At up to a billion years old, the igneous intrusion known as The Malverns is the oldest rock in England and Wales. The Malverns emerge, almost apologetically majestic, among gentle hills and the Severn plain farmland which surround them and more than worthy of their Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty status. I’ve itched to climb them each time I’ve headed up the M5 to the Lakes or the Dales. Atop Worcester Beacon, even on as day as gloomy as the one I was granted, one can see the Cotswolds, Mendips, Severn Channel, the Brecon Beacons, Black Mountains and Cannock Chase. They’re also 90% common land and so a major factor behind my trip to nearby Tewkesbury over the Platinum Jubilee weekend.
The Malvern Hills Trust, formerly the Malvern Hills Conservators, either own or manage most of them, and much more besides. The Malverns themselves are largely made up of four units of common land, each of these in turn an amalgamation of smaller commons. So first there’s ‘Worcestershire Beacon, Sugarloaf Hill and North Hill’, the high northernmost peaks. Then there’s ‘Land in Parishes of Colwall, Little Malvern and Malvern’ (which makes up the north-central peaks) and ‘Hangman’s Hill, Midsummer Hill, Swinyard Hill and Herefordshire Beacon’ which makes up the south-central peaks including two major hill forts. ‘Ragged Stone Hill’ and ‘Chase End Hill’, each a separate unit, are the southernmost and smallest peaks. There’s also the amalgamation of Castlemorton, Coombe Green, Hollybed and Shadybank Commons discussed in the previous post.
And there’s also Great Malvern’s town commons – ‘Malvern Link Common’ and ‘Malvern Common’, each considerable in size and which include miles and miles of verges which reach out this way and that through agricultural land, right down to the Severn at Rhydd and at Clevelode. On Great Malvern’s industrial outskirts there’s Newland common, while west beyond the peaks are more verge commons and greens. Finally, just south of Worcester, is the grassland of Old Hill. I’ve visited none of these, but I’m definitely up for a return visit to take care of various bits of unfinished business.
Go back several hundred years and these commons would have been fragmented, each managed distinctly, used differently, named differently. So how did a charity come to manage it all? This might seem a bit of a dull question, but answering it takes in a wide sweep of radical political, social and economic change, the legacy of which continues to shape our relationship with how we see and interact with green space.
The giveaway is the management structure, and especially that lapsed title ‘conservators’. The Trust are made up of a board of twenty-nine, eleven of whom are elected by those living in several parishes which annually pay a small levy towards the upkeep of the commons through their council tax. A similar arrangement exists for Wimbledon and Putney Commons for properties up to three quarters of a mile from the commons, and also for the people in the parish of Great Torrington in Devon. While those in Wimbledon and Putney also pay a levy, and those in Great Torrington don’t, both are able to elect conservators annually. The conservators of Tunbridge Wells and Rusthall Commons had long since lapsed by the time the 1987 Great Storm tore through its thick woodland, but were resurrected by seven property-owners with similar rights to instruct the then-landowners to clear the mess and use the storm as an opportunity to restore some of the commons’ lost heathland.
In each case, a late c.19th Act of Parliament created the board of conservators, amongst other legal alterations, occasionally including some loss of common land as at Great Torrington. Wimbledon and Putney’s Act was in 1871, The Malvern Commons’ in 1885, Great Torrington’s in 1889, Tunbridge Wells and Rusthall’s in 1890. It’s significant that the earliest of these is in London, for this is where the first of the commons preservation acts entered the statute books, the Metropolitan Commons Act 1866, which made it possible for communities within the Metropolitan Police area to acquire nearby commons to protect them from enclosure or development or both. The Act was the end result of years of grass roots protest and campaigning which united East End labourers with Hampstead philanthropists, direct-action Chartist radicals with well-connected Romantics, and saw the birth of the world’s oldest conservation charity, the Open Spaces Society (formerly the Commons Preservation Society) and Europe’s largest, the National Trust. It also saw a recognition at state level of an argument that the social value of land could be greater than its value as a material, capital resource, and as such was worth protecting.
The 1866 Act came at the end of a century of Parliamentary Inclosure which had legally and morally blessed the extinction of common land. While commons continued being extinguished until well beyond World War II, the Act marked a dramatic shift in the ways in which green space could be understood and a legal procedure for its preservation which continued through the creation of the National Parks in the middle of the c.20th, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, and right up to the present. Of course, green space continued to be and continues to be under significant threat, but the 1866 Act was a first step towards providing legal protection and empowering communities rather than landowners, businesses and local government from eradicating it.
Although more conventionally rural commons were also protected through Parliamentary Act during this period – for example the huge Ashdown Forest in East Sussex in 1885 – Wimbledon, Tunbridge Wells, Great Torrington and Great Malvern are all towns, and this is surely another connecting factor. Their commons were not just used for grazing, but as amenity spaces for quiet enjoyment, outdoor sports and events for urban populations. It’s also perhaps relevant that Tunbridge Wells and Great Malvern were both major spa towns during the c.19th, and so their commons were a commercial asset for tourism worth protecting.
Even enhancing – Great Torrington’s and Great Malvern’s nearby commons are criss-crossed with well-established and well-maintained walking tracks which are more suggestive of a public park than the more carnivalesque activities also associated with common land. At any rate, the purpose of the conservators is in each case to protect the physical environment of the commons for public enjoyment, seeing off anti-social behaviour, over-grazing, illegal quarrying and building, and preserving the natural beauty of each place.
And yet something beyond all this happened in the Malverns. Over the years, the managed area grew and grew across pastures and along verges, leaping fields to pick up greens and grasslands miles from those ancient rocks. Further Acts of Parliament followed in 1909, 1920, 1934 and 1995, extending the conservators’ powers and area of jurisdiction. So what prompted all this?
It’s frustratingly difficult to find out about the Malverns remotely, and I suspect a follow-up trip to Malvern’s museum may be needed. Besides, as with many other commons, a great deal more can be gleaned through walking and coming across signage than can be found online. Without my trip, I’d not have known about the connection between the commons and the hugely popular water cure offered for several decades by the team that was later to bring the world Lea & Perrins’, nor that Swinyard Hill continued to be quarried, legally, well into the 1970s. It’s possible a particularly zealous local agent for the Open Spaces Society was keen on registering every possible sliver of grass as a registered common and fair play to them. It’s also possible that common land is particularly important to people local to the Malverns, and certainly the infinite local variations of commons culture, which stretches back centuries if not millennia, has found a distinct expression here.
Without doubt, an exploration of Great Malvern’s commons, and the verges leading down to the Severn would be welcome. In fact, a years-long research project here would be a worthwhile and rich way to spend one’s time. And either way, so would returning to the magnificent British Camp hillfort, and to see how much more could be spotted from Worcestershire Beacon on a better day than I was granted.