Commons make up some of our most cherished landscapes in Britain, not least because there is open public access across them. They date back hundreds of years and have their origins in mediaeval patterns of land use.
The feudal system of farming was adopted in the Middle Ages. Large estates were held for the king by nobles who were obliged to provide men to serve the crown in times of war or insurrection. In turn, Lords of the Manor held smaller holdings on a similar basis. Farming was carried out for the Lord of the Manor by villagers, most of whom also held commoners’ rights to enable them to farm on their own account. Land around the village suitable for arable cropping was laid out in strips with each commoner entitled to cultivate a number of strips. There were usually three fields; one for cereals, perhaps winter wheat, one for spring cropping, turnips or other restorative crops, and one for fallow to recover fertility.
Land further out or not suitable for arable cropping was pasture for the communal grazing of livestock or manorial waste, land not farmed at all. Thus, those with commoners’ rights could graze their animals on the common pasture. This system was swept away by enclosure which started in Tudor times so that landlords could keep sheep for the lucrative wool trade. Nearly all feudal farming, and thus commoners’ rights, was abolished by Enclosure Acts of Parliament mostly between 1750 and 1850, but some commons remained unenclosed.
There is a fascinating example at Laxton in Nottinghamshire where there was no comprehensive enclosure of land and, whilst there have been some changes, the mediaeval system survives. In 1635, Laxton had 1,894 acres in open fields, divided into 2,280 strips, of which today there are 483 acres in 164 strips. The strips are divided amongst the fourteen tenant farmers with the exception of one, number 28, which is allocated to the landlord of the Dovecote Inn. The allocation is made in such a way that all have a fair share of the good and poor land.
The legislation was regularised in 1965 by the Commons Registration Act which put common land on a register and stipulated that only land on the register could be considered common land. Commoners’ rights are not owned by the individual but go with the ownership of property. Today, there are over 7,000 registered commons covering 396,800 hectares in England alone, 3% of the land area. Perhaps the best known is the New Forest which was set up by a Charter for the Forest in 1217. There is a complex regime of Commoners, Verderers and the Verderers’ Court, which few people outside the New Forest fully understand.
The ownership of common land is often misunderstood but much of it is in private ownership. The Crown Estate owns a large part of the New Forest, 145 square miles, which is administered by Forestry England. Other commons may be owned by local authorities, estates or private individuals. Minchinhampton Common is owned and managed by the National Trust. At 183 hectares, it is one of the largest grassland commons in the Cotswolds, the sward grazed in summer by cattle owned by commoners.
Twenty years ago there were a number of disputes involving the ownership of commons and the right to charge for vehicular access. In some cases the Lordship of the Manor had been sold and the new owners then claimed ownership of the common land and manorial waste. One such case was Newtown Common after the Earl of Carnarvon sold the title in 1986. Bakewell Management Ltd claimed ownership of Newtown Common and attempted to charge the owners of houses on the common for access. Legal action followed which ended in a House of Lords ruling that access by a home owner over twenty years established a right and so no charge could be made. Bakewell Management Ltd went into liquidation and the common was bought by Hampshire County Council
The common land of Hungerford has an interesting history, as many commons do. The Town and Manor of Hungerford and the Liberty of Sanden Fee, to give the correct title, dates back to John of Gaunt in the 14th century, along with associated common land. It includes the riparian rights of 4.5 miles of the River Kennet which was granted by John of Gaunt himself according to the history. The ownership is now a charity established in 1908. Again, there are fascinating titles and ceremonies, including the Hocktide Court, Tutti Day and Ale Tasting.
As reported on this page a fortnight ago, there have been problems on Hungerford Common with cattle involved in traffic accidents. The cattle that graze on the ancient pastures are at risk of being hit by cars, especially those being driven at excessive speed at night. There have been three accidents in the past month, one of which resulted in the animal having to be destroyed on the spot, the others in various injuries.
There is a minority of locals who cause the damage and then complain that cattle should not be allowed on the road. But it is illegal under Commons Law to have internal fences on commons and the pasture, much of it a Site of Special Scientific Interest, is maintained by the grazing cattle. The highways department of West Berkshire Council have declined to take any further action to reduce speeds on the roads so the ancient regime is at risk from the unacceptable behaviour of a few selfish, ignorant drivers.
Commons provide some of our best loved countryside which should be cherished and managed for future generations. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 gave ‘the right to roam’ over all registered common land so that all can use them for recreation. The people of Hungerford are fortunate to have some 350 acres to enjoy, as are those who live near other commons. The right should not be taken for granted or abused.