwellings sits like an island behind its hedges and fences – I suspect this may be one of the many historic squatter encroachments. At its western extremity, the common is bordered by hedgerows which perfectly follow the Gloucestershire/ Worcestershire border; later that day, I came across a stretch of the Avon split lengthwise between the two counties which was common on the Worcestershire side but not on the Gloucestershire side. Such is the intersection of land, power and administrative arbitrariness.
I loved Corse Lawn Common and feel a little haunted by it. In spite of the B4211, it’s a peaceful place. In spite of being well-populated and legally accessible, walking it goes against the grain, is a bit of an adventure. It has a complex, occasionally dark history and does not give up its secrets easily. It has a present life of potholes and cricket and I’d love to know what it’s like to live with it, what presence it has in daily life. I’d love to know what it’s like to have as ‘The Common’.