What are commons?

two children playing at the Devil's Punch Bowl

Commons today are valued for their protection of wildlife and ecology, where people are welcome visitors but the natural world takes priority. However, these sites survive in an unspoiled state thanks to a fascinating and often contentious human history of community identity, local memory and the rights of common people.

For the common people

The name refers to their status as places where local people, rather than just the lord or land owner, had the right to access the land for pasturing livestock, fishing, taking wood or turf for fuel or collecting part of the harvest for personal use.

The poor in particular relied upon the right to exercise these ancient customs to support themselves. While much common land across the country was eventually enclosed, those that remain are often well-documented sites of sustained resistance.  

Commons Preservation Society

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there was increasing interest in saving remaining open spaces.

The Commons Preservation Society campaigned to protect open spaces in London, occasionally leading to dramatic encounters. One such event happened at Berkhamsted Common, part of the Ashridge Estate. One night in March 1866, a special train arrived full of East End labourers to pull down the fences put up around the common by Lord Brownlow, resulting in a historic victory.  

Founding members of the Commons Preservation Society, Octavia Hill and Sir Robert Hunter, also went on to establish the National Trust, which shared its interest in protecting historic and natural spaces for the public good.  

Inspiring landscapes

Today, we benefit from the legacy of these campaigners, both in urban areas and the countryside.

These still wild places have provided inspiration for writers and artists. Hindhead Common is said to have influenced Arthur Conon Doyle to write The Hound of the Baskervilles, while Cookham Common became a post war refuge for First World War painter Stanley Spencer.

These landscapes continue to be a retreat and source of wonder for visitors today.

Explore commons in our care at:

Our landscapes

We value our landscape and as one of the UK’s largest landowners, keep our land accessible for future generations.