Angus Winchester of Lancaster University, who has recently written a history of common land in Britain, has provided the following notes on the history of Bringsty Common.
Bringsty Common illustrates many of the themes in the history of common land in lowland England more generally. In the Middle Ages, it and Badley Wood were surviving areas of woodland on the western edge of Whitbourne parish. By the 16th century both were used as common grazings, the tenants of the manor having common of pasture in them ‘without number’ and the woods providing ‘pannage’ (acorns in the autumn) for pigs. The manor court, which managed rights on the common, attempted to protect the woodland by fining those who felled trees and removed wood without licence in 1562, for example. Continued grazing reduced the woodland cover, so that by the 17th century the road from London to Aberystwyth (the modern A44) was shown running through ‘Furrs & Fern’ on Bringsty Common. The ‘furze and fern’ (gorse and bracken) were also exploited as resources, the latter continuing to be harvested for litter until the mid-20th century. The manor court regulated the exploitation of bracken, in 1622 forbidding the cutting of ‘fearne’ on Bringsty before St Bartholomew’s day (24 August).
The cottages on Bringsty and Badley Wood, each set in a patch of orchard forming a small island of enclosure on the common, are typical of commons elsewhere in Wales and the Marches. There were four cottages in the woods of Bringsty and Badley Wood by 1576 and more were built without being declared to the manor court in the early 17th century. By 1798, 27 cottages on Bringsty, held of the bishop of Hereford, were transferred to Whitbourne parish, becoming ‘parish houses’, which provided housing for paupers or rental income to support the parish poor.
The history of Bringsty Common since Victorian times also illustrates developments on common land elsewhere. Use of the common for military training during the Second World War disrupted grazing patterns and seems to have led to an expansion in scrub by the 1950s. In 1951 it was said that Bringsty and Bromyard commons were ‘six hundred acres of excellent rolling land, covered entirely, with the exception of some green strips leading to cottages, by impenetrable seas of bracken and the whole tenanted by a few scraggy sheep’. Lack of regulation since the decline of the manor courts was addressed in 1951, when Bromyard Downs, Bringsty and Badley Wood were regulated by Bromyard Rural District Council under a scheme set up under the terms of the Commons Act of 1899.
Grazing by sheep, cattle and horses continued into the 1960s, keeping the sward short and limiting encroachment by scrub, and bracken continued to be mown as litter for livestock and poultry. The Commons Registration Act of 1965 required common rights to be registered. On Bringsty Common 69 provisional registrations of grazing rights were made (for sheep, cattle, horses, donkeys, poultry and goats). Rights of estovers (which allowed bracken-cutting) were included in 47 registrations, pannage of pigs in 33 (though these were cancelled before confirmation), turbary (or turf-cutting) in 12 and the right to take sand etc in 6.
In 1971 a committee, known as the Bringsty Common Manorial Court, was established to manage the common. Composed of residents and those with common rights, the committee’s work initially focused on amenity matters, such as clearing rubbish, controlling rabbits, licensing catering vans and cutting firebreaks. Both Bringsty and Bromyard Downs had become tourist honeypots by then. By the 1920s, they were said to be ‘simply alive’ with picnickers on Bank Holiday weekends and Bringsty became a favoured destination for cyclists from the Birmingham area, the ‘Live and Let Live’ public house on the common becoming well-known. In 1972 Herefordshire county planning authorities proposed converting the commons into a country park, with car parks and campsite, toilet blocks and a viewing platform, but the plan provoked vigorous local opposition and was quickly dropped.
One major theme in the recent history of Bringsty Common has been the decline and cessation of grazing since the 1970s, hastened by the increased risk to livestock from traffic on the unfenced A44. The number of livestock grazing the common declined, from around 600 sheep in the 1970s, to around 140 by the late 1980s and to 30 or so by the time of the 2001 foot and mouth disease outbreak; the last few sheep were removed in about 2009. As grazing declined, bracken and scrub spread unchecked.
Under-grazing thus became an issue by the late 20th century, at a time when the common’s conservation and recreational value was growing. Bringsty was designated as a Special Wildlife Site by the Herefordshire Nature Trust in 1990 and was put under a 20-year Countryside Stewardship Scheme in 1997. The common is now an example of an ‘amenity common’, managed as recreational open space and valued for its ecological and cultural heritage.
This is a summary of a longer history of Bringsty and Bromyard Downs which forms one of the case studies in Angus J. L. Winchester, Common Land in Britain: a History from the Middle Ages to the Present Day (Boydell Press, 2022). Details at https://boydellandbrewer.com/9781783277438/common-land-in-britain/