Common Ground

In the early summer of 1968, my mum packed us into the grey Morris Minor: myself, just learning to walk, her parents, with their soft Welsh accents and her, as I see her on the edge of my memory, trim and not yet 30. We would have headed north and east from the outskirts of a London not yet ringed by the M25, on roads that wound through warm brick market squares and linear villages, past the low humped hills of Hertfordshire, slow through Royston, Baldock and the white railed paddocks of Newmarket.

Our journey ended in Norwich, at the new concrete high rise of County Hall, my mother determined to check that Wood Green, where her mother in-law owned a tiny, clay block cottage, was entered into the recently commissioned register of common land. Without this, she knew, the common and the rights associated with it would be lost, rights that historically went with the hearth of the house and allowed the occupier to graze two horses or cows, two sheep or goats and, with a festive echo, three hundred geese. Modest rights compared to those whose commoning spreads out across upland moors, but enough, my mother knew, to stop the rough grassland, gorse and ponds being ploughed or planted with conifer trees, fenced and accessible only, forever, to the lord of the manor.

My mother’s advice had been taken seriously and there, on a typescript ledger I now have a copy of, is the common land number, the names of the right holders and the rights. The names tell stories all in themselves, for this place, where I now live, offered sanctuary to my father’s family after long years of being pursued across Europe; it offered a memory of space and of home, answered a need for seclusion and safety, rich soil and the grass for a handful of animals. My paternal grandmother and her neighbour, a former prisoner of war, had registered rights in names incongruous next to the listing of Norfolk place names: Irene Maria Honorata Baczkowska and Vigilo Nicoli.

Without those signatures and my mother’s wisdom, I may not now be able to daily walk this common; it is not large, maybe only 8 or 9 hectares, but sits as green as an island in the arable sea of South Norfolk. There is a change of soil and habitat every few paces here; on the clay soil grows nationally scare sulphur clover and three species of buttercup – meadow, creeping and the often over-looked bulbous, with its sepals turned sharply down to the ground. In the wet hollows are ladies smock and lesser spearwort, another of the buttercup family. Each of the ponds is different, some holding water all year, others ephemeral, only emerging in winter or the wettest of years. The sandy dome of the centre is close grazed by rabbits that dive under dense clumps of furze when disturbed and where, since I brought a pony to graze here, tiny fragrant flowers of heath bedstraw and the pink heath speedwell have flourished. To the west is a near circle of blackthorn and to the north a twisted oak copse, the trees not old, but stunted by wet, poor soils. For me, this place is home, grazing, hay, firewood and beanpoles from the coppiced scrub, an autumn bounty of elderberries, blackberries, crab apples and parasol mushrooms. It is also, for others as well as for me, the peace and greenery of unbounded land, not a formal park, or a purposeful nature reserve, but just a place to walk, so that, at any time of day, there are people on the interlaced hollows of informal tracks, often alone and silent. All this rests on the acts that placed those typescript words enshrined in County Hall.

My mother’s family were ones to nail their colours to causes and struggles against injustice, starting with Dan Beynon, her grandfather, trade union activist and champion of the common land that remained on the hills between the straggle of valley side villages that run north from Pontypridd. Dan taught himself to read from the age of nine, in English and Welsh, crouched to a candle stub in the silent mine, waiting to open a crude wooden door to voices, the heavy rattle of coal trucks, the warm breath of pit ponies. Within Dan’s lifetime, the South Wales Federation of Mine Workers would send a donation to the strike school at Burston; this still small Norfolk village, huddled around a green, was the site of the longest strike in history, when, in 1914, pupils refused to attend the church school, following the sacking of much loved teachers, who had, in their turn, supported the local agricultural workers union. A free school was set up on the edge of the village green and the solid stones at the front bear inscriptions from donors: Leo Tolstoy, Socialist writers of the day and unions from across the land. The strike school is only ten miles from Wood Green; on bikes rides I’ve stopped, run my hands over the words in the stone that link me to an ancestor I never met, speaking louder than the start and the stop of his life on a gravestone.

My Mum remembers Dan, during the war, sternly imposing silence on a family sat in the kitchen while the wireless crackled with news. In the 1930’s, Dan must have listened to reports of the mass trespass at Kinder Scout; in that age of train and bicycle, workers enjoying the recently attained respite of weekends and holidays, poured out of the factories of Sheffield, Manchester, Stoke and beyond, to walk the hills and moors of the Peak and the Pennines. Then, as now, these unenclosed lands were common grazing, with hefted flocks that learn from their mothers the extent of their roaming; but the grouse shoots also claimed the moors and keepers were sent to oppose the ramblers.

In 1932, the diminutive Benny Rothman was one of a handful imprisoned, to national outrage, for organising a mass trespass onto Kinder Scout. Police and the Duke of Devonshire’s gamekeepers were out in force, but the trespass would be a landmark on the long trail to the founding of national parks. Benny Rothman’s words still speak to us, straight and simple:

“We ramblers after a hard week’s work, and life in smoky towns and cities, go out rambling on weekends for relaxation, for a breath of fresh air, and for a little sunshine. And we find when we go out that the finest rambling country is closed to us,” he said, “Because certain individuals wish to shoot for about ten days per annum, we are forced to walk on muddy crowded paths, and denied the pleasure of enjoying to the utmost the countryside ……. Our request, or demand, for access to all peaks and uncultivated moorland is nothing unreasonable”.

As an octogenarian, Benny Rothman still glowed with the warmth of that passion and came to speak, alongside my friends and me, at a rally we set up at Twyford Down in 1994; for the two years before this, huge tracked diggers and earthmoving trucks had been pushing the route of an extension to the M3 through the chalk downland east of Winchester, obliterating two Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Scheduled Ancient Monuments, part of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The road had been opposed for years, through court cases, public enquiries and two long years of direct action, as people lived on the land in the route of the road and tried to stop the great machines that daily carved the land. By July 1994, the damage was done and the first black of the tarmac had been laid down in the stark chalk gorge of the Twyford Cutting, in a few weeks the road would open, but, as over 500 of us gathered for one final trespass into the vast white heat of the Cutting, Benny Rothman spoke words full of praise for our action.

Over twenty years since my first walk on Twyford Down and I sit by an open window to start this essay, hearing the breeze of October in a young ash tree on the edge of Wood Green, knowing that grazing the aftermath, the grass that comes after the hay is cut, is my skewbald pony, Perkins. Spread out on the kitchen table are handwritten notes, leaflets and photos, shuffled into vague order as I try to edit other people’s memories into a history of the protests at Twyford Down. The memories all capture why people came to the Down: political, spiritual, environmental, some indefinable, visceral urge, a feeling that after all the generations wrenched from the land, there was a need to go back, to learn the names of the trees, the plants and the flowers before they vanished, to stand up for their right to just be. In all the notes and emails, there are memories of Twyford Down as it was, the turf knitted tightly together in thin soil over the bone of the chalk, a dozen tiny flowers under the spread of my palm: wild thyme and marjoram, squinancywort, rockrose, cowslip, horseshoe vetch and hairy violet. The top of the Down was ridged, like hard sand when the tide has withdrawn, the steep gullies, some nearly 20 feet deep, were the remnants of trackways etched by the feet of cattle and sheep driven for centuries between the open and common grazing, high up on the Down and the markets beyond the river below; or else on to arable fields for the night, where their dung would add richness to the soil.

The commons of England slip and slide through our history, barely noticed until they are sought, or until the eye becomes accustomed to looking; they are like the grass snakes that live at here at Wood Green, seen once or twice in a summer, with joy, but shy. I hunt for commons in shadows, until I have become a collector of commons, pinning fragments of them to maps and notebooks, like a Victorian study crammed with butterflies, fossils and bones, searching for them in place names, paintings and stories.

There is John Clare, of course, for whom the enclosure of common land around his Northamptonshire home seemed to hurry the unravelling of his mind. Yet Clare had the gift of poetry and friends to ensure that his love of the commons was heard in his words, both in his time and ours:

Enclosure came and trampled on the grave

Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave.

Far spread the moorey ground, a level scene

Bespread with rush and one eternal green

That never felt the rage of blundering plough

Though centurys wreathed spring’s blossoms on its brow

Still meeting plains that stretched them far away

In uncheckt shadows of green brown, and grey

Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene

Nor fence of ownership crept in between

To hide the prospect of the following eye

Its only bondage was the circling sky

While John Clare was still a boy and not yet a child labourer out in the fields, William Faden, geographer to His Majesty George III, was commissioned to draw up a map of Norfolk, sending out hired men with rods and chains and poles to plot the land and its uses. Between woodland, farms and villages, along hatched lines of contours and the dark ink of roads, acre after acre of common land stretches blank across the hand drawn map: the sheep walks in the north and the west of the county, where Norfolk made its medieval wealth from the finest of wool; the straggling, heavy clay commons of the south and the centre, where cattle and geese were grazed and driven to market. Faden’s land is a land on the brink, within 15 years the commons and warrens and heaths had all but vanished, whittled down by the Norfolk four-course rotation of wheat, turnips, barley and clover or mingled with rich marl to make the thin sand soils yield grain. On the clay, the commons stayed longer, wet and too heavy to easily plough, but even these have all but vanished now, too often only the names live on. I cycle lanes between straggling, unloved hedges and fields of barley, wheat, oil seed rape and fodder beet: I find Sneath Common, Lundy Green, North Green, Bush Green, Shelton Common and all that is left, at the most, is a wider road verge, or a green triangle lodged where two roads meet. These are ghosts in our landscape, echoes of past lives.

In my teenage years, I devoured the works of Thomas Hardy, where commons, usually heaths, are a part of landscapes as vital to the stories as the characters themselves. In The Mayor of Casterbridge and even more in The Return of the Native, Egdon Heath is a desolate place, haunted by round barrows, ancient and pagan. Each character has a unique relationship with the heath, with either the solitude or the resources it provides, so that the landscape emerges as a character within the story, echoing deep emotion and passion. Egdon Heath is untamed, but not sinister, as indeed, wild places, however challenging, are not, of course, sinister in themselves. Yet once, as may be glimpsed in Jane Austen’s novels, unenclosed lands were the haunts not of just of the long dead, but of footpads and highway men, leading to a fear of the landscapes themselves, as if unbridled behavior ran hand in hand with the uncultivated, unbounded land.

In the summer of 1989, I spent a week bedridden in hospital, with a hot view of rooftops and a second-hand paperback of Lark Rise to Candleford propped on my knees. Fictionalised into a narrative by TV producers, it is in fact a weaving of descriptions of lifestyle, growing up and families in the decades before the First World War. Reading the accounts of May Day parades and school, work in the squire’s fields and the rare insights in to the lives of the women, it would be easy to think that little had changed for the inhabitants of the hamlet of Lark Rise for centuries, but scattered for me like nuggets of gold in the dense text, are glimmers of a different life. Flora describes her grandparents’ cottage as containing expensive furniture, dark and heavy with soft velvet furnishings beyond the means of her parents. Her grandparents, she claims, could afford such luxuries because they still had access to the commons, which by her time had been enclosed. Maybe for them the common meant free timber, which on some commons could be taken if fallen, or on others if it was small enough to cut and carry ‘by hook or by crook’. Maybe they kept stock on the common – sheep for wool and meat, cows for sale and milk. Maybe, as here in East Anglia, geese were raised on the commons and herded to market for Christmas.

Flora’s words bring weight to John Clare’s fury and despair at the plough, the hedges and fences. Enclosure meant more than the loss of the open space, it meant a diminishing of means and left labourers ever more reliant on the wages they earned at the farms and ever less independent. It left the poor a slave. Of those who study common land, some believe that enclosure was not merely fuelled by a desire to produce more food for expanding export and urban markets, but in the long wake of the English Civil War, was partly a means to quell rural rebellion by deliberately reducing the independence of the rural poor. This backfired in places and across England enclosure inspired rebellion; in 1549, here on the heavy clays of South Norfolk, local landowner Robert Kett assumed the leadership of local resistance to enclosure, marched to Norwich, stormed the cathedral close and set up a sprawling, angry camp on Mousehold Heath, then part of the great swathe of common and sheep walk that followed the sandy, gravelly soils north of Norwich to Cromer. In less than two months, Kett’s Rebellion was quelled and the ringleaders hanged, Kett from the battlements of Norwich Castle and his brother William from Wymondham Abbey. In their demands to the King, the rebels pray for the commons, the “reed lands and meadow lands” and for “all rivers to be free and common to all”, words that John Clare and Benny Rothman both would no doubt have nodded their heads to.

Acts of rebellion and sabotage of fences continued, hand in hand with enclosure, for over two hundred years after Kett’s untimely death, including in the vast wetlands of the Fens, where villages straggled on islands and causeways between floodplain and marsh, relying on reeds, eels and water fowl, thought of as a common right. Drainage of the Fens began in earnest in the seventeenth century as the Duke of Bedford and his Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden turned wild, watery land into drains and fields, so that now, on a clear day, the dark peat stretches as far as the eye can see. Saboteurs, known as Fen Tigers, stalked the engineers, trying in vain to re-flood the land and bring back their livelihoods of eel fishing and wild fowling, along with the landscape they knew. Improvement was the spirit of the age, but even Charles Kingsley remarked,“Gone are the ruffs and reeves, spoonbills, bitterns and avocets … Ah well at least we shall have meat and mutton instead, and no more typhus and ague.”

Where common land remains today, it often still harbours the fragments of these once rich habitats, and a shadow of this array of wild species. Just over half of England’s commons are Sites of Special Scientific Interest and many of the rest are locally important for wildlife. In the handful of years after Twyford Down was lost, I immersed myself in the struggle to stop the destruction of other equally beautiful or well loved places and only years later, surfacing from the lack of sleep and inadequate nutrition, did I join the dots of how many of these places were or had been common land. In London, the M11 link road clipped a corner of George Green, an outpost of Wanstead Common and the wood pasture commons of Epping Forest; here, in the late 1800s, outraged residents removed fences from the common, leading to the creation of Metropolitan Commons under an act of Parliament and vital for walking and fresh air. At Newbury I spent a winter living in shelters of canvas and woven hazel, carrying water half a mile in the snow, waking in silent woods to light a fire under the kettle for tea. The new bypass at Newbury ran through Skinner’s Green, Wash Common and Snelsmore Common; each of these a handful of miles from Greenham Common, which William Cobbett, in his Rural Rides of 1830, dismissed as a “villainous tract”, but where, in the 1980s, women camped for years in protest against nuclear missiles. One winter’s day, in a Newbury police cell, I found a piece of graffiti etched into the wood of the bed – a cartoon of a jubilant woman and the legend “Greenham Women are everywhere”. I ran my fingers over the scratches and the grain of the wood. By then plans were afoot to rip up the runways and fences and restore the common to the heathland that Cobbett despised.

I have been trained to recognise habitats: heath, pasture, wood, marsh, moor, reed and fen and the vegetation that defines them, but common land can be all or any of these. What defines our relationship with it is not the habitat, but the fact it is common. Here, at Wood Green, I lose myself in the thickets as if it were my own estate, often carrying buckets of water or horse feed, then I stumble across someone else, also walking, thinking, watching the birds, searching stooped over for mushrooms.

When I started writing this essay, Perkins, my silver and gold gypsy cob, with his feathered legs and irrepressible mane, still grazed on the common, seeking out young tips of bramble, the purple flowers of marsh thistle, the sweet leaves of hogweed. In late November he died, quite suddenly, of liver failure; a shock, as although I knew he was old, he still rippled with fitness and muscle from pulling wagons and timber all his long life. Horses painted by Constable or Alfred Munnings have his powerful physique, unfamiliar to us today when horses are largely creatures of leisure or fine-boned, lean athletes. In the days after his death I had to tell walkers and neighbours the news; many of them welled-up with tears and told me they felt they had lost a friend, a part of their life, someone who greeted them daily and without question. Each morning I find myself listening still for a whinny at breakfast time, missing the kind, intelligent fence. In these short days at the start of the winter there is for the first time, not just in my life but maybe in centuries, no stock on the common.

Perkins was part of how my life with common land unfolded, changing me from a right holder on paper to a right holder in practice, making me look at the growth of the grass for 15 summers and wander the common on the darkest of nights, in the foulest of weather, just checking for his well being. In seeking out commons, I have discovered people whose lives, like mine, are entwined with the land, as owner, right holder, naturalist or simple seeker of peace and fresh air. At Thwaite, near Cromer, right holders struggled for years to bring back grazing, fighting step by step through a tortuous legal maze, until the cows and their calves returned and the vivid magenta of southern marsh orchids sprung up once again in the wake of the tall grass they ate. On my own common, one May morning, I woke to find Tommy and family, pulled up in a caravan near the lane, surrounded by an entourage of patchwork gypsy mares and their long legged, inquisitive foals. At meetings in airless rooms near Whitehall, I’ve met Sue from Cumbria and John from Dartmoor, whose livelihoods depend on the grazing of upland commons.

Through all of these I have come to see common land as part of Britain’s cultural memory, either as a idealised past place where we all had access to land, or a place to be now, even within the crowding of cities and towns. After finishing the Twyford book, I will write one on commons; the work is begun in notes and on maps: the commons I have visited, the lost ones I’ve looked for, the people whose lives are linked to them, each of them, like the players on Hardy’s Egdon Heath, with their own personal bond to the common.   Commons seem to me to create one of the most intimate connections between people and land; even now, two hundred years after Fayden and Clare, commons have stories of survival, financial independence, nature and access to peace and quiet. How little has really changed.

First published in Earthlines 2014 (see links)

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