Cleeve Common is both the highest point on the Cotswolds and its largest expanse of both open and common land. It’s a SSSI due to its rare grasslands and for the quarrying which has revealed the greatest stretch of the Cotswold limestones’ geological record. Quarries are surprisingly often, it turns out, SSSIs for exactly this reason, including an area near to Tunbridge Wells’ tip in Southborough which allows the curious to ponder over thirty five metres of clay and then sandstone. The Pathfinder walking guide which I trusted to take me around Cleeve Common and the neighbouring landscape was quite effusive about it, and the common had come with a personal recommendation from a friend, so I was ready for a special walk. However, the lowering sky and occasional drizzle, characteristic weather of my week, had stripped the common of its midsummer glad rags, making it available for a quite different kind of scrutiny.
A little more about Cleeve Common. It does have the most magnificent views, even on a dourly hazy day, looking along the Cotswolds past Cheltenham and on towards Stroud and across the Severn flood plain towards the Malverns and, on a good day, the Brecon Beacons; on such a day, I would also have been able to pick out many of the places I’d come to know and love during my week based in Tewkesbury. There are still rights of common for grazing; as only one commoner still exercises his right, either that’s one very large flock or there are other farmers using it, presumably remunerating the commoners for doing so.
Cleeve Common is one of a brace of commons with its own Act of Parliament dating from the late c.19th. Passed in 1890, a board of conservators was set up to protect the common from encroachment and development and to promote morally upright behaviour. Tunbridge Wells and Wimbledon Commons have similar constitutions from the same era, during which the usefulness of commons as amenity for urban populations was becoming recognised as a greater asset than their private exploitation. Unlike any other late c.19th common I’ve yet come across, Cleeve Common was also registered under the 1965 Commons Registration Act which means that, unlike Tunbridge Wells and Wimbledon Commons, it is shaded peach on the OS maps, designating it as Access Land. A few extra bits with no known owner were then registered in the 1980s as ‘Three additional pieces of land forming part of Cleeve Common’ and common land also extends across the B4632 as Shortwood Common, once grazed and now thickened up with scrub woodland. This was where I parked my car.
The impact of quarrying on Cleeve Common is apparent everywhere one goes, even though much of this is now grassed over and neatened into the popular golf course which covers a considerable part of the common. So considerable has the quarrying been that only a third remains of an extensive hill fort.
Denuded of the famous views, the colour muted by cloud, Cleeve Common’s main features during my visit became the quarries, the golf tees, the radio masts (a regular feature of upland commons), and this really drove home how very far from being ‘timeless’ commons are. This is a heavily-used landscape into which centuries of human activity is profoundly etched, and not always as poetically as the Bronze Age hill fort and Cross Dyke, but in places quite abjectly. And yet the land is still, somehow, sufficiently untampered-with for bountiful biodiversity (there’s a moss here brought back from the brink of extinction).
Being here reminded me of my visit to Greenham Common last August and finding the former vast airfield speckled with the dainty white spirals of Autumn Lady’s Tresses Orchids. The successes of neither the moss nor the orchids are accidental, nor are they artificial, but the result of those caring for each common reading and then carefully nurturing the myriad non-human stories found so often on common land. Here is the fruit of a deft balancing of human and non-human need, a place where golfers and the moss polytrichum juniperium can flourish.
I wish I’d had a bit more patience to linger beyond my allotted guided circuit but I’d already got wet once (fortunately then able to hide in the magnificent nearby Belas Knapp long barrow) and there looked to be more rain coming in. Had I stayed to read the signage, as I generally do, I’d have found a historic sheep dip (this looks a lot more beautiful than it sounds), realised that the pond I’d walked past with the plastic lining is in fact a restored dewpond (I only recently learned that dewponds are entirely manmade features) and appreciate that the two trees I’d skirted en route to the radio masts were sufficiently important local landscape features to have been named ‘The Twins’. I’d love to say I’ll be back to do Cleeve Common justice, to have that wonderful sense of freedom and expansiveness which such places offer. But then, there really are so many other places still to explore.