In the middle of 2022’s dry, bright, and occasionally alarmingly hot spring and summer, I chose a week of glum skies and drizzle for my field trip to visit Gloucestershire’s astonishing commons. My visit to the celebrated Minchinhampton and Rodborough Commons was on the glummest day of all – and yet the place crackled with activity and enjoyment on a June Sunday, given the added exuberance of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee bank holiday. Wherever I went, little gatherings of tables and chairs and bunting had sprouted overnight like mushrooms, and in spite of the weather.
These commons stretch along the northern portion of a flat limestone plateau near to Stroud and you wouldn’t know it, but Minchinhampton is actually a town common like Oxford’s Port Meadow and Newcastle’s Town Moor. Minchinhampton was once a flourishing wool trading town – until the mills opened in the rivers below and Minchinhampton’s relevance became historic and it ceased to grow and is today a pleasant little Cotswold village.
Minchinhampton and Rodborough Commons are still commoned by people living around its edges and up to five hundred cattle munch on the unimproved, herb-rich grassland which is one reason for their designation as SSSIs. Rights to graze ‘beasts’ and to collect estovers exist on Minchinhampton, while Rodborough’s rights are slightly more specific, listing a variety of hooved animals with the enigmatic addition of ‘animals’. One property also has rights to collect berries, a right which I imagine is indistinguishable qualitatively from the many collecting blackberries in the autumn.
The National Trust acquired Minchinhampton Common in 1913, and Rodborough in 1937 and the Minchinhampton and Rodborough Commons Advisory Committee meets several times annually between the Trust’s staff and volunteers and local interests including the golf course and graziers. Sub committees oversee public communication, vegetation and conservation, and the management of vehicles and pedestrian erosion.
In fact, the National Trust own a huge number of commons from Lizard Downs in Cornwall to Brackenthwaite Fell in the Lake District. It’s difficult to picture The National Trust as a radical organisation, this absence seen in conservative rolled eyeballs and accusations of wokeness at the Trust’s long-in-the-making reckoning with the slave money with which much of the nation’s most beautiful properties were in part or in whole built. Nevertheless, the Trust issued from the same radical Romantic group that saw the creation of the Commons Preservation Society and in fact was created as the business wing, if you like, of a campaign group. In other words, the preservation of the commons – as commons for all – was central to what The National Trust was set up to do.
I’d like to know more about why and how the Trust came to acquire these 350 acres of land. At some point in the late c.19th, the commons clearly became a desirable destination for those who’d made their wealth in the growing mill towns below, away from the noise and pollution of industry. Islands of enclosed properties with vast gardens have elbowed their way into the grassland along the Stroud-Minchinhampton road, many of which I assume have been built and rebuilt many times, as is the predeliction of the very rich. The largest of all, an extraordinary Victorian faux-castle surrounded by high walls and fences, is today the stately pile of Ecotricity’s CEO.
Like other town commons – Langport, Town Moor, Corfe – many properties at the Minchinhampton end open out straight onto the commons, either fronting a track across them or through a back entrance. In their helpfully-illustrated guide for local residents, the National Trust have pointed out that where their properties adjoin common land, they are NOT to mow or garden out front (or back) and to take great care with overhanging plants which might poison the cattle – who they are entirely responsible for keeping out (with varying results). However, unlike Town Moor’s gateways which have been largely stopped up alongside threatening signs about CCTV (beyond those particular gateways are vast houses) and Langport’s (which have fallen into disrepair, their connecting bridges unstable and bramble-choked) and akin to Corfe’s, Minchinhampton’s gateways remain used and open. I’d love to know what it must be like to have a back entrance to one’s house which is also an entrance onto common land, especially if one has legally-enshrined rights to it.
Minchinhampton and Rodborough Commons are in many ways archetypal. Here is unimproved, untilled grassland with its astonishing biodiversity (the ultra-rare Duke of Burgundy butterfly and the fleetingly-blooming pasque flower). Here are the ancient earthworks, including the 5,500-year old Bulwarks, perhaps an Iron Age hill fort of the Belgic Dobunni tribe. Here is the mass open-air radical assembly of Methodists, 10,000 of whom crowded around a long barrow to hear preacher George Whitefield in 1743 (the barrow, Whitfield’s Tump, still carries his name and a license for services). Here are the remains of WWII glider traps, practice trenches and a US military field hospital.
Here, the golf course, civic reservoirs, the old pillow mounds and quarries (another reason for SSSI designation is the bivalves to be found here) and the amenity space with its commanding views and unimpeded space for walking, walking, walking. Here, too, around Minchinhampton are verges, greens and a pound which are all registered commons in their own right. It’s almost a theme-park common, just lacking a bit of heath and bog.
OK, so I’m coming across slightly acerbic. That’s actually jealousy. Because, first, I’d love to be able to slip into Minchinhampton and Rodborough Commons as effortlessly as if they were the corner shop, and second, because their glory on a gloomy day is something I could only entirely experience in my head. Still, on a good run, it’s less than two hours from Exeter.