As Norfolk Commons Week arrives, David North looks at the history of Norfolk's commons and what makes them so special.

Close your eyes and picture an area of common land.

What did you imagine? Perhaps an open grassy area with patches of bracken, gorse and scrub? Maybe a heath coloured purple with heather in bloom, or a wooded area, with silver birch swaying in the wind and ancient pollard oak trees with gnarled bark, sturdy trunks and spreading green canopies casting a welcome shade?

Roydon Common by Elizabeth Dack

Commons can be all of these landscapes and more: in Norfolk we have coastal commons of dune and tidal saltings, Broadland commons of marsh and fen, and even some which have become tightly mown village greens. You may have imagined a real common, a place that you love and know well, or perhaps one where you played as a child. Or possibly you found it hard to think of anything, as Norfolk's commons are places you have yet to discover.

Commons in Norfolk were once commonplace: every parish had one or more commons and these were often very extensive. It's thought that more than 25% of Norfolk may at one time have been common land and the names of former commons and greens, now long gone, still feature on maps and in road and place names. These were once highly valued, important places, vital parts of the local economy and known by the whole community. So what happened? And why should we celebrate the ones that have survived?

What happened is a story that is mirrored across England, a long and sometimes tragic story of enclosures when land, formerly used 'in common', was fenced and ancient common rights, to graze animals, gather firewood or dig peat, extinguished. Some commons in Norfolk were enclosed between the 14th and 18th centuries but large areas survived until the parliamentary enclosures between 1760 and 1860. A traditional rhyme hints at the anger felt in many communities over the loss of their common rights, which you can read on the right:

"The law locks up the man or woman who steals the goose from off the common but lets the greater felon loose who steals the common from the goose"

17th Century folk poem

Despite these losses, many fragments of commons have survived to the present day. Many of the larger areas are now well known as nature reserves. Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Roydon CommonNew Buckenham CommonSyderstone Common and East Winch Common are fine examples. But most of the more than 300 surviving Norfolk commons are comparatively small, very diverse, but sadly often little known or valued by nearby communities.

So why celebrate commons? Each common has its own fascinating story to be discovered. Stories about local history, about how the landscape in Norfolk has, and is, changing, and about the wildlife that makes common land its home. Commons, most often, are very different in character from the intensively farmed countryside that so often surrounds them. They have often retained features, both natural and historical, that have been lost from the wider countryside.

New Buckenham Common by Jane Kilbourn

This Norfolk Commons Week, why not pay a visit to your local common and see what wildlife you can find? Many species which have declined elsewhere still find a habitat and home on our common land - wildlife such as grass snakes, grayling butterflies and turtle doves.

Our heritage of commons across the county are an important part of what makes Norfolk special: brilliant for wildlife and great places to explore.

Norfolk Commons Week is part of a wider 'Wildlife in Common' project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Header image: New Buckenham Common by Graeme Taplin
Share this