COUNTRY LIFE : ETCETERA

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The Independent Culture
OUR COMMON has been a source of controversy ever since the Normans had the cheek to purloin a large chunk of it for a private deer park. Over the centuries various entrepreneurs have appropriated patches for farmland and landscaped estates, built rough brickworks and laid out a golf course; and at various times locals have battled back in the courts and sometimes up on the gorse-strewn heights themselves. Improbably, the place has survived, a vast and constantly shifting mosaic of bracken, scrub, oakwood and ancient beeches, all patrolled by a herd of deer descended from escapees from the Normans' park.

The moves by the current owners are more public-spirited than these old schemes, and are intended to restore some of the "historic landscapes" of the common. All commons, contrary to popular opinion, have owners; and since the 1920s Berkhamsted has been owned roughly half- and-half by the Golf Club and the National Trust. These days the general public only has legal rights to "air and exercise"; but the place has always been seen as a precious refuge by the locals, who believe that by more ancient, and, so to speak, common law, it really belongs to them. Graham Greene - made utterly miserable by being the son of the headmaster of Berkhamsted School - used to sneak up to hide out among the gorse, and made a suicide attempt here aged 13.

The famous defence of the place was in 1866. That year Lord Brownlow illegally put up four miles of fencing around 400 acres, intending to turn it into arable land and timber plantations. He had reckoned without a radical local landowner, Augustus Smith, who (gladiatorial environmental combat being nothing new) raised a posse of 130 London navvies. They came up by train one spring night, marched to the common and tore the fences down. The event led to lawsuits and countersuits, and Smith and the commoners eventually won the case; a decision which laid the foundation for all modern commons protection law. There is nothing quite so drastic at issue now. The Golf Club wants to clear some trees round the fairways and encourage the heather which cloaked the common in the 19th century. The National Trust is dreaming of opening up some of Capability Brown's vistas in land contiguous with the common - though why anyone should want to clear away perfectly good woodland to commemorate the work of this overrated landscape mechanic is beyond me. The real point is not so much about this or that detail of restoration (I'd opt for restoring the pre-Norman landscape, when pigs rooted around under a forest of beech pollards) as about consent. Local people like trees and open space, and aren't bothered by the contradiction. For them - a point too often brushed aside by improvers and conservationists - the common has a particular symbolic value when it is left to work out its own destiny. It is an emblem of "free land", and they do not like liberties taken with it. !

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