My home is built both on and of common land; two hundred summers ago, the walls of a row of cottages were raised, here on the southern edge of this patch of Norfolk common. Only houses for the poor of the parish could be built on commons and the original copper-plate deeds of my house record it as one of a row of paupers cottages. The medieval boundary ditch still runs along the back of the gardens, as deep as a man is tall.
The walls were made from clay and straw and dung, trampled by oxen, formed into rough blocks five times the size of a house brick and dried, pale and hard, in the sun. The pit they were dug from is just a few metres out from the front of the house and now a pond with reeds and newts and a winter’s murmuration of starlings.
The chimney of the house rises unevenly through the two original rooms, one up, one down. The fireplace is for more than the warming of dark, cold evenings; for tradition dictates that rights to the common are attached to the hearth of the house. These rights turn the common into land that is no one person’s and land that in some ways is everyone’s: they give it the oldest, original definition of common land (land over which a person has a right of common), they restrict what the owner, the “Lord of the Manor”, can do with it (nothing that interferes with the rights) and since the year 2000, open it up for all to access.
Across Britain, each of these elements of common land has been hard won over decades: the right of access, the right to the products of the common, the limiting of the landowner’s powers.
That struggle is more than our history, it is also our present. As I travel the common lands of Britain, I record not only the on-going fight for our commons, but the wonder that is common land, the wildness, the people whose lives centre around them and the new ways that communities are seeking to bring back the ethos of land held in common.