*This blog is more personal than most, for reasons which will become clear, and I discuss some of the processes and motives behind this project. I will, however, get around to talking about the five Hampshire commons I visited in late October. If you’re not that bothered about me going on about myself, that’s quite understandable, so please scroll down to the heading ‘The Commons’.
England has thousands of patches of common land which almost no-one is aware of. I’ve spent the past couple of years tracking down a fair few using this web page:
However, even DEFRA’s dataset isn’t conclusive, as it only includes commons registered under the Commons Registration Act 1965 and excludes major sites such as Hampstead Heath, the New Forest, and my hometown’s common, all of which are protected under other Acts of Parliament. Nevertheless, I’ve had much geekish fun exploring the country via this dataset, and seeking out commons wherever I go – even if it’s an overnight stay at a motorway service station. And so I was delighted to find six commons close to a place I’ve known since early childhood.
My Dad’s sister, Gillian Thatcher moved to the Bourne Valley, north of Andover in Hampshire, after qualifying as a teacher in the late 1960s, and spent the rest of her life there. My aunt’s first home was in the little village of Hurstbourne Tarrant, a place where, during one visit in early childhood, I came down to breakfast one morning asking about all the little spots which had sprouted across my skin overnight. Measles, was my parents’ aghast reply. Jill was reportedly unimpressed, to put it mildly.
Some years later, my aunt moved a few miles east along the valley, with its chalk winterbourne (one of the rarest ecosystems on the planet), to the even smaller hamlet of Stoke, where she restored the old quarryman’s cottage in which she lived until her sudden death in 2019. By extraordinary co-incidence, a childhood friend of my Mum’s closest friend had also moved to Stoke around the same time as Jill, and does still, and as does her daughter Penny. We’ve all become much closer over the past few years – Stoke is a useful halfway point between Exeter and Tunbridge Wells – and Pauline is an eager and generous host. And so when I signed up for a conference on screen spectrality in nearby Farnham, this seemed an excellent opportunity to also explore the cluster of commons I’d spotted online around Hurstbourne Tarrant.
Curiously, connections with this little-known part of North West Hampshire don’t end there. In July of this year, I attended a symposium organised by Tate Liverpool in conjunction with their Radical Landscapes exhibition at which spoke feminist and race scholar Vron Ware. Ware, it turned out, had published an exhaustively-detailed history of exactly this area earlier this year: Return of a Native. It’s a personal history, too, as most of Ware’s childhood was spent in the hamlet of Wildhern, between Hurstbourne Tarrant and Andover, and where her mother still lives. Her book has fleshed out this blog considerably.
It’s worth briefly mentioning all these connections. I’ve had a frustratingly difficult life marked by bad luck, bad advice and bad choices and one result of this has been considerable social isolation with its attendant tendency towards dysthymia – an undramatic but pernicious and near-perpetual form of depression. In the absence of lasting close relationships, I’ve tended to form strong attachments with places and so it’s the connections between these from which I draw some kind of map of meaning for my life. Of course this, as most of us learned during the covid lockdowns, is an entirely normal reflex, one easily lost in the hyper-mobile, hyper-social, digitised present day – and in fact worth nurturing.
One of the questions I ask of any place is what it has to do with me. First encounters are like an awkward conversation with any stranger, exploring personal histories, cultural preferences, political affiliations, employment, parenthood and the rest of it. Finding common ground is always both a relief and energising – as at Torrington Common when I discovered its connection to Tunbridge Wells Common and to William Keble Martin, the author of the book of wildflowers that’s been my go-to since early childhood. That connection, as with any relationship, is everything. It provides an escape route beyond the walls which I too readily build around myself, and having escaped into a world I’d nearly forgotten even existed, I find who I am once again – a part of the world, not apart from it. Thus, to no small extent, my project to better understand and know England’s commons is also a vehicle to better understand and know myself. And that’s enough said about that.
Like many commons, The Bank has no owner. Its 1.61 acres of woodland is registered as ‘The Bank Behind The Crescent Council Houses, Hurstbourne Tarrant’ and it sits in obscurity behind a couple of fields, its southern tip a few yards beyond a public footpath from which one deviates by a faint desire path and over a slight earth bank. The clearing into which one emerges has largely – and recently – been fenced off and into which one can enter via a smart wooden gate. I assumed this to be some kind of wildlife reserve, the fencing to deter sheep, but crossing the clearing I found the path lead down the bank and into someone’s garden, as if the clearing had been annexed.
I returned beyond the fencing and followed another path through the woodland and passed small heaps of garden cuttings and the remains of an old bonfire to come across another clearing fenced off in several sections – one being used for growing vegetables, another as an extension of the garden, another for chickens and swings, and the other for nothing beyond the storage of a single door.
Each section led down to a different garden of The Crescent Council Houses (I wonder if they still are council houses). Looked at in the harsh light of the law, all of these fences, and especially the shed, are illegal encroachments which threaten the status of the common land. Commons everywhere have been nibbled away at over the centuries by what is known as piecemeal enclosure, and such long-standing nibbling-away continues to be used to justify the deregistration of common land. The existence of the fences is also profoundly ideological: this is not a collective space, but a series of individually and privately-managed plots, the attitude towards land use which our culture has, for centuries, assured us to be preferable to any other.
There is, however, another way of looking at The Bank. Access, small-scale agriculture and the disposal of waste are all rights of common which go back hundreds if not thousands of years. In making use of land unused and unwanted by anyone, these householders, while having no legal rights of common, are enacting that thrifty opportunism which has always made commons attractive to those who use them. In this sense, The Bank is more alive as a common than a vast stretch of heath grazed only as a conservation strategy under the stewardship of a conservation charity, while at the same time being in the process of its own extinction by the individualistic attitudes of those using it. I was fascinated by this place.
Half a mile north of Hurstbourne Tarrant are two long, also ownerless, verges registered as Netherton Valley. Verge commons are found throughout England, some being just a few yards long, others forming a network of many miles as at Semley, Wiltshire. These do have rights of common for cattle and for estovers.
A hundred and more years ago, verge commons could be crucial for small-scale farming, as their limited grazing, often near to habitations, could be overseen by children or by women. Netherton Valley is also, today, rich in all manner of useful plants, especially in late autumn – crab apples, sloes, rose hips, as well as willow, ash, bracken and a small amount of rushes.
I left the valley and walked up an arrow-straight post-enclosure track to join the sinewy old trackway leading down to the hamlet of Ibthorpe, a few hundred yards northwest of Hurstbourne Tarrant. Rising ahead was the plantation-fringed ridge which, until the early c.20th, had been hundreds of acres of heathland used for common grazing by both villages and which had survived the enclosure of 800 acres of nearby common land in 1818.
Known as Pill Heath, the common was forcibly turned over to food production by the government during World War II – a tiny proportion of the staggering 6,500,000 acres to share the same fate. While not all such land was common land, much was, and this figure still doesn’t include another huge acreage requisitioned for the military during this time. When the government relinquished control of Pill Heath, which had been ploughed up for crops by Italian prisoners of war, it was deemed uneconomic to return it to pasture and thereafter remained in entirely private control, despite reassurances to the villagers of Ibthorpe and Hurstbourne. There was local resistance when the land was put up for sale in 1988, which gathered apace in 1991 when legal irregularities surfaced of the Ministry of Agriculture’s handing of the matter, but the campaign was unsuccessful, not least because the local MP refused to support it. And that was that. The heath was lost forever.
Nevertheless, two fragments have survived. ‘Pillheath Common’ on the DEFRA maps – ‘Part of Blagdon Copse’ on the commons register – is an 8-acre triangle of not-particularly old woodland with rights of common to graze cattle and for estovers (presumably the same commoners as at Netherton Valley). It’s deeply pitted in places, perhaps from gathering flint for building material, perhaps from waste disposal, and it’s really rather pretty.
Like most commons, it’s not hedged- or fenced-in from the road and the ground isn’t choked with brush, making it easy to explore. Interestingly, the fields leading onto Pill Heath to its west aren’t enclosed from the road either, unusual for crop fields and perhaps suggesting their previous lives as unenclosed heathland.
Further along the road is ‘Hurstbourne Common’ (DEFRA and the Ordnance Survey) or ‘West End of Dole’s Wood’ (Commons Register) or even ‘Ridgeway Wood’ (signpost at entrance). This IS enclosed from the road, and in one place (where it’s called ‘Drovers Wood’) rather forbiddingly tells you via a barbed-wire-topped gate that this is owned by Woodland Investment Management Ltd., one of England’s largest agencies for selling woodland. Again, it shares the same rights of common as Pill Heath and Netherton Valley, reinforcing its connection with Ibthorpe and Hurstbourne Tarrant. There is, in particular, considerable evidence of hazel coppicing, a typical common woodland practice.
While all these commons became Access Land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, Hurstbourne Common is the only one with a footpath crossing it, and which heads across fields to Wildhern. There are other tracks, too, and the occasional little clusters of lager bottles and energy drink cans show its limited parking must make it an attractive destination for a small circle of young people in the know. Birdboxes, kept in good condition, show that someone is keeping an eye on the wildlife there, too, though whether that’s Woodland Investment Management Ltd., a local nature group, or just a local who loves birds I can’t tell.
And then I began to find more puzzling things. At one end, a couple of shelters had been erected with branches and camouflaged tarpaulins, one full of logs and with a bright, clean Starbucks cup sitting outside it, and the other seemingly built to sleep two, with evidence of recent work. At the end of a side track was a low shelter with a corrugated iron roof, beneath which a work bench burgeoned with recently-cut branches from the hazel coppices. Nearby was a small toilet hut, still in use judging from the sharp chemical pong hanging around it.
It was getting dark and Pauline would be wanting to feed me, so I hastened on – scaring the life out of John, a chap out walking (usually he would have his partner’s dog, but he’d just been put in kennels). We got chatting and I explained why I was exploring. He neither knew the woods to be common land, nor that they were known as Hurstbourne Common, and then, with a gleam in his eye, he took me to see ‘the old wattle and daub house’.
Sparsholt College have campuses in Winchester and Andover and offer courses up to degree level in all manner of practical things, including forest and woodland management, game and wildlife management and outdoor education. TV presenter Charlie Dymock studied there. At some point in recent years, they created a small complex in the middle of Hurstbourne Common, some of it a tarpaulin-covered dugout, some of it an above-ground series of wattle-and-daub rooms, and including shower and toilet facilities. John thought it might not have been entirely completed, pointing out a stack of unused tarpaulin.
At some other point in more recent years – I’m assuming the first covid lockdown – it was abandoned, the dugout now buried beneath its collapsed roof, the water starting to get into the wattle-and-daub. The local youth clearly knew of its existence – Corona bottles and Monster cans – but it was remarkable how intact much of it was. The only violence wreaked on it was by the wind and the rain and the weight of the leaves pressing down autumn after autumn. John said not to tell anyone but – well – here I am doing just that to my tens of thousands of followers, influencer that I am.
As part of my PhD, I’m interested in how commons are eerie, haunted places. In how faint echoes of half-vanished stories can be found in their hidden corners, ripe for flights of fancy. How they undermine the lazy pastoralism of parks and nature reserves with their awkward liminality, and their tendency towards transgression and danger. All of the commons I visited late in October, beneath heavy skies, the early tang of winter’s rot in my nose, were eerie, suggesting what could not be readily grasped. Hurstbourne Common, however, was in a league of its own. I’d love to visit in spring, and see its bluebells, but like my early visit to Grovely, I’m glad it showed its sinister side to me first. At heart, I think I find that more beguiling than the ecstatic and the beautiful. Perhaps I find in the sinister and the eerie something I can connect with more readily. And perhaps that says a lot about me as a person.
As a side-note, I’d walked past, and even noticed, another of Hurstbourne’s commons. The Dene is a green, an unenclosed area of grassland crossed by a footpath and with a children’s playground at its centre. I’d been coming to assume that all unenclosed space must be common land and I remember telling myself off for making these assumptions so easily because this green wasn’t common land on the map. Except the maps I use don’t include registered town and village greens which are, legally, socially and culturally, a form of common land. Perhaps my assumptions – which have led me on several occasions to identify commons through visual media – are proving to be more accurate than I give myself credit for.
I reached Pauline, Penny and Jumble, Penny’s new puppy, just after the sun disappeared behind Pill Heath and the valley darkened, winter approaching a week or so sooner down at the still-dry winterbourne. We talked of family, of the exasperations of the digital age, and of the importance of place. And as I drifted off, it seemed the map by which I navigate this chaotic, elusive thing called a self had been ever so slightly redrawn, opening up this remote corner of childhood to the wildness of history, politics and the plough.