Common Art – Exploring Chorleywood Common
I’m heading back to Chorleywood again in a couple of weeks for my third day working with staff, children and parents from Chorleywood Primary School on the Common Art project. I was asked to lead the project by Alistair from Outdoor Culture, who in turn is managing this and another project for the Chilterns AONB as part of their wider Chiltern Commons Project.
I am working with a class of Year 4 children, their teacher, teaching assistant and parents, using art to explore and respond to the multi-layered nature of the Common, its biodiversity, geography, history, and its potential as a play and educational space for local people.
The project seeks to enable local people to feel confident in making use of their Common, of coming to know it through their bodies and imaginations, reaching out to touch and feel it, smell and listen in ways that they might not normally have reason to. In turn I hope that the Common becomes alive and precious to them, if its not already.
‘Common land is a piece of land in private ownership, where other people have certain traditional rights to use it in specified ways, such as being allowed to graze their livestock or gather firewood. Those who have a right of common are known as ‘commoners’, with the landowner retaining other rights to the land, such as rights to minerals and large timber and to any common rights left unexercised by the commoners.’
While in the past cattle were grazed on the Chorleywood Common by commoners, they also had the right to gather wood. On common land in general in the UK, a variety of rights were held:
- Pasture. Right to pasture cattle, horses, sheep or other animals on the common land. The most widespread right.
- Piscary. Right to fish.
- Turbary. Right to take sods of turf for fuel.
- Common of marl. Right to take sand and gravel.
- Mast or pannage. Right to turn out pigs for a period in autumn to eat mast (beech mast, acorns and other nuts).
- Estovers. Right to take sufficient wood for the commoner’s house or holding; usually limited to smaller trees, bushes (such as gorse) and fallen branches.
On Chorleywood Common today, the rights of local people pretty much come down to recreation, with the Common being a popular spot to walk dogs, ride horses or play golf:
‘As a Registered Common owned by a Local Council, the public has right of access on foot for “air and exercise”. Subject only to reasonable bye-laws, residents and visitors alike enjoy recreations such as walking, jogging, kite flying and ball games.’
In addition the Common is a Local Nature Reserve:
‘…80 hectares (approx. 200 acres) of grassland, and woodland…one of the most important wildlife sites in Hertfordshire, combining acid heathland, neutral grassland and chalk meadow all on one site, together with a series of ponds supporting rare plants and amphibians and secondary woodland which has grown up since commoners’ cattle ceased grazing after World War I. Some 70 plant species, 50 birds and almost 300 fungi have been recorded on the Common in addition to squirrels, rabbits, foxes, hedgehogs, voles, woodmice and Muntjac deer.’
A place of such interconnecting richness, in terms of its culture and its value for both people and wildlife, offers many different directions for our project to follow. Because we want to enable each child to access and apply their creativity to their learning, and make connections of relevance to themselves with the Common, sessions so far have given the group opportunities to explore, gather and research; to be playful, hands-on and experimental.
Each child has a sketchbook to record their journey through the project, and between each of my monthly visits is working with their teacher Haydn to research further those aspects of the Common that interest them the most. In March we were given an introduction to the amphibians that make the Common’s ponds their home or which visit to breed, by ranger Andy Goddard, and responded to the experience in our sketchbooks. In April we worked in small teams to gather fallen branches, bracken, stones and wood shavings to creative animal artwork, then back at school using mark-making and recycled materials.
In the coming May session I hope to weave in some of the background history to the Common, to look at different ways of mapping places, and at the unique value of common land and The Commons, a concept that informs my own work, and which gives structure to the work of a number of environmental and cultural organisations (see On the Commons), who view a model of shared access to and responsibility for our natural resources, as vital for an ecologically balanced future.