Kent Commons in a time of plague

I’ve known Sevenoaks my whole life. It was the nearest town to my first home in the village of Otford, and one of my earliest memories is of meeting my Nana there, when she was still spry enough to catch a bus to nearby Riverhead. Actually, I don’t specifically remember anything about our meeting, though I do remember with great clarity the goldfish in the curious moat-like pond surrounding a prefab Barclays close to the bus station. I was in Tunbridge Wells from the age of seven and had adventures in Knole Park, ancient seat of the Sackville-Wests’ and filming location of Strawberry Fields Forever’s promo. As a teenager, it became yet one more place to get drunk and be stupid in, and even now, it’s a favoured place for a short walk with the family whenever we visit Mum and Dad. 

Fawke Common, Kent.

Until spotting them on the DEFRA map, I’d no idea that Sevenoaks had commons – lots of them. Sevenoaks Common itself is a network of verges and woodland wrapped around its southern tip. Nearby, there’s a narrow, wooded verge common sandwiched between the A225 and fencing around Knole Park. On the other side of Knole are one medium and one small green – Godden Green and Bitchet Green – and a couple of wooded commons – Fawke Common and Bitchet Common.

Fawke Common, Kent.

In Sevenoaks itself are the tiny site of an old village pound and a stretch of green space between roads, houses and the Vine Pleasure Ground – Vine Waste. In 1902, seven oaks were planted here to commemorate the coronation of Edward VII. While no-one can really say where Sevenoaks’ titular trees were actually planted – if they even ever existed – with the toppling of six of them by 1987’s Great Storm, the Coronation Oaks brought the town global fame and even today the mention of Sevenoaks to anyone old enough to remember frequently brings the rejoinder Don’t you mean One Oak?

Land between Knole Park and the eastern boundary of Tonbridge Road, Kent.

So Sevenoaks has what I’d call a common landscape – a diverse network which interconnects in places. I’d been meaning to ‘do’ Sevenoaks’ commons since becoming a commons geek some years back, but finding a spare day in the midst of day trips and visiting my parents, time becoming ever more precious in the pandemic years, had proven impossible until this Christmas when I received a text from my Mum on Christmas Eve informing me that they’d both – finally and belatedly – come down with covid but we shouldn’t let that spoil our plans. This being so, we spent much of Christmas 2022 in the Premier Inn, Tunbridge Wells, in the curious position of being tourists in my hometown, trying not to get too worried about how this was going to play out, and keeping our brief visits socially distanced, on the doorstep, often in the rain. A grotty Christmas, albeit not one to forget (the Premier Inn is, at it happens, opposite Tunbridge Wells Common), but Mum and Dad pulled through OK, so I feel marginally less guilty for having used the opportunity to indulge my long-standing wish to bag a few more commons. 

Bitchett Common, Kent.

It’s notable that Knole is fringed with commons. It’s not the only parkland to be similarly framed – Petworth in West Sussex, for example – and I don’t think this is an accident. During the Tudor era, estate owners often stripped rights of common from land close to their newly grandiose manors to create deer parks – a process called emparkment. Most of Sevenoaks’ commons are still owned by Knole Estate (although managed by Sevenoaks District Council, who own Sevenoaks Common) so my feeling is that these are vestiges of a much larger common landscape – possibly even an appeasement to furious commoners. Fawke Common, the largest I visited, borders the park for a mile or so. 

Sevenoaks Common, Kent.

All of these were registered in one of the many late Victorian Acts of Parliament that preserved in law commons across the country – including Tunbridge Wells. The Rural District Council of Sevenoaks Commons Act, 1899, is posted at points of entry around Birchett Common, and it appears to be more preoccupied with what one can’t do than what one can – no quarrying, no depositing dung, no collecting of bird eggs, no photographic carts (!), no playing of quoits outside of allocated areas. It’s all there, slowly fading away. Certainly, these commons are badly scarred with pits from quarrying, and an excess of dung is to be avoided in most situations, but such acts, far from simply being conservation-minded, often appear to have more akin to contemporary urban dispersal orders banning, for example, street drinking. Control how space is used and you control who people are. I wonder just how out of hand a game of quoits can really get. 

Bitchett Common, Kent.

A major landscape recovery project has been underway since at least 2017 across the area’s greensand commons (including commons near to Westerham and Churchill’s former home at Chartwell). Once heathland, with the cessation of common grazing, scrub wood, bracken and rhododendron have taken over, as they tend to, and The Greensand Commons Project, overseen by Kent Wildlife Trust, has been restoring areas and improving them for wildlife and biodiversity. It’s a massive, multimillion pound effort, opening up areas of scrub for heather and gorse to re-establish themselves, to bring back the nightjars which were once frequent visitors and give a little more wriggle room for slow worms. 

Bitchett Common, Kent.

At Fawke Common, a dainty gully, tempting to mountain bikers, now has a diversion around it to preserve some rare mosses, while a large expanse of Bitchett Common has newly-opened views towards the North Downs. It was probably quite horrible when the woodland was first removed, but now, framed by the former heathland’s signature pine trees, still found throughout these commons, it looks glorious. 

Fawke Common, Kent.

Fawke Common is especially popular, its unenclosed lanes crowded with parked cars when I visited, favoured by dog walkers, families and mountain bikers. I found this curious. Given that it borders Knole Park, there’s not a lot you can do at Fawke that you can’t do at Knole, and you’ve a lot less space, and yet it was busier. Maybe people just like trees – or maybe it’s because it’s common, and there isn’t a sense of being granted permission to be there from on high, but having a right. There are neither fences, nor gates – you just walk into it. It’s just you and the sandy soil. 

Godden Green, Kent.

Godden Green is a perfect English village green, with a pub, a pond, a grassy area suitable for cricket, overlooked by the women’s psychiatric hospital which now occupies the grounds of a former stately home. Bitchett Green is much smaller, and includes scraps of verge and road junction, but also parking spaces, bollards to keep people off the green itself, and a smart wooden post announcing its name. When I visited, a young mother was there with a push chair and her mother-in-law. This is quite a remote spot, and the houses nearby are substantial and sit in decent-sized gardens, so it’s interesting to find that communal space remains important out here. 

Bitchett Green, Kent.

The houses surrounding Sevenoaks Common are also, shall we say, desirable, and it’s not far from one of Knole’s entrance gates, but it’s also well-used – I overheard another young mother telling another older relative how she found it was enough going there and she didn’t get to Knole so much these days. Sevenoaks Common lost nearly all of its trees in 1987, and some of its survivors only just held on by their roots, judging by the angles they’ve continued to grow at. Records show that the common has been woodland for over 150 years, and yet place names such as West Heath Primary School suggest it’s another former heath. Wonderfully, there’s part of an ancient beech hedge in front of some 1970s detached houses. 

Sevenoaks Common, Kent.

There are other marks of older times – Windmill House (minus the windmill, alas) and a Victorian chimney leading down to a shaft for the Hastings line tunnel which runs through the sandstone beneath the common. It’s been even more thoroughly quarried than Fawke and Bitchett, and one of the larger quarries has been turned into a kind of hippy glade, complete with clouties; being close to a town, Sevenoaks Common continues to be personalised by those using it. 

Sevenoaks Common, Kent.

In more recent times, there’s been a bit of mock-Tudor illegal encroachment, several gardens having extended onto a scrap of verge, in one case deliberately, otherwise by just letting the rhododendrons do their thing. Sevenoaks Common has a band of volunteers caring for it, currently on a drive to plant saplings so it seems, and in 2017, to mark the 800th Anniversary of the Charter of the Forest, the Woodland Trust chose the common to plant one of its commemorative Charter Oaks, a sessile, in recognition of local support for their Charter for Trees, Woods and People. 

Sevenoaks Common, Kent.

I also got to see the imaginatively-named Land between Knole Park and the eastern boundary of Tonbridge Road, although I didn’t get down to The Pound or Vine Waste (though I believe I may have been there after one too many snakebite-and-blacks, as a summer evening at The Vine pub spilled out across the green spaces around it). 

Bitchett Common, Kent.

And I can’t end this blog without letting you know two of the places I found on these commons – Maggotyhole Farm and Starvecrow House. If there’s ever a novel which arises from this research, they’ll both be in it, for sure. 

Published by andythatcher

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

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