Our right to ramble on common land must be exercised
Only after years of struggle did the people of Britain gain access to its ancient commons. Now that right is under threat, say campaigners
By Geoffrey Lean, 04 Apr 2015. Reposted from the telegraph.
Estovers, turbary, pannage: they sound like answers to questions on University Challenge. And this weekend millions of Britons will be enjoying a relatively recent addition to their ancient rights to collect firewood, cut peat, and graze pigs on common land – the right of access.
From Hampstead Heath to the Lake District, the Malvern Hills to Wimbledon Common, Oxford’s Port Meadow to the Outer Hebrides, people will be out on common land, often without realising that’s what it is. Many urban commons have, of course, long been open to the public, though often only after a struggle. And since the turn of the millennium there has been a right of access to virtually all the rest.
Yet countryside campaigners say that, as a whole, Britain’s thousands of commons have never been so threatened – from disuse even more than from development.
Commons date back at least to Saxon times, with some archaeological evidence suggesting they are rooted in prehistory. Once they covered about half of the country; some of our earliest laws are about managing them. Now they make up only some 5 per cent of Britain. England’s 7,000 commons, for example, cover an area about the size of Suffolk.
What is left is often especially valuable. Eighty-eight per cent of commons in England and Wales lie in areas officially designated for their beauty or wildlife, such as National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and Sites of Special Scientific Interest, while urban commons are cherished green lungs among the concrete. Upland commons, too, provide vital grazing for hill farmers.
They remain because they survived successive waves of enclosures, which in turn provoked resistance by sword and pen. Armed rebellion broke out in Norfolk and Oxfordshire, while John Clare, the 19th-century peasant poet, bewailed “little parcels little minds to please, with men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease”. His contemporary William Wordsworth went further, tearing down a wall built on common land and helping to save the great commons of Helvellyn and Grasmere in the Lake District.
Enclosures, however, continued into the 19th century, when Britain’s oldest conservation group, the Open Spaces Society – which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary – was formed to fight threats to Hampstead Heath, Wimbledon Common, parts of Epping Forest, and other commons in the capital. In 1878 it went nationwide, campaigning in vain against the Lake District’s Thirlmere reservoir, but winning public access to adjacent common land.
Seven years later, one of its trustees – the social reformer Octavia Hill, a leader of the Thirlmere campaign – was convinced that conservationists had to go further and buy land for the public. She proposed establishing the Commons and Gardens Trust, “for accepting, holding and purchasing open spaces for the people in town and country”. The name struck a colleague as too long-winded: he substituted “The National Trust.”
Today the trust is one of the main owners of common land, which, contrary to public perception, belongs to individual people, firms and bodies rather than to the public at large. Some 36,000 rights for non-owners to use them have been registered and commons are supposedly protected by law, but the Open Spaces Society is still fighting encroachment.
It has, for example, returned to one of its first battlegrounds to resist United Utilities erecting a six-mile fence at Thirlmere, and is objecting to the building of a £315 million motor racing circuit on 600 acres of common land in the Welsh Valleys. There are two sides to each story; the water company is trying to reduce erosion from grazing, and promises stiles and gates for access, while the circuit would bring much-needed jobs and income to one of Britain’s poorest areas.
Still, the society insists that commons are “probably under greater threat today than for decades”. Cuts threaten to deprive the Surrey Wildlife Trust of hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money for managing its 9,000 acres of common land, while recent legislation has made it easier to build on village greens. The worst danger, however, is from disuse, especially on smaller commons, where people no longer exercise their rights. Grazing, for example, has declined dramatically, causing scrub to take over.
Yet there are signs of revival. Communities from the Chilterns to Northumberland, East Devon to Tunbridge Wells, are clearing scrub and bringing life back to commons by managing them. They are organising activities such as pond-tipping, tree-planting, horse-riding and butterfly recording, school visits and nature walks.
It’s a long way from the estovers, turbary and pannage of yore. But it offers hope of a new age for our ancient common land.