At the end of the dead-end Gabb Lane near Apperley, Gloucestershire, between The Coalhouse Inn and the Severnside Caravan Site and Boat Park, is a patch of cropped grass with room for six or seven cars. The Severn Way walking route runs past it, though you have to peer through a thicket of willow to see the Severn glide past. It’s not named on any Ordnance Survey map, and it’s too small to be coloured the peach of Access Land, which it most likely is legally, but this remote, unremarkable car park is common land with no known owner and registered under the 1965 Commons Registration Act as Parish Landing. No rights of common are registered.
There are a number of such tiny commons threaded along the rivers Severn and Avon. Like Parish Landing, the only way of finding them on a map is through using DEFFA data overlays. The first I ever came across, while idly searching online, was The Free Landing Place near to Frampton-on-Severn on the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal, which I’ve not yet visited, but when I started exploring the area near to Tewkesbury using the DEFRA, I found not only Parish Landing, but many more within my range. The Dock, Westmancote Dock and Bathing Site are all to the north, near to Bredon to the north, as is The Landing Place which is opposite The Quay in Twyning, Worcestershire. I visited all of these. Further up the Avon are Parish Wharf, north of Evesham, and The Quay and The Wharf north of Eckington.
When most people think of common land, as did I before I started researching it, they think of it as land which is openly accessible to everyone, or perhaps used freely and traditionally by local farmers. Their purposes and histories are seemingly ancient and quite specific, and such commons are, indeed, plentiful along these rivers too – the flood meadows known as ‘hams’ of which Tewkesbury’s Severn Ham is the most famous and one of the largest.
Even the hams, however, are more complex than that; an evening walk up the Avon through the long grass of Midsummer Meadow brought me to the extensive Upham Meadow, not legally accessible while the curlews, redshanks and lapwings are nesting there. To those headstrong enough to insist that common land belongs to everyone and no one has a right to say otherwise, this must come as a bit of an affront.
And yet such restrictions are crucial to these less heavily-managed places where the non-human world is slightly more at liberty to do what it wants, for that world and for us. One of the reasons many of us are drawn to common land is for ‘a bit of nature’ and, no less than access for grazing or gathering wood, access to the non-human is an important need for urbanised, indoor populations. What is more, commons have for centuries relied on restrictions of access and rights to preserve their valued resources. Just as collecting firewood is frequently restricted to what can be carried in a handcart, or what can easily be taken from trees ‘by hook or by crook’, so there are dates when one cannot enter Upham Meadow to preserve its precious avian wealth.
The little riverside commons add to the story. The Severn and Avon were wide and important rivers with few bridge crossings; these commons were presumably community assets for communication which remained accessible to all, either by consent or by default where no owner was known. That none of these commons have registered rights to fish – or piscary – suggests this. Given that other community assets have remained common land around the country – ponds, springs, even Tintinhull in Somerset ‘s village pump – I would imagine that at one time such commons were more usual but have survived here due to some local idiosyncrasy, or perhaps their continued use until relatively recently. Incredibly, both sides of a common river crossing remains between Twyning and Fleet Lane, near to Bredon.
There is today no uniformity of use to these commons, as I imagine there was once. Three are still used for rivercraft, but all display notices and barriers preventing their use by just anyone, at least in part. Westmancote Dock and the neighbouring Bathing Place (the different uses need no explanation and there are others in Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire) though both owned by the parish council, appear to be entirely co-opted by Bredon Marina Ltd. Each is too small to merit a peach Access Land splash on the OS map and I wonder if anyone even knows that they’re common land.
Nearby is The Dock, also owned owned by the parish council and which has been turned into a pleasant little riverside park, with benches, a car park, a lookout across the Avon (the Worcestershire side of which is also registered common) towards Upham Meadow, and is planted with weeping willows.
The Landing Place is a remote spot, at the end of the long Fleet Lane which flood erosion made too potholed to brave in my Honda Jazz. It’s a cherished spot for a fire and a spliff for those in the know.
On the other side of the Severn is The Quay, another nice little park, gifted to the people of Twyning by a benefactor, though plastered with dire warning of sewage discharge into the water.
The most complex of these commons also has the longest name: Pieces of Land West and Fronting on the River Severn and Extending from Both Sides of the Old Bridge. This was, at one time, a major river crossing and Cheltenham’s main quay, but today is remote and quiet. The 1975 registration document runs to twenty-one pages – by far the largest I’ve seen and which seems a little excessive for slightly over two acres of mostly overgrown river bank. It documents a fight over ownership rather than registration as a common.
The common is in two quite different sections. South of the Haw Bridge, and south of the Haw Bridge Inn, a footpath stretches to the edge of Haw Farm (a place to fish for ‘private elver fishing’ a sign informs us) and from which paths of varying solidity reach down to landing stages; one of these informs us to keep out, which I assume it has no right to.
North of Haw Bridge and immediately beyond some flood defences, a tangled river bank opens out to an overgrown green. The green beyond would have been overgrown had it not been for the industry of locals who, over this the weekend of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, were right at the beginning of a long drinking session, surrounded with sausage rolls and very happy that I suddenly appeared.
They knew the land was common, though not who owned it, and seemed proud of being its default custodians. ‘I’m common as muck, me’ the sausage-roll procurer told me, though her sausage rolls were uncommonly delicious.
This idiosyncratic handful of tiny commons tell a fascinating and multi-faceted story. Rooted in a different conception of land ownership – that privacy should not be absolute – each has had a distinct afterlife once the common resource of river transportation became one of leisure rather than occupation. Some have ceased to have much purpose, and certainly not a common one – the remote car park, the flood-eroded bit of tarmac – while others have reverted to private ownership, maybe through intention, maybe not. Two have, like many commons, become amenity spaces, while just the one around Haw Bridge seems an active and restlessly negotiated place. As major flood events become more frequent, doubtless these places will change their uses again.