In the present day, Tewkesbury is famous for just one thing. In July 2007, two months of rain fell on Gloucestershire in just 14 hours, causing widespread catastrophic flooding. Tewkesbury, where the Avon meets the Severn, was particularly badly hit, effectively becoming an island and resulting in the loss of three lives. This was perhaps one of the earliest major English floods which became associated with the climate crisis, the next being the 2009 Cumbrian floods. Even were it not possible to draw a decisive link between the Gloucestershire floods and the climate crisis, one thing has been made clear at every event since: increasing numbers of similar events can be expected in the years ahead.
Of course, floods along the Severn and Avon are nothing new and their flood plain meadows have historically benefitted from a regular supply of floodwater nutrients. However, while many of the world’s major civilisations grew up around this annual cycle, in England we largely severed our link with them centuries ago through our accelerating use of agrochemicals and land reclamation. Now, supercharged by a wetter, warmer, less predictable climate, floods are no longer things to live alongside and benefit from, but a threat to be contained and mitigated. Even as I’ve watched Exeter’s flood defences being raised, questions are raised too about whether these are even going to be sufficient for what lies ahead.
Severn Ham, on the western edge of Tewkesbury, is excellently preserved flood meadow, and 178 acres of registered common. It’s still maintained as a meadow and grazed in common between August 12th and February 13th, with only sheep allowed to graze after November 20th. Dates for common grazing from early August, after the meadow is typically harvested, until mid-November are typical of meadows turned over to common grazing and found at Eton, Dorchester and elsewhere. They’re often called lammas lands, after the August 1st church festival of loaf mas. This continued ancient use, as at many commons, makes the Ham highly biodiverse and registered as an SSSI for its historic environment, being rich in grass and plant species and for the nesting redshanks, lapwings and curlews which benefit from the late summer cutting.
Although largely intact, its north-eastern tip, once the Town Quay, was used for milling flour for centuries, also accommodating alehouses, timber yards, warehouses, coal sheds and even a rail head, and is now dominated by derelict buildings, several of which are still on registered common land. In 1858, twenty one acres were removed to the east to create what was at that time England’s largest lock, and a weir to improve river traffic.
But that still leaves a very substantial area of green space. Bordered by willow along its Severn side, the bulk of the Ham (a word meaning flood meadow) is in early June waving grassland. It’s an extremely pleasing environment, open to big skies, with the Malverns rising in the background and behind which the sun sets, full of birdsong including the cuckoos which seem to favour Tewkesbury generally. I’ve never been in one spot where I could hear both curlew, cuckoos and larks simultaneously and that’s quite glorious.
But the Severn Ham has another life. Being close to an important market town, it has supported urban life for centuries and is considered a town common by the authors of an English Heritage book on the subject, Bowden, Brown and Smith’s An Archaeology of Town Commons in England. In fact, the view towards Tewkesbury Abbey from the Ham graces the cover. Although no longer owned by the mayor, aldermen and burgesses of Tewkesbury but today by the council, those owning or resident in properties on Tewkesbury’s oldest main streets have rights to lammas grazing; in fact, the owner of the Tudor AirB&B ‘burgage’ where I stayed during my visit receives an annual cheque for £35 in recognition of him no longer exercising his right, though I think he’d rather have an easier time of parking along the busy A438 which rumbled past it.
As were many town commons, the Ham was once also used for gathering craft and building materials, such as rushes, clay and willows. Other than its agricultural and industrial uses, the Ham has historically seen many of the civic events of a thriving town, including agricultural shows and fairs, horse racing and regattas (Tewkesbury was once nationally famous for both and infamous with the moralists of the day for the former) and today is also a leisure space for walking, fishing, dog walking. A raised embankment is lined with seats and a favourite place for sitting out, giving an uninterrupted view of the Malverns. It was built by prisoners of war in WWII who’d unsilted the river.
Tewkesbury has two other commons, but you’d need to be as geekish as me to know about them. One is a stretch of the Mill Avon which runs alongside the Ham and much of the little River Swilgate which runs into it and stretches inland alongside playing fields and a stretch of old farmland. Also council-owned, rights to fish are held by those who also have rights to graze the Ham; my Airbnb owner didn’t realise this, perhaps as he doesn’t get a cheque for this one.
The common itself is the riverbed – something which appears to be less unusual than I’d thought. I’ve previously walked alongside a similar stretch of the River Plym, and both watery commons are mapped onto older river courses which, in places, no longer exist. The Swilgate is a healthy, fairly unassuming river, mostly hidden by reeds and banks, but clean and, like the Avon and Severn, a home to numerous fish including eels, lamprey and the visiting foreign zander. The Mill Avon was probably originally dug by monks for Abbey Mill and which turned the Ham into an island.
Tewkesbury’s third common is Fiddington Meadow, on the banks of the Swilgate and indistinguishable from the grassland around it, now Tewkesbury Nature Reserve. One right still exists, of estovers to gather both the foremath – or first cutting of hay – and the aftermath – the second cutting and the original meaning of that word. Fiddington Meadow is also, like a considerable number of commons (and a surprising 6% of England), without any identifiable owner. Such places are, perhaps, partly behind the mistaken belief that because commons belong to no-one, they belong to everyone.
Tewkesbury is a magnificent place to explore commons in the Cotswolds, Malverns and along the rivers Avon and Severn and it not only has an exceptional and celebrated common itself, but also a hidden life of commons. Really, I could not have asked for a better spot for a week of exploring. It certainly beat Staines, though even that had some quite unexpected charms.