Cheese-rolling, Orwell and Orchids – beechwood and grassland commons in the southern Cotswolds

The Cotswold Commons and Beechwoods National Nature Reserve (NNR) is, as one might expect, a network of beechwoods and commons which extends over 1644 acres of ridges and scarps around the Painswick Valley, Gloucestershire. West of Gloucester and south of Cheltenham, it’s an important asset for a substantial urban population and is today managed by the Woodland Trust, Natural England and the National Trust, having been created in 1981. According to signage and promotional material, the NNR has some of the most biodiverse beechwoods in Europe, and the grassland commons are amongst England’s richest in wild flowers and butterflies, including an impressive fifteen species of orchid. Like most NNRs, the commons and beechwoods are managed to conserve traditional environments, preserving both ecosystems and aesthetic landscape value, and so the grassland commons are grazed – some by cattle owned by commoners – and the beechwoods are still harvested for timber and firewood. 

Cranham Common looking to Buckholt Wood, Gloucs.

The name is, however, misleading. It suggests that the beechwoods and the commons are different components, albeit ones making up a larger single landscape. However, many of the beechwoods are commons and in fact further beechwood commons extend considerably to the north and northeast of the largest, Buckholt Wood which occupies a ridgeline extending to Painswick Hill common, now largely a golf club. Further along the Painswick Valley are common greens, verge commons, hilltop grasslands, and other patches of woodland common. This is a landscape dotted with commons, of which the NNR is major part. Like many around the country, it is a landscape in which is preserved the interconnections between enclosed – private – and unenclosed – common – land. 

Buckholt Wood, Gloucs.

Woodland commons are rare, but often important. As commons tend to be less heavily impacted by human activity over a longer time scale, many are rich in ancient trees, as at Grovely Wood in Wiltshire, Epping Forest in Essex, and Landy Wood in Cornwall. Like Buckholt Wood, they often get their character from patterns of woodland commoning: the extensive pollarded beeches and grassland clearings at Epping Forest, the hazel coppices at Grovely. 

Buckholt Wood, Gloucs.

They are rare for two main reasons. First, being rich in ancient trees made them valuable for timber and many disappeared for grand shipbuilding projects such as the construction of the fleet which destroyed the Spanish Armada, and to fuel the early stages of industrialisation. Second, land is more economically valuable as pasture, and many woodland commons were simply grubbed up and converted. Such was the fate of Hainault Forest in Essex, a pivotal moment which ultimately and through decades of major protest, led to the social value of commons increasingly being viewed as greater and so worthy of preservation. 

Upton Wood & enclosed farmland, Gloucs.

I visited four registered commons on my visit. I parked at a tiny hamlet at the foot of Cooper’s Hill, beginning my walk at a single common – and nature reserve – made up of Brockworth Wood, Upton Wood and Cooper’s Hill which straddle a hill and are divided in two by enclosed pasture, linked only by a tiny thread of woodland. The common has rights for grazing sheep, cattle, horses, goats and geese, to collect firewood (estovers), turf for fuel (turbary), to let pigs forage (pannage) and to collect minerals (common in soil), perhaps limestone. 

Cooper’s Hill, Gloucs.

Cooper’s Hill is best known, however, not for any of this, but for an annual event during which races are run down a cleared section of its 1 in 2 gradient and down which people from as far afield as South Korea and Nepal run after a large Gloucestershire cheese which is rolled down it. This eccentric tradition appears to stretch back at least to the c.17th and possibly to the c.12th and is one of a number of activities originally taking place on Whit Monday but now over the Spring Bank Holiday; in 2022 it took place during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations and which I had missed by a couple of days. The cheese-rolling is not the only remaining activity, as sweets are scattered at the top of the hill for the local children, which some believe suggest pre-Christian fertility rites. It is also possible that, like Oak Apple Day at Grovely Wood, and the beating of the bounds which still take place around the country, these rituals evolved from required annual restatement of rights of common which carries them forward into the following year. Such public declarations of rights and boundaries would have been essential in pre-literate societies and are certainly more colourful than simply doing paperwork. 

Cooper’s Hill, Gloucs.

Upton Wood leads into 242-acre Buckholt Wood, which is part of the NNR. It’s dotted with car parks and criss-crossed with well-marked walking and mountain bike (MTB) trails, handy for tourists flocking to the Cotswolds and visitors from nearby urban areas. There are rights to graze horses, cattle, sheep and poultry and to estovers; a 1981 court case sought to limit access for this when they were privately-owned and was largely unsuccessful. It’s incredibly pleasant walking, and the limestone on which it sits spits up bits of ammonite onto the footpaths. Much of the woods are uncluttered by undergrowth, in part doubtless due to beech’s infamously aggressive toxic warfare, but most likely also due to the continued traditional management of the woods. 

Buckholt Wood, Gloucs.

Buckholt Wood runs into Cranham and Buckle Woods which also have rights of grazing, estovers and turbary and, with the grassland Cranham Common, form another registered common. Monk’s Ditch is a small residence, sitting on an island of enclosed land, which lies between the two. Unlike Cranham Common, the woods, thickly choked with holly, rhododendron and bramble, aren’t part of the NNR. 

Cranham Wood, Gloucs.

I found Cranham and Buckle Woods deliciously eerie. They are full of springs and on the northeastern edge was the now-vanished Cranham Lodge tuberculosis sanatorium. George Orwell was sent here for much of 1949, his lungs ravaged by war and by heavy smoking, and was where he finished 1984; after a severe reaction to a new drug treatment, he was sent to University College Hospital, London, where he died a few months later. Places for recuperation are not unusual on common land; John Clare spent several years at High Beech Asylum in Epping Forest. I particularly like to think of Orwell looking out at unenclosed woodland as he put finishing touches to his definitive allegory of the mind’s enclosure. 

Cranham Wood, Gloucs.

I left Cranham Wood and common land and followed an old track for around a mile, heading back into the NNR at Saltridge Wood. Here, in fact, was the original reason for this landscape coming to my notice in the first place. Fittingly, the reason is another book. 

Saltridge Wood, Gloucs.

Published in 2012, Sarah Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest explores the affective, cultural, political and fantastical relationships between people and woodland, particularly as those relate to the folk tales which intersperse each chapter. Each chapter revolves around a visit to a specific woodland, many of which are or were commons. Maitland’s chapter on Saltridge Wood (also known as Saltridge Common Wood) discusses the relatively short and often fraught history of beeches in Britain, the much wider sweep of British woodland history, the usefulness of woodland as a place to fantasise and dream, and the importance of not letting the factual and the fantastical be at odds with one another when out walking. 

Saltridge Wood, Gloucs.

This is not something I have ever troubled myself over, if I’m being honest. I’ve never lost the active imagination that in childhood can convert the most abject of spaces into places ripe for adventure, and woodland is filled with mysterious paths, hollows, ruins and increasingly the relics of den-building. And so I’m quite happy to note the crumbling walls which mark off the enclosed section of the woodland while at the same time imagine hiding from the Nazgul beneath them. I can’t help but think, in fact, that the strong cultural link which still exists between woodland and magic – whether Snow White or The Blair Witch Project – is one of the reasons they remain such popular destinations.

Saltridge Wood, Gloucs.

I headed back towards Buckholt Wood, then on to my car at the bottom of Cooper’s Hill, but first passed through Cranham. The 55-acre Cranham Common glides down from the same ridge which Saltridge Wood occupies, is still grazed and highly biodiverse. The village sprawls around it in pockets of varying sizes. To get around Cranham, to get to the school or the church or the playing field, you cross the common which itself laps at the fences and parking spaces of a fair number of residences. It will be a feature of life for nearly everyone who lives there and whether any of Cranham’s grazing stock are those of Cranham commoners, its centrality must surely provide the essence of usage as of right that is the very definition, both legally and culturally, of a right of common. It is a community space, not in the sense of an allocated area with provisions for community activity – loos, goalposts, swings – but a space which defines and is defined by the community which uses it. 

Cranham Common, Gloucs.

This link between past and present is clearly manifest in the Cranham Feast, an annual event first recorded in 1680 which takes place around the feast day of St. James (the village’s church, which is garlanded throughout). Numerous events take place on the common over three days, including a church service, a tug-of-war and the relatively recent introduction of a running race which beats the bounds. The central event is the roasting of a deer (presumably dead) which is served up amongst the villagers, which could either originate from an act of benevolence by the Lord of the Manor, or an act of rebellion – the deer being poached – thumbing the nose at him. 

Cranham Common looking towards Cranham Wood, Gloucs.

This post has been much longer than usual. It was tempting to split it between commons visited on the same occasion as I have done in previous posts, but what really appealed to me here, beyond the rich history and the considerable beauty of the area, was the sense of a patchwork of commons making up a whole landscape. That certain elements recur helps to underline that, and I briefly wondered if here might be a focus for my PhD should Grovely Wood turn out to be less productive than I hope. That now seems unlikely, but I left the NNR with a sense of unfinished business. If nothing else, I certainly intend to return to Cooper’s Hill next June. 

Cranham Common looking towards Saltridge Wood, Gloucs.

Published by andythatcher

Photographer - filmmaker - writer - researcher Environment - wellbeing - politics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: