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Greenham Common

It was still the tail end of a long winter when I visited Greenham Common.  A sky the blue of cold water was chased by unsettled clouds, reflected in huge shallow puddles standing over the gravels and crushed relics of concrete.

Gorse flowered, forever hopeful.  Deep in the short turf I found the first whorls of heath bedstraw and the hand print leaves of cinquefoil, although the heather looked bleak, gnarled and bleached.

This is a place with a history of bleakness.  William Cobbett, recording his ‘Rural Rides’ in 1830, called this common a “villainous tract”, a “rascally heath”, despising it with his customary pugnacious words.

A century and a half later, when I was in my teens, Greenham Common was one of the totems of a bleak decade.  The Common had not, as promised, been returned to the commoners at the end of the Second World War, the end of “the duration”, but was retained as an airbase critical to the stalemate with the Soviet Union that became known as the ‘Cold War’.  This phrase sounds distant, at a far remove; it does not convey how the threat of nuclear war hung over the early part of the 1980’s, casting our lives into the shadows of fear.

It was, in those years, to Greenham that the United States military brought ground-launched nuclear missiles, aimed eastwards to Moscow, escalating the power to annihilate.  With them came what became the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, a constant witness at gates; sometimes groups of women broke through the military fences to dance on the missile silos in moonlight or rain, to halt work in the base or blockade the vast lorries needed to move the era’s ultimate weaponry.  The Peace Camp was often in the media’s chill, detached eye and was something people in the 1980s spoke of with either awe or disgust; no grey ground left in between.

On occasions, my Mum went the protests at Greenham, re-connecting herself with a life of political activism that been put to one side while her children were small.

More than a decade later, a brief moment connected me with then, in the unlikely setting of the nearby Newbury police station.  On a freezing March morning, I was evicted from a tree on the route of the Newbury bypass, where, with many others, I had spent a winter living on the route and blockading construction work as trees were felled and earth-moving machines brought into the woods and the meadows west of the town.  That was a cold, cold winter, with heavy snow and wind driving the temperatures down to minus 13.  Everyday, we were splintered one by one from the trees.

That morning in March, I was arrested again, held down on the damp woodland floor and all of my possessions removed, never to be returned.


I spent two nights in the police cells at Newbury, waiting to go to court.  On the wooden bench in the cell, carved in pale grain I could feel with my fingers, was an etched woman with fists aloft and the slogan:

Greenham Women are everywhere.

I went back to Newbury to visit friends and to walk on the common that is now mostly nature reserve, tracked over with gravel paths that even on this chill day are busy with dog walkers or families teaching children how to ride bikes.

In places, the Common feels like an old heath again: young birch trees stark to the sky, a purple-green tangle of bramble beneath; the short, grazed turf of fine leaved heathland grasses, the bare soils that in a few warmer weeks will host basking snakes, the nest holes of solitary bees and maybe green tiger beetles.  Information boards tell of the commoners rights, resumed after half a century of war or the fear of war and of the importance of grazing to the eco-system I stand in.

Then there are concrete posts and the twisted remains of rusting metal fences, curious mounds and hollows and, on turning a corner, the squat, green lurk of the missile silos, now nothing more than a memory in metal and turf.

Coming here was a pilgrimage of sorts, a quiet act of remembering my own stories and those of my country.  On leaving, then, a short prayer seems needed, little more than the thought that one day, maybe, the wild will take back all of its place from wars we no longer need.  A hope as fragile as gorse, flowering in frail wintery sun.


Red Kite

Last night I dreamt about red kites and woke wondering when I would start seeing them over the common.  In the past few years red kites have made their way across The Fens, a landscape that must be inhospitable to a bird of trees and hills; they have settled on Norfolk nature reserves and on a couple of country estates, but have been the rarest of visitors here.


Walking into the clear spring morning, feeding the sheep and checking their fence, a bird high up, no more than a ripple in the sky, caught the corner of my eye.  My brain seemed to run to keep up with itself, in a way I imagine is familiar to many birdwatchers: a half seen movement is recognised, but unusual and for a moment the words don’t form, although the checklist of identification is so long ago learnt it is as natural as breathing or walking.  “Buzzard” was the first and most rational identification, for these often circle the common, monitoring rabbits, their loud mew reaching down even when their silhouettes are almost too high to see.  This time there was a tilt of the wings, an agile shift of the tail, which was just out of sight; then the wings, more elegant and dexterous than a buzzard and as it moved, the distinctive fork of the tail.  A red kite.

I watched it a moment, the searching flight quicker than a buzzard, the long wings outstretched, until it drifted off towards the woods and the main road, probably seeking out carrion.

After the dream and the waking thoughts, it was no surprise to see the red kite and I suspect the dream itself was born from my late night reading of Jim Crumley’s The Eagle’s Way (Saraband, 2014) and his tracking of the spread of sea eagles across Scotland, following their re-introduction.  Slowly, it seems, both
red kite and sea eagle are finding their way back into our lives and our skies, reading the fragments of landscapes we have left for them as if they have never been away.


I have been snowbound on the Common for three days now, my world contracted to these few hectares, seeing a familiar landscape changed in front of my eyes. At times the light has been so grey, that the world has seemed bleached out like a black and white photograph.

On the Common, I found the tracks of a hare that measured nearly 2 metres of leaping; this morning I saw a wren dive deep under a snow drift and a tussock of grass on the side of a ditch. In the evening, the starlings and pied wagtails still gathered in the reeds on the pond, but they were subdued by the cold, the patterns and extent of their flight less exuberant than normal.

The sheep have mostly ignored the hay I have put out for them. Instead they have browsed on a couple of trees and the soft tips of gorse. Their job on the Common is to graze back the coarser vegetation and bushes, keeping a balance between grassland and scrub, so I am pleased with their nibbling work.

Grazing animals are part of this land, amounting to a natural process that breathes variety into the habitats, balancing light and shade, the vigorous species and the frail. In a few weeks, heath bedstraw and speedwells will bloom where the sheep have been grazing, the taller and more palatable grasses having been lightly grazed back.

In this weather, water is a problem for creatures both wild and domestic, as temperatures plummet and turn buckets to columns of ice. I’ve been carrying a couple of buckets a day out from the kitchen to the sheep, trying hard not to slop it into my boots in the cold. Each day I have checked the electric fence for damage from the wind blown snow, less worried about sheep escaping, than about dogs getting in.

In days, this will pass, will just be a story many people will tell – the winter they were snowed in for days. Spring will come then, and we will welcome the sun and the bird song, forgetting the soft snow hush for another few months.


Once there was a water mill on the north side of the Thames at Millbank.  Samuel Pepys described a marsh on the swampy edge of the river here, land long ago drained and raised, built over with tall buildings facing the river.  Now these are the back rooms of Government and the offices of powerful corporations.

Once or twice a year I come to Millbank for a meeting of the National Stakeholder Committee for Common Land, held in the vast reaches of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.  This year, the meeting is held in January and into the white lit rooms, I bring a trace of the wind that blew like blades at dawn, carrying the call of the sheep through the stark winter trees of the common; the clay mud splashes on my boots are the indelible stain of the season.

In the meeting, discussions ripple with an undercurrent of frustration that breaks the surface when a young man from a government office briefs us on the forthcoming Agriculture Bill; his lack of understanding of common land issues leads to derision amongst farmers whose livelihood rests on common grazing and I almost feel sorry for the momentary dent in his confidence.  The Rural Payments Agency arouse something close to contempt; responsible for payments to farmers, they have become mired in the complexities of common land and a shortage of staff, creating several years worth of a backlogue.

In the past, anger has spilled out at some meetings: once in a conflict between wildlife groups and a grouse shooting lobbyist.  Another time there were clashes between farmers seeking a way to contain their stock when gathering them in for the winter and open access groups determined to remove illegal fences on commons: by direct action if necessary. In such moments, the framework for government guidance, for forms and legislation is born.

I leave as daylight is fading over a grey and turbulent Thames.  On a pavement opposite the Houses of Parliament a near-permanent demonstration is waving blue flags, each with a circle of golden stars.  A loudspeaker across the traffic shouts for Britain to remain in the European Union, to hang on the spirit that forged the Common Market.


I live beyond the point where the lane through flat fields turns into a track across a common.  Even before the road runs out, it has been poked into ridges and potholes by tree roots and is rarely repaired. The tarmac flakes loose and in winter grass flourishes down the middle.

For five months my neighbours and I, the handful who live at the end of the track, have been opposing a planning application.  Last year a company bought a field on the lane and plans to erect an indoor pig unit, yards from our houses. Heavy vehicles would daily use the narrow, single track route to our homes.

In those months of opposition we have navigated unknown territory – listed building legislation and landscape assessments; regulations for noise and odour and highways.  I bring my trade as an ecologist to the table, conducting plant and tree surveys that are, even in ‘normal’ times, a solitary pursuit.  In the weeks of lockdown, they were incorporated into my one daily walk close to home. I’ve made records of flowers and trees and nesting birds in a section of hedge the pig unit will destroy.  My notes are weighed against the government’s hedgerow regulations. With their cautious legal phrases these measure the value of a hedge against scales of history and wildlife importance.  I find a nationally scarce plant, sulphur clover, and two birds officially listed as being ‘of conservation concern’: bullfinches, chunky and white-rumped, nesting in the thickest hawthorn, whilst yellowhammers shout from branches at the edge of their territories.

I look for evidence of antiquity at the point where two parishes meet. The regulations, for all of their jargon, recognise that these boundaries were once marked with hedges. Sometimes these are as old as the nearby round-towered churches, which Saxon masons built out of flint. Inside, the ends of the oak wood roof beams are graced with carvings of angels.  The churches are shut up and locked now, for the first time since who knows when, the services and support all offered by phone or online.

I follow a hunch, call it an ecologist’s training, and commit a small act of trespass. No more than a half dozen steps inside an open gate from the lane. I find what I wanted, but my reaction is a shock to myself.  It is not smug satisfaction with my professional skills; it is a heart-lurch, a laugh and cry of delight out loud.


At the point where the parishes meet is a tree: a field maple, Acer campestreAcer is the maple family; campestre is ‘of the fields’ and the root-word of camping and campesino – Spanish for a rustic or peasant. Field maples are trees of field edge and wood edge that hide their beauty in summer, the delicate leaf easily overlooked. These leaves are similar in shape to the bold one on the Canadian flag, but smaller than my outspread hand.  For a few weeks in autumn the leaves turn so yellow they appear to glow, lighting up hedgerows for the last warm days of the year.

My maple is a pollard, meaning it has been cut and repeatedly re-cut at roughly chest height.  Pollarding was once a way of producing small timber above the reach of grazing animals.  Smaller timber had more uses than large in a time when tool handles and bowls, furniture, heating and spoons were sourced nearby and for free.  Field maple is a hard wood with a strongly marked grain still loved by wood turners and the makers of violins and harps. The harvesting of wood by pollarding seems quaintly benign; letting the tree live on, only taking what is really required. Pollarding has a profound impact on the tree, causing it to grow stunted, the trunk thickened with age, even when the limbs still look young.  These distinctive trees can be visible across fields, making them good markers of boundaries.  Over the lane, also on the parish boundary, is a corresponding hornbeam pollard, gnarled and rotting, but living.

My arms cannot reach around the girth of the maple and this is slow growing tree, never as tall as the neighbouring ashes and oaks.  It is a tree of stories I doubt that it knows; a witness to when horses still worked the land, or even before, when oxen plodded in front of the plough. This tree was already ancient when heavy bombers took off from the nearby hill, heading to war torn Europe.  My acer tree marked out this boundary long before threshing machines took over the work of the hand-swung flail.  For a decade or more farms near here could not get insurance against fire, for the labourers reacted in anger to the machines that were robbing them of work.  A generation before the night time burning of rick yards, the tree stood beside common land that was being enclosed. The fore-fathers of the farmyard arsonists pulled down the fences where they could, although some were hanged or transported for their efforts.

The hedge itself, tangled and tall, might be older still, possibly a fragment of woodland left when the land was first cleared for cattle and crops.  My tree is only a few generations from wild wood, its genes unique and untamed.

Like all venerable pollards, this tree has cracks, rot-holes, shedding bark and damp hollows, patterns of lichen and moss.  These trees are a forest in themselves – whole species of fungi and insects rely on the shelter and slow decay, or the pools that form where the limbs and trunk join.  Ferns grow where the wood is crumbling and dark, bats hide or breed in finger-wide fissures and woodpeckers feed on invertebrates boring into deadwood.

I am unable to share the discovery of this tree with the planners and councillors who will make a decision on its fate. Lockdown has suspended all council meetings, cut off their processes from the public.  I curse this, for I want them see the tree as I do, ancient and vibrant, a giver of shelter and a fragment of history as important as churches or listed farmhouses.  I want them to know it is more than something that stands in the way and that it cannot be replaced with a two-foot tall nursery bred sapling, encased in a plastic tube.

Over a few days I sneak back a few times to look at the tree. What would I do if the moment came?  I have been there before, more than twenty winters ago, on the route of the Newbury bypass.  Hundreds of us sat in trees before dawn, day after day, freezing cold, holding on for the last moment of hope.  Not giving up until there were no trees left standing.  For three months and nine long miles, my friends and I watched chainsaws clearing the land for the road; worse was the indignity of bulldozers merely pushing trees over.

There is a sound an old tree makes when it falls that still tears open my heart.

Shelton Spot

From home, I head down the lane to where a common called Morningthorpe Green, meets another, called Shelton Spot.  I’ve come in search of buttercups, choosing the evening when the lanes are quiet.  A consequence of the pandemic lockdown is fewer cars on the roads, but more walkers on the commons and tracks.  Seeking solitude, I have shifted my ramblings to dusk.

One of the things I am missing in these distanced days is the guided walks I conduct in the late spring and summer.  For decades I have led people into the adventure of a meadow or common, revealing what the plants have to say about the place where they grow: its soil and its history.  As we stoop to look at the plants by our feet, I pass on few botanists tips for remembering species.


Turn a bulbous buttercup over and the sepals, the soft casings that hold the bud before it opens, are bent backwards down the stem.  The technical term is ‘reflexed’; the sepals point down to the bulb. Remember that, I say and you know it is a bulbous buttercup.  It does indeed have a small bulb, hidden in the dry soil it loves. The flower appears only in these first days of summer, before disappearing with barely a trace.

Bulbous buttercup is Ranunculus bulbosus. Its closest relative is the creeping buttercup, almost identical at a glance, but the sepals are not reflexed.  Creeping buttercup is Ranunculas repens, with stems that creep on the ground like the repentant.  At this point in my walks, I will say that scientific names need not terrify and will hope to point out Ranunculus acris, the meadow buttercup.  This stands as tall as my knees. Acris, like acrid.  This is a plant that thrives in pastures grazed by cattle and horses, who avoid the bitter taste and leave it alone.

Bulbous buttercups flourish at Shelton Spot because the common is still cut for hay. Over a handful of hot summer days, the grass is cut, turned to dry in the sun, and then baled.  Once hay was vital for farm animals to survive through the winter, but now the hay is mostly sold to local horse owners.  This age old annual cycle of cutting provides conditions perfect for the buttercup, for the cowslips that precede them in spring and for summer plants of hoary plantain and pepper saxifrage, which has leaves that are pungent when crushed.  A small shrub with a pink pea-flower and long thorns grows here too; this is spiny restharrow, its name once a curse as it snagged on horse-drawn harrows and pulled them to a juddering halt.

I head for home as bats flicker on the edge of my vision.  Except for the bats and a hare in a nearby wheat field, the night is quiet and cold beneath a cloudless sky.  I pull on an old jacket, as grateful for its warmth as I am for these acres of common land and their stillness in a restless, fearful world.

Retail Therapy

People who know me know how much I loathe shopping. Supermarkets and clothes shops I find hellish; shopping on line is worse, denying me the feel of the product in my hand and the sweetness of brief social encounters.

Hardware shops are the exception. This morning, in a Norfolk market town, I spotted a clutter of wood-handled brooms, mops and metal dustbins on the pavement outside a shop.

Behind the counter, a gentleman in a navy dust coat stood in front of a homemade cabinet, each wooden drawer labelled with different sizes of washers and bolts, screws, tacks and hooks. On the counter a set of scales, still used for weighing small ironmongery, commanded attention.

‘They are a hundred and twenty years old’, I was told. ‘As old as the business itself’.

The shop keeper added that he hadn’t been there quite that long. There was a part of me that would not have been surprised if he had, for this was a shop full of possibilities: promising that things can be mended or made, rooms re-painted and gardens re-planted.

I left with a new metal bucket. My last black plastic one had fallen and smashed on one side in the night. At dawn I had to carry it tilted not to spill the sheep’s feed on the grass. As part of my attempts at avoiding new plastic, I had settled on buying a metal one. The steel bucket I already have has lived by the hen run for over a decade and is used for the daily removal of droppings and straw; at the end of its days, it will be recycled.

I worried at this decision a little: who knows in what factory, where in the world, a new bucket is made. Where were the ores quarried and smelted, what was the pollution, the conditions of the workers? Balancing these questions of resources and choices, of embodied energy and energy sources is second nature to me now, but the answer to the question ‘what is the best option’, rarely seems quite good enough. I suspect the answer this time would be a wood bucket, slats fitted together and sealed with a layer of pitch; the wood itself cut from a coppice that would be allowed to re-grow. Where are the skills and the time for making such things? Having neither, I grow cross with myself and wonder how little difference it actually makes that I am so concerned about other lives on this planet.

Tomorrow morning, I will enjoy feeding the sheep with a bucket that clangs as I call them, checking them for lameness as they run across the common towards me. This is a time to notice the blackthorn blossom, the song of the blackbirds and the robins squabbling over territories; a time to stand in the breeze with my feet on the earth and to breathe.



Wacton Common

At the end of a lane, where a cattle grid straddles the gate onto Wacton Common, I meet Alice, a volunteer for the local Wildlife Trust. As part of their research into wildlife on common land, parties of volunteers are visiting their local common every month, observing and recording the wildlife they see, creating a picture of what common land contributes to the wildlife of the county.

I am here mostly to help identify plants, but partly from curiosity: Wacton was, I’ve been told, once one of the largest commons in Norfolk and is managed still for grazing and hay, the age old cycle of British grasslands. On this morning in April, when the wind drives a chill to our bones and the sky is clouded grey, our expectations of what we will find here are, it must be said, low.

The flat expanse of the common offers no break from the wind and the grassland has been agriculturally improved, dominated by grasses that have probably been sown, or have been encouraged by fertilisers, while weed killers have removed all but the toughest of the flowering plants, the docks and thistles and the creeping buttercup that hunkers into damp hollows. Alice and I talk about how the agricultural improvement here might date back the Second World War when, along with many commons and meadows in Norfolk, Wacton Common was ploughed as part of the drive to produce more food, even though the clay land was damp and heavy to plough.

Despite the lack of wild flowers, we hear, through lulls in the breeze, the clear song of a skylark rising and the chatter of yellowhammers. A flock of fieldfares rise and fall around an ash tree; these must, we think, be the last of these birds, stopping off at the common on their journey north for the summer. Two crows tumble on the wind, then twist mid-air to mob a solitary buzzard.

Tucked in the corner of the common, a small pond hides in a tangle of willows, mostly likely an old pit for clay, long retained as a watering place for cattle. Alice writes down the names of the plants we find here: brooklime and water mint, water forget-me-not, yellow flag, lesser water parsnip and the dried flower spike of last summer’s water plantain. We look closely at the difference between brooklime, with its bright, fleshy leaves and the similar shape of the purple hued, scented water mint leaves. On the bank is a single pale flower of lady’s smock.  I search the plants that grow in the clear water for signs of great crested newts laying eggs, looking for leaves folded neatly in half by the back legs of the female, each fold concealing an egg as small as a grape seed. None are obvious today.

We follow a track to the south, where the verges hold remnants of flora that would once covered the whole of the common. Cowslips huddle on the banks of a ditch; the winter-brown stalks of knapweed rattle in the wind above the first fresh leaves of yarrow, cinquefoil and vetch. Ground ivy creeps on the edge of the track, its purple flowers a rare spot of colour in the day.

Across the centre of the common, a curious j-shaped ditch looks recently dug, narrow, straight-sided and supporting few plants except a carpet of jointed rush in the puddles at its base. A larger, uneven ditch forms the eastern edge of the common and we wonder if this is the Medieval stock proof boundary of the common, now half-concealed by a thick hedge of hawthorn and blackthorn still white with blossom. Dog’s mercury spreads beneath the trees, a clue that this hedge has been here a long time; beyond it, the wide ditch has reedmace and willows standing in water. As we look at the ditch and hedge, considering both history and plants, we catch the garlic and musk scent of fox.

Back at the cattle grid, Alice and I arrange to meet again in a month. By then the fieldfares will be long gone, but the swallows and swifts will be back and the hawthorn becoming heavy with white, scented blossom. We talk of identifying the different species of willows, once they have grown leaves to look at and of surveying for reptiles. Slowly we are learning the secrets of this common, the imprint of history in its soil and its plants, the wildlife that finds a quiet refuge here, even in the cold of a windswept April.


Blackthorn blossom. Photo J Volynchook.

Ghosts in the fields

If this storm has a name I have forgotten it.  For days now the wind has assaulted the implacable Earth through showers of hail, sleet and rain.  On an afternoon of shifting grey and white clouds, I walk through a field of young barley, where a lone hare boxes his shadow in a brief ray of sunlight.  Under a hedge two roe deer shelter. Skylark song drifts downwards and I wonder at the power in the short brown wings, rising rapidly into the gale.

I walk four commons on this route, their names so definitely, quietly English:  Wood Green, Shelton Spot, Fritton Common, Morningthorpe Green.  Snake Lane, a old track known as a ‘loke’ in these parts, links two of these commons, its name as sinuous as its shape, twisting through hornbeam pollards, ancient, gnarled field maples and thick hazel coppice.

A local landscape historian believes these four commons were once one large one, perhaps joined with two more that now lie a few fields away: the wooded Crow Green and a narrow triangle of grass called Rhees Green, where last summer I found the nationally-scarce sulphur clover, with pale yellow flowers larger, scruffier than its tame white cousin.  The commons lie on the top of a low hill of clay and so the theory goes, the Anglo-Saxons, or maybe the Anglo-Danes, left this heavy clay land untilled, used for rough grazing, clay pits and firewood, the marginal land of the village.

The wearing away of this older, extensive common was gradual; piecemeal fields carved out as horses superseded the slow plod of oxen for ploughing, as iron and steel were forged into ploughs, replacing the heft of wood ones, so that tilling the damp, weighty soil became easier, faster.  The history of how we have shaped our landscape is rooted in the technology we developed to exploit it.

Beyond the few miles of my storm-battered walk, the ghosts of other lost commons haunt, found only now in place names and the memories held by the shape of a field. Blythe Green is a name on two houses and a fragment of wood no one knows who owns; Lundy Green is a turn in a lane by a pond, Sneath Common a wide field and straight row of bungalows, North Green and Bush Green little more than names on the black and white signs pointing down narrow roads. At Dickleburgh, only the name “Common Road” still remains, with a row of old cottages facing out to an arable field.  Where wide verges edge lanes, cowslips, pyramidal orchids and the tiny shrubs of spiny restharrow and dyer’s greenweed are found, these strips without name all that remains of lost commons.

Further away are Fair Green, Collin’s Green, several Low Common’s hugging the wet land of river valleys; Penny Green is no more than row of post-War council houses and behind it High Common is only remembered in letters wrought into a eight-foot farmyard gate I have never seen open.

If I read out the names of lost commons, of the ghost commons remembered only in name, it is a litany for a landscape lost only a handful of generations ago.  I chide myself for my romance, my soft modern privilege, remembering the hard lives of the people who lived and worked in this land.  And I know it is the loss of the wild I am mourning, the thought of all that open space, the grasslands unsprayed with herbicides, the tangles of scrub for turtle doves, spotted fly catchers and bullfinch, the hay rattle and green winged orchids.  I know my luck and remember it daily, knowing I am blessed beyond measure to find some corners of this wildness left in the fragments of common I spend my days amongst, remembering too how worth protecting it is, before all we are left with is the half-forgotten names and ghosts of the wild.

wood lane 4

Road verge fragment of common, Pulham Market

The Come-Alones

Where the Come-Alones were

In the summer of 1946, the Royal Air Force flew over Norfolk, capturing the landscape in the sharpness of greyscale photographs.  After 6 years of war, this work must have seemed peacefully, mercifully, mundane.

The common at Wood Green is crystal clear in the photo.   Captured through the dry, cloudless skies are the clay pits which form shallow ponds, the pale traces of well-used paths. Except for the near absence of trees at the end of the War, the common where I live looks much as it does today.

In the photo, to the south and the east of the common, is a long, hedged field. Narrow at first, it opens to a round-cornered triangle of grass with a white and uneven shape that might be a shallow pit, or a patch grazed bare.  This field was once used as the common was, for grazing a few tethered animals, for a scythe cut of hay for the lean months of winter, for foraging firewood and berries.  My neighbour remembers how, in his childhood, his family called it “the Come-Alones”.

There is so much that has been forgotten in this one small fragment of landscape, so much that the shades of the photo cannot tell me: not why this thin strip of land, running between the dark shadows of hedges, was not part of the large fields beyond, nor how it got its whimsical twist of a name.

Most of all, there is no record of when the Come-Alones were erased, so completely that no footprint of them shows in the ploughed earth of winter and the eastern hedge has all disappeared. Maybe it was when the elm trees died in the early 1970’s, tearing the heart from the hedge, or when hedge after hedge was grubbed up, leaving one huge arable field where in 1946 there were four.

Looking at the photo of the Come-Alones is to remember that I live in a landscape of loss. The removal of hedge and of copse, the filling in or slow silting up of ponds, the ploughing of heath and the herbicide-spraying of hay meadows; all of these have wrought a catastrophic loss on the wild species of our countryside, so much so that the land that I love feels flayed to the bones of its rock and its soil.

Grief is word now spoken often by the lovers of wild things and wild places, a word for our times with its melting ice caps and looming extinctions.  Certainly I have felt grief beyond telling for the loss of loved places, for the high hill that was once Twyford Down, removed to make way for a motorway, for the sweet chestnut trees on the common at Snelsmore and old oaks at the bend in the lane at Skinner’s Green, all lost to the Newbury bypass.  Grief too that the Come-Alones are no longer there, for who could not want to visit a place with such a wonderful name?  

And rage is part of my personal grief, rage that we care so much for money and so little for the lives of our landscapes that we will let them slip silently into their final goodnight.

And yet, on a damp evening at the scrag-end of winter, I walk the remaining hedgerow and footpath where once the Come-Alones were.  Two hares box in a pale field of young barley and another two, maybe three, are hunched to a hillside just greening with wheat shoots.  A small herd of roe deer stand in the lee of a wind-blown spinney, white rumps to the gale and a buzzard flies roost-wards and low.  To the rhythm of my walking, hampered by clay-clung boots, I tell myself over and over – so much has been lost, but so much remains.  Enough to fight for at least.

Winter sheep

This morning an easterly wind breathed traces of snow from a shifting grey sky.  A lazy wind it is called here in Norfolk: it doesn’t go round you, just straight through.

On the common, the sheep seemed unconcerned, the wind ruffling their long fleece, their heads down to graze until I approached with a yellow plastic bucket of food.  They are grazing under my rights of common, the legal right to graze this land I do not own and although only legally registered in the 1960’s, common rights are as old as the laws of England.

At the familiar bucket-rattle, the sheep ran towards me this morning, over pale, winter grass, jostling for food. The bravest took a few of the pellets from my hand, the deep slits in their amber eyes watching, wary and wide.


The ewes are half Hebridean, a tough and ancient breed, born of rocky islands facing into the salt-storms of the Atlantic, surviving the darkest months of the year on meagre rations of hay and scant pickings from the edge of the sea.  On winter nights here, they stand in the lee of the gorse at the centre of the common, where the loam soils give way to a raised heart of sand.  When snow buries the grass, they eat twigs or bark in preference to hay, as if proving their toughness and their patience in waiting for spring.

In summer, the sheep graze on clay land a few miles south, land that lies too heavy and damp for grazing in winter.  On the common, their winter grazing brings balance to the sward, reducing the vigour of tall grasses that will dominate if not browsed and making a space in the sward for the low-growing flowers of summer: the heath speedwell and evening-scented heath bedstraw, the creeping cinquefoil, which passers-by think is a buttercup and the white, star-shaped flowers of lesser stitchwort.

The balance of my time on the common also shifts when the sheep return.  On my daily visits I look over their eyes and their feet, check for injury, for the circuiting current of the electric fence and for water, then ensure there is grazing and shelter enough for their needs.  I see the land differently on these mornings, often at dawn, when the almost-light to the east picks out the black branches of the leaf bare trees.  Sometimes frost traces the grass with needles of white, or mist hangs in wisps and I feel the brush of my clothes, not quite warm enough on my skin. Most mornings a silent barn owl hunts here and traffic on the main road sounds far-off, muffled, caught out of time.  In working with the sheep, I feel closer to the quiet rhythm of the common, watching it change as the months of grazing pass, feeling less of a trespasser into the lands of the wild.