Commons in Norfolk
The more astute amongst you will notice a not too subtle change in the title of the talk which was delivered by Helen Baczkowska to an excellent audience in May. Not Village Greens after all, but not utterly dissimilar as it turned out. Helen is actually employed by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and her main aim is to protect our rights to access the hundreds (for so it seemed) of commons that exist in our county, whilst preserving and enhancing them as wildlife habitats.
Helen is a Commoner herself, the proud possessor of legal rights to make particular use of a small common near her home in a South Norfolk village. If she chose, she could graze there two sheep or two cows, two goats (or two something else that I can’t remember) and 300 fowl – although she does wonder what would be the reaction if she did let loose 300 chickens amongst the dog walkers! And if her sheep got into a neighbouring garden and ate the cabbages it wouldn’t be Helen’s fault. Common land need not be fenced or gated, although much is, and it is our job to protect our privately owned land. (The picture above was taken during an MLHG walk on Flegg common, a few miles from Martham. Ed.)
Rights of this sort, as well as rights to collect such essentials as firewood, reeds, peat, even shellfish, were vital to compensate for the low wages generally paid to farm workers. The difference between a little comfort and poverty. Perhaps the origin of “by hook or by crook” – anything you could collect with these tools, especially when times were desperate.
Common land has existed since at least the Middle Ages and has been constantly under attack. Even then common land was enclosed in a piecemeal manner and converted into farmland, usually now reflected in a landscape of small, irregular-shaped fields. The government got into the act and a series of parliamentary enclosures handed swathes of land over to the already rich Lords of the Manor. Land was still being lost into the 19th Century.
But not all acts of parliament have been damaging. The 1965 Commons Registration Act has helped to preserve many commons, including village greens and town parks, as well as the right to make particular use of them. I suspect that Martham Green, which was probably once common land, is registered under this Act. But registration is vital – essentially, no registration, no rights.
There was so much more, but to finish, a rhyme once painted on a gate.
They hangs the man and flogs the woman
That steals the goose from off the common
But lets the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.