Open Spaces Society symposium for The MERL, 8 September 2021

As part of my Open Spaces Society fellowship for the Museum of English Rural Life, I hosted a symposium on open spaces, commons and trespass on 8 September 2021.

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We had a great range of papers, photography, poetry and campaigns highlighted. I’m grateful to all the speakers, participants and Kate Ashbrook, Sarah Hacking, Nichola Finan from OSS and Caroline Gould, Tom and Danielle from the MERL for helping with the event.

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Summary of the presentations:

I began with an overview of the Open Spaces Society lantern slide collection, showing how most of the early 20th century slides were taken of landscapes in the south-east of England, and highlighting some of my favourites from the themes of forests, rural idyll and the intrusion of modernity into the countryside.

Ruth Quinn (University of Hull) then followed with a paper about contested ideas of conservation of the rural landscapes in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Saltaire, West Yorkshire. How does heritage preservation deal with working farms and a changing countryside?

Adam Bennett shared his evocative photographs of commons around England. The variety of landscapes, topography, flora and fauna belied any public idea that commons are a homogeneous landscape. Adam’s current project, ‘Common Ground’, can be seen on his website: http://www.adam-bennett.com/#1

Mark Gorman (Newham Heritage) gave the history of the campaign to save Epping Forest in the 1870s. The campaign was distinguished by the working-class involvement, which contrasted with the more middle-class leadership of the Commons Preservation Society. His book about the campaign can be purchased from here: https://www.herts.ac.uk/uhpress/books-content/saving-the-peoples-forest

Dave Toft (Hayfield Kinder Trespass) gave a moving performance of his poem about the Kinder Trespass. Plans for the 90th anniversary of the Kinder Trespass will be posted on their website: https://kindertrespass.org.uk/

Chris Chilton (Winter Hill 125 and Bolton Socialist Club) showed us photographs of the commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the Winter Hill Mass Trespass that had occurred on Sunday 5 September 2021. The day was attended by groups from across the region and from all sorts of communities. He noted Kate Ashbrook’s call to action, that the commemoration was not just a historical piece but had continued relevance for the campaign for rights of way and public access. https://www.facebook.com/groups/811210656375192/

Keith Sands gave the history of the Range West climbers’ trespass of 1991 in Pembrokeshire. He presented new research and contemporary photographs showing the creativity of protest, and a reminder of the long-term impact of military requisitioning of moorland by the MoD. The climbers ironically gave names to particular parts of the routes after phrases or sayings of the police, as an amusing form of resistance. Keith’s article about the trespass is in the current issue of Climber magazine: https://twitter.com/sandskeith/status/1427187351411961856

We then had a practical session identifying some of the missing locations in the lantern slides collection. To help, go to: https://images.oss.org.uk/can-you-help-with-our-research/

near box hill
Open Spaces Society lantern slide, near box hill

Main themes and areas of research emerging from the papers:

1. Why the prominence of forests and trees in the Open Spaces Society lantern slide collection?

The lantern slides are organised in boxes, and there are over a box of slides dedicated to ancient forests and trees. Burnham Beeches in Berkshire feature particularly. It’s obvious why the CPS would then be interested in preserving ancient forests, and be interested in ancient oak trees that were distinctive, for example the great trees in the New Forest. But why so many pictures of individual tree trunks, e.g. in the Burnham Beeches and Epping Forest images, when many were not particularly remarkable individually?

2. Flooding and erosion

There was some discussion about whether the early 20th century images could be used to show landscape change in relation to flooding and erosion in riparian landscapes.

3. The significance of locality and regional differences between commons

Adam’s photographs and the case studies presented by the speakers showed clearly how no commons are the same. Different landowners and commoners have different ideas of what the commons could be used for. A lord of the manor may not want a common to be regulated or developed because of the cost. Differences of ecology and nature preservation are also significant.

What were other countryside preservation and amenity groups elsewhere in the UK doing while the OSS focused on south-east England?

The impact of military requisition on public access and nature conservation also differs across the country.

Discussion on the chat and further links and bibliography will be posted here soon.

There was a very lively discussion over the chat, with many useful links and further reading to be shared. I will edit this chat and provide the references as soon as I can.

Some starting points:

David Matless, Landscape and Englishness (Reaktion Books, 2001): http://www.reaktionbooks.co.uk/display.asp?K=9781861890979

Marianna Dudley, An Environmental History of the UK Defence Estate 1945 to the Present (Continuum, 2013): https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/en/publications/an-environmental-history-of-the-uk-defence-estate-1945-to-the-pre

Paul Salveson, Will Yo Come O’ Sunday Morning: https://wcml.org.uk/wcml/en/whats-on/events/paul-salveson-talk-will-yo-come-o-sunday-mornin–the-1896-battle-for-winter-hill/

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