Newcastle’s Town Moor is the UK’s largest urban green space; at 985 acres, it’s 142 acres larger than New York’s Central Park. It’s also a mosaic of land uses – much continues to be given over to grazing, but there are also allotments, playing fields and a golf course; also on the common are an industrial estate, an army barracks, Newcastle University’s engineering department, and much of the A167 dual carriageway. As are many other present-day commons, Town Moor is an amalgam of older commons – Hunter’s Moor, Nun’s Moor, Duke’s Moor, with the titular Town Moor the largest of all and bordering the city centre and the suburb of Jesmond.
This is exactly why I’d decided to stay in West Jesmond, at an Airbnb just a few hundred yards from Mooracre Playing Fields on Town Moor’s Western edge. My hosts were delighted to know this and plied me with information and infectious enthusiasm. I was up in early September attending a conference, giving a paper on this project and showing my film about Wiltshire’s Grovely Wood. I was acutely anxious about it all, not having seen much of anyone over the course of the long, insular summer school holidays, let alone anyone academic, and it was reassuring to know the moor was just a few minutes away from the conference venue at Northumbria University. Indeed, I fled there on the first day, spooked by networking and nibbles, and after bolting my lunch, undeterred by a ferocious thunder storm, to be later rewarded by evening skies worthy of a painted theatrical backdrop.
Town Moor is a town common. Like Oxford’s Port Meadow, Tewkesbury’s Seven Ham and many others, it’s owned by the local council and its commoners are defined by ancient rights as Freemen of Newcastle (although in the case of Tewkesbury, these have now become designated properties, while in the case of Port Meadow additional rights of leisure have been extended to all the people of Oxford). Traditionally, freemen were men of property and standing within a town or city, dating from an era when their number would have been relatively few, and whose ‘freedom’ would have provided rights to vote, a civic voice and rights over the town common. Freemen of the City of London famously still have the right to drive sheep over London Bridge.
There are presently around 200 Freemen of Newcastle, all of whom have rights to graze cattle on the city’s common – protected in law from 1774 but capped at 800 in total after 1870. Most have inherited their title from a parent, while a small number have had their title bestowed as an honour. Famous Freemen include Pitt the Elder, William Gladstone, Robert Baden-Powell, King Olav of Norway, Nelson Mandela, Alan Shearer and a smattering of princes. Some organisations and military units have become Freemen, and these include Newcastle Football Club, HMS Newcastle, The Royal Marines, The Royal Shakespeare Company and Greggs the bakers. In return for rights which include grazing their cattle on Town Moor, they must – still – swear to defend the city from attack.
As on other commons, the Freemen’s rights of common cannot be altered without negotiation and one way of negotiation is to compensate any loss financially. At the Isle of Portland’s commons, the commoners’ compensation from areas given over to beach huts is annually redistributed to local charities by the ancient Court Leat and it’s interesting to note that two charities exist connected with Town Moor: The Town Moor Charity for its upkeep and The Town Moor Money Charity originally set up to benefit the poor (a similar charity exists in Great Torrington in Devon, which also has a town common).
It’s thus interesting to note that there are numerous places on Town Moor which are inaccessible not just to cattle, but to most people – the allotments, the dual carriageway, Newcastle University’s Engineering Department, even BBC Newcastle and two vast car dealerships. Does this imply the Freemen are compensated for not being able to graze their cattle on dahlias, engineering undergraduates and electric Minis? In the case of the university at least, given the gracious memorial bench, I suspect not.
It’s perhaps worth mentioning that the industrial estate and the army barracks share a plot of land which was once part of a much larger army barracks which extended across Barrack Road into what are now playing fields. The link with common and the military – especially town commons – is a very old one. Port Meadow once had a very boggy airfield, while Staines Moor’s substantial rifle butts remain the common’s highest ground, rising above the nearby M25. Could the tacit agreement with the military have been traded for a more fiscally minded one with the estate? It’s possible.
Like other town commons, Town Moor was also, and remains, an important place of assembly. 200,000 Chartists met there in 1837 to demand a vote for all men – unlike Kennington Common and Brandon Hill in Bristol, this fortunately did not result in it being enclosed and gentrified into a civic park. The Moor also hosts Europe’s largest travelling circus, The Hoppings, every June and other fairs, sports events and, moving with the times, a mela every August Bank Holiday.
Like other town commons, Town Moor displays complex layers of land use including prehistoric enclosures, a cutting for its former race course, evidence of quarrying and coal mining going back many centuries, as well as the vast spoil heaps from the cutting of the dual carriageway, which provides the Town Moor with a focal point for walks, runs, sunset-viewing, (illegal) barbeques and a stunning view across the city and surrounding country with a dodgy bit of newish woodland around the back. A town common is both an ancient and a dynamic place, responding to the shifting needs of its local communities.
So them’s the facts – or at least as many as I’m willing to include in this blog, for a whole book could be written about Town Moor. But what I haven’t put across is what an extraordinary place it is to encounter, to walk around, to get lost in. How the Moor draws together around its rim social high rise, crumbling terraces, student flats, huge posh mansions, rural relics, how along its well-maintained and carefully-lit tracks one encounters all ages, all ethnicities, the beaten-down and the pumped-up.
Tracks which, with their angular lamp posts criss-crossing the wider expanses of the moor, follow ancient trackways and act as some kind of focalising trace, like a castle or a wall, linking past with present. Such a diversity of tracks, too – the broad civic tracks of recent improvements, cattle tracks splaying out from water troughs, tree-lined tracks following roads, even following ghost roads long since supplanted. Dual carriageways, roundabouts, crossroads, cycle paths, old lanes winding through vestigial orchards. And the arrest of new tracks by golf courses, allotments, military buildings.
Town Moor is often described through the cliché of the ‘green lungs’ whereas I’d say it’s more the ‘green heart’, through which pumps the city’s blood along its roads as well as its paths. It must be an extraordinary thing, especially as a child, to be heading into the city centre for a match, for a gig, to visit a relative, and see cows grazing beyond the avenues which line the roads which cross it. Some commons appear fossilised, a relic of a bygone time, anomalous, even perverse. I can think of few commons which have remained as relevant to their communities – and beyond more the more formal agreements of common rights – as Town Moor. Though challenges are now being made to the rights to graze in a time of biodiversity loss and climate crisis, if anyone were to ask me what relevance commons have in this chaotic stage of history, this is where I’d take them.