Common People Part III – Roads

Berkamsted Common Postcard, Alice Des Clayes (1891–1968)
Berkamsted Common Postcard, Alice Des Clayes (1891–1968)

In this final instalment of Common People we will look at an egregious instance of ‘Road Capture’ on Berkhamsted Common – the arbitrary closure of a public road by the local landowner – and show how it may always have been part of a cunning plan to enclose (privatise) the central part of the common. We will hear some of the people who put the road out of action (I don’t mean the 7th Earl) – and how local people adapted to the new reality: keeping calm and driving any way they could. We will also meet Berkhamsted’s own ‘Sherrif of Nottingham’ whose house, built on land stolen from the common, still exists. As ever we will have some nice illustrations including a map of the common from 1806 showing the road before it was captured and a rather beautiful postcard suggesting that a 20th century Berkhamsted artist may have been using magic mushrooms as an aid to creative nostalgia. If you would like to explore any of the places mentioned in this article, please feel free to download my audio walk. If you’ve read this far, you may think that’s more than enough, already. Can’t I just walk Fido in peace?

‘Sometimes a gravel pit is just a gravel pit’, as Freud, a keen archaeologist might have said. But what if the gravel pit – you’ve probably guessed I’m talking about the one in the garden of Woodyard Cottage – was dug through a road: the only all-weather route across the breadth of the common? There are two possibilities. One is that gravel was discovered, in a ditch by the roadside say, or washed on to the road by a storm, and Lord Bridgewater decided, reluctantly, that his own road-building plans trumped the needs of other users, who would, in any case, benefit from his investment in a new road from Northchurch to Ringshall. The other explanation is that a hole was dug for a different reason altogether and that the gravel was simply a serendipitous find. The hole, in other words, was dug in the road to put it out of action. This theory would take us into the territory of ‘Road Capture’. The key piece of evidence supporting this theory is that Lord Bridgewater had form.

George Whybrow, writing in the 1930s, suggests that the 7th Earl had already blocked the road by making a pond where the road from Whitehill to Nettleden leaves the common and built Berkhamsted Lodge on the line of the road, making a similar encroachment on the common. Horseshoe Pond is not mentioned in the witness evidence, but it is still there, so readers can examine the topographical evidence for themselves.

There is, however, plenty of discussion of the road blocked by the woodyard, and other routes, particularly the Broad Green Drive, which can still be followed across the middle of the common. Quite a lot of this discussion concerns the status of the road, or roads, prior to the intervention by the 7th Earl. Whilst I mentioned at the beginning that most of the evidence from both sides feels unspun and spontaneous, the road evidence, by contrast, often appears split along ‘party political’ lines.

‘I helped dig the pond where the road used to be, if ever it was a road’, says John Field, 65, ‘There were gravel pits there long before the road was done.’ Samuel Garrett, who helped build the pond, stated confidently: ‘I believe there were no roads on the common till Lord Bridgewater made them. I never knew of any. He made the road from Northchurch over the common towards Dunstable.’ Thomas Collier, 62, remembered that the way blocked by the woodyard had been a ride, not a road, ‘there were no marks of wheels or other traffic. After I left my first work there (stone breaking) gravel pits were dug in that ride. I think they were first dug in the countess’s time. I never saw or heard of any person using that ride as a road.’

I wonder if Thomas Collier is protesting too much. Whatever the case, we don’t need our witnesses’ conflicting memories on this point. Roads are clearly marked running along the top and bottom of the common on the earliest Ordnance Survey Drawing, 1806. (This also incidentally shows the brick kiln in a rectangular enclosure on the southern edge of the common, south-east of Coldharbour Farm.) In fact, the estate’s own plan from 1762 shows the old road across the top of the common.

Detail from Ordnance Survey Drawing, Hemel Hempstead, 1806.
Detail from Ordnance Survey Drawing, Hemel Hempstead, 1806.

Perhaps after all the chief source of confusion is a semantic one. William Waterton, who started his working life digging gravel, suggests: ‘It was a byway or a cart way not a regular road. I recollect the pond being dug across the way, and I also recollect the woodyard being fenced in and taken off the common. Part of the old way now forms part of the wood yard. The old way was thus destroyed and gravel pits at places were dug in it.’

William Riddell, 72 remembered, ‘It was at that time [before the woodyard and gravel pits] a sufficiently hard road to allow loaded carts to go over it, although it was not pleasant in parts.’

Thomas Kelling remembered the road in use, ‘I have seen many flocks of sheep and herds of cattle driven that way to Hempstead market. Higglers [pedlers] used to go that way. Old Thomas Ashby always went across the common down to Cold Harbour and then into the road to Frithsden.’

Old Road from Aldbury to Hemel Hempstead
Old Road from Aldbury to Hemel Hempstead

Joseph Butterfield remembered that the old road was a ‘stoned road,’ and that ‘anybody went along it with carts or wagons’. His brother, John, told the court that he himself had been along the road ‘hundreds of times’. ‘Many and many a people used to go this road with wagons and carts and drove sheep and beasts and swine along it to Hemel Hempstead market. It was the regular road from Frithsden to Aldbury. There was another road by Cold Harbour Farm along the bottom and this was used by persons with light carts.’

At the point the old road reaches the western boundary of the woodyard, the modern footpath swings to the right uphill. It’s not a big deal for a walker or mountain biker but may have been viewed differently by a horse pulling a loaded cart. John Butterfield again, ‘The effect of making the wood yard was to stop this road, because it was necessary after the wood yard was made to go round by the houses which were built, and then they had to go up such a hill that no one would go that way, and everybody afterwards went by the way which was over the middle of the common.’ [The Broad Green Drive].

In fact, people used to make their way across the common any way they could: ‘If one way was soft or wet,’ remembered John Blacknell, ‘they would pick another. Wherever they found the best road they would go.’ William Bell concurred, ‘People used to ride and drive over the common as best they could, and bad was the best. I have seen teams get set on the common, the ruts were up to the hobs.’ ‘Up to your knees in water in some places,’ Thomas Collier agreed. Thomas Waterton remembered that Mr Meacher and his dray always used the Broad Green Drive on his way home from the Red Lion, Water End, to Ivinghoe, but ‘they never came that way loaded’. Jesse Holland had helped widen the drive: ‘I recollect it when it was merely a narrow way, not much wider than an ordinary cart way. I assisted in filling in the ruts and levelling it several times. I have seen carts go along it in the summertime. It was impassable for heavy traffic in the wintertime.’

Lady Marian Alford had her own memories of the common at this time. She famously described how she had an armed escort to go to a ball in Berkhamsted in 1841.

‘Lady Bridgewater had cut green drives through the Common, for recreation not traffic, but her object was continually thwarted by the grass being cut up in every direction and the drives rendered impassable, as heavy carts were, from the spirit of contradiction and also for the purposes of illicit traffic, driven through and across them till they were reduced to ridges and furrows of mud.’

Illicit traffic? She had a point: the common’s precious crop of furze was, as we have seen, a magnet well beyond the parish boundary. But the ‘spirit of contradiction’ may not have been so important as the fact that the 7th Earl had, without consulting anybody else, destroyed the only hard road across the common. At the same time he had moved the boundary of his estate out into the common, perhaps to protect his new extractive enterprise, and in his own ‘spirit of contradiction’ built a private road (a good hard one, obviously) linking the estate to Coldharbour Farm, destroying the furze in the line of the route.

Samuel Garrett, who puddled the pond at the woodyard, was philosophical about Lord Bridgewater’s monopoly of the common’s fuel crop: ‘I never heard of any complaint in consequence of his doings.’ He tells us that, ‘Lord B. built the house at the woodyard. Mr Hemmings, the wood steward, lived and died there.’

Theophilus Hemmings is recorded as living there in the 1841 tithe survey, where the property is described as ‘House & Garden Encroachment on Common’. The pond in the garden has a separate entry, its state of cultivation being recorded, presumably for completeness sake, as ‘Water’.

Hemmings was Lady Bridgewater’s wood bailiff. He was in charge of forestry operations on the estate, and it was he who had overseen the laying out of the drives across the common that she loved to ride along. But Hemmings was more than a gardener. He was the law. He had the power to enforce warrants and arrest rule-breakers. In a time when penalties around the game laws were particularly severe, he had almost the power of life and death over the citizens of his sylvan kingdom.

And he was living, with a perfectly clear conscience one assumes, on land stolen from the common.

Woodyard Cottage

In my own ‘spirit of contradiction’, I drew my conclusions before presenting the evidence. The most surprising thing I took from the 25,000 words of evidence was the scale of use of the common in the first half of the 19th century. Rather than a marginal and (as Lady Marian Alford suggested) potentially dangerous place, the evidence presented to the trial shows that the common was, at least for part of the year, a busy working landscape. It was at the centre of a semi-communal system of agriculture, which profited all the local farmers, and allowed a certain amount of social mobility to entrepreneurial locals with no land of their own.

The fences that appeared on the common in 1866 were the end of a process, not the beginning of one. New roads built by the 7th Earl and Lord Brownlow on either side of the common might be thought of as providing an uncomplicated economic benefit to the town, but, viewed through the prism of the trial evidence, suggest there may always have been an unstated intention to direct traffic around the central part of the common prior to its incorporation in the estate. Lord Brownlow’s fences aimed to set in iron the project started by the 7th Earl when the first spade was sunk into the old road across the common. The dell hole in the garden of Woodyard Cottage was the beachhead from where the opening shot was fired in the Battle of Berkhamsted Common.

 When Lord Romilly, the Master of the Rolls, gave his judgement on the case he could not have been clearer. Smith’s lawyers had proved nearly every commonable right. The testimony from both sides pointed ‘all one way’ and the evidence was ‘comprehensive, conclusive and uncontradicted.’ Ironically, because this was the raison d’être of the CPS, they had not proved any general right for the public to access the common for recreational purposes, but the effect of the ruling was the same, the fences would not return.

Perhaps, after all, the real battle was between private and public versions of amenity. Society was rapidly changing from an agrarian to an industrial one. The furze cutters had, with a few notable exceptions, already left the scene. The shepherds would follow them in due course. One final irony is that the Brownlows’ last assault on the common set in train a series of actions that meant, whatever happens in the future, the 19th century past of the common is protected by 25,000 words of witness testimony. It can be rebuilt, like Ashridge House, brick by brick.

After last year’s walk, we went for lunch in the Bridgewater Arms and raised a glass to the trial witnesses: the people who made the bricks behind the stone facade of Ashridge House, the forgotten history of a super plant, and the hidden geology that put the common at the centre of a semi-communal farming system stretching back hundreds of years – perhaps, in one form or another, to the beginning of farming itself.


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