What is a Common?
In Britain, a Common is a green area. We often think of Common lands as belonging to everyone but the name is misleading.
Most of the time, we all have the right to roam across these Common lands and I, for one, try to make the most of it.
Crossing the Common
I live in a city but a small one. It’s growing. Prospering. A dizzying number of people commute to and through it.
The road traffic is atrocious.
Luckily, I’m close enough to walk or cycle to work. One of my favourite routes is across Stourbridge Common. It’s a fragment of nature that’s lightly managed and criss-crossed by public paths.
In summer, the long grass is riddled with buttercups and thistles. Small herds of cows amble about, not bothered by all the cyclists zipping past.
Winter turns the ground boggy and the cows are moved to drier pasture elsewhere. Early-morning mists are set ablaze by the sunrise and crisp frosts edge the bushes with icy lace.
Even with dull autumn skies and rain soaking into my socks, a glimpse of the natural world sets me up for another long day at the office.
Many of Britain’s Commons date back to mediaeval times. Or at least that’s as far back as records go.
They were often parts of manorial estates and various people were given “rights of common”. It meant they were allowed to graze animals or take products such as wood or turf from the land.
Those “rights of common” still exist, which is why you’ll often see grazing animals, usually sheep or cows, on a Common today. On Stourbridge Common, those with rights may still graze:
Geldings, entire horses and cows to a total of 53 beasts
About 3% of England is registered as Common land plus a whopping 7% of Wales and 8% of Scotland.
Not all of that is in the countryside either. There are patches strewn across British cities. Several famous ones such as Clapham Common, Blackheath, Hackney Downs, and Hampstead Heath are in London.
As I pedal across Stourbridge Common on my bicycle, I reflect on this ancient tradition.
It appears in the records in the year 1211 when it was granted a charter by King John to hold a summer fair. It is possible, however, that smaller summer trading stations were set up even further back as there are records of a 10th century market in the area.
When exactly Commons became Commons as we’d recognise them is fuzzier because there were local rules and registers until the 20th century when the Commons Registration Act came along in 1965.
The Fair held at Stourbridge became one of the largest fairs in mediaeval Europe.
From the end of August through September, merchants traded everything from fine cloth to iron hinges.
Famous historical visitors included Isaac Newton and William Makepeace Thackeray. It is said that Vanity Fair in John Bunyan’s writing, and later Thackeray’s, was based on Stourbridge Fair.
Outside of the season of the fair, the area reverted to marsh and grazing.
Nowadays we have a tribute day to celebrate all that mediaeval splendour. A little traditional music and a few market stalls selling items such as local honey provide a diverting hour but hardly equal bygone times.
21st century life on Commons
Common lands play a vital role providing habitats for local wildlife. They also form green corridors connecting other natural areas within urban spaces.
Through the year, Stourbridge Common still reflects the natural seasons.
Within a month in autumn it turns from summer field to winter fen. It takes a lot longer in spring to revert to summer solidity.
We also have the advantage that our local Commons soak up much winter floodwater from our river. Without these marshy fields, the city would be in far greater danger of flooding.
The land also plays host to all sorts of creatures.
We have smooth newts, water voles, herons, kingfishers, damselflies, dragonflies and at least three species of bat.
Other Commons provide homes for rare animals and nature reserves are set aside within them to restrict human interference. Many are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
In some parts of the country, especially Scotland, untouched peat soils in Commons lock away carbon. This means that greenhouse gases are trapped and are not released into the atmosphere to contribute to global warming.
There are many sensible rules about not destroying trees, not lighting fires, not dropping litter and how you must close the gates so the cattle don’t run amok on the streets.
Some old rules, however, must have made sense at the time but were neither repealed nor outdated currency units updated. In our era they seem a tad eccentric, for example, in Cambridge, a fine of forty shillings is to be imposed for:
Every person who beats or shakes any carpet, rug, or mat on any of the Commons
And for all you sports fans out there, forty shillings is also the penalty for:
Any person interfering with, obstructing, or annoying any persons who by permission are playing or have made preparations for playing at cricket or other lawful games on any of the Commons.
Commons are also useful pieces of land for community events, especially those located centrally in towns and cities.
You may find a visiting circus, running races, seasonal markets, music festivals, fireworks on Bonfire Night.
The ground may be rougher underfoot than a park and they aren’t always the best lit on a dark winter’s night but they are all the more endearing for it.
There is a touch of wildness about a Common that makes them transcend the prim formality of a park.
Gathering with your neighbours on ancient land where people have met in similar ways for generations is a special feeling, even if, like me, you have only been part of the area for a few years.
On rare days where I don’t get my dose of greenery on my way to work, I arrive at my desk feeling crabby and craving caffeine.
The little cut-through across the Common lets all of me breathe. It’s as if my thoughts are given space to expand beyond the confines of my head.
I can only hope that these precious mediaeval relics survive the pressure of our modern economy.
Nature gives me a fleeting blessing as I head back into the human world of brick and mortar, tarmac and lamp posts.
Then I am ready to accept the coming day and whatever it has in store.