Uses of Frensham Common


Summary: Cattle. Other: Bee hives kept on common

Active grazing of the common in the twentieth century appears to have been limited to one or more specific farms, and seems to have involved cattle only, with no sheep or other animals noted.  Indeed, one interviewee could remember little grazing of the common, though he used to see the ‘odd’ cow being walked home, so presumed grazing must have occurred.  One respondent recalled that one farm grazed some 30 milk cows on the common.  These animals were said to roam all over the common, attended by a son of the farm; mainly grazing along ‘Kings Ridge’ near the ‘dew ponds’, and towards the area known as ‘Bog Trotters’.  They grazed in the morning after milking and were taken off again at 3pm for afternoon milking.  The respondent thought that the cattle grazed in spring, summer and early autumn.  Another interviewee recollected a herd of 20-25 cattle on the common all year round, except when it snowed.  Another interviewee, born in 1908, recalled that one particular family’s cows were out on the common ‘every day’ after their milk round.  Although numerous households kept pigs, and some goats also, these do not appear to have been run on the common itself; there was a memory of some grazing by goats of nearby Shortfield Common (CL 230, 2.29ha, Frensham parish).  One interviewee pointed out that vegetation was kept in check by extensive grazing by wild rabbits.  The interviewees do not indicate if/when grazing by cattle ceased, though one speaker implied that grazing may have faded after the Second World War.  In addition, there were strong memories of bee hives on the common.  One interviewee remembered a family which sometimes put bees on the common to ‘get the heather honey’. Another recalled how one particular household kept beehives on the common, rotating them with hives kept in their own orchard.  In the latter case the honey was sold commercially. One interviewee recalled that ‘Most of the people who lived on the common had beehives’; and that a lot of Shortfield people also had bees which fed on the common.



Summary: Peat/turf, Bracken, Gorse, Sticks/firewood, Reeds/rushes, Stone/soil/sand, Berries/fruits/nuts. Other: Fir cones, heather, birch twigs, moss

One farm cut turf from the ‘Bog Trotters’ area of the common – they don’t know whether the cutters had rights, but no one told them not to.  Two interviewees recalled the cutting of heather turves for burning.  Heather turves were cut in September when heather was short, and were cut in strict rotation, with ‘a patch cut a year’. The turves were dried out next to the fireplace or in the barn and used in winter. The interviewee thought that the heather would take 5-7 years to recover before being cut again, but was not sure.  Another interviewee recalled her father cutting heather turves for the open fire, which were stacked by the fire to dry, and burnt the same year. They stopped cutting it when they moved to a house nearer a wooded area – where there was plenty of firewood – and which had ranges, in which heather turves did not burn well.

Bracken was cut for animal litter – e.g. instead of cattle for straw and as a base layer in pig sties – and was also cut for lining potato clamps.  One interviewee recalled that it was usually cut in September by local farmers; another said it was cut when ‘ripe’ (brown) for clamps. It was also cut by gardeners for clamping dahlias, and to cover plants from frost.  Children made ‘fern houses’ when playing on the common.  Gorse was reported to be collected by some people for firing bread ovens, for kindling, and for kitchen ranges.  Heather was used to thatch some buildings (e.g. boat houses, barns), and a large thatched shed on the common housed the medical crew during the Second World War.  Some locals also made heather and/or birch brooms, both for home use (e.g. for cleaning out cow sheds) and for sale.  Sphagnum moss was collected by local people for hanging baskets (at home, not for sale) and one individual recalled collecting irises and bulrushes from the Little Pond.  One interviewee remembered nutting in autumn.

Parts of the common were wooded, and most interviewees described the collection of dead wood for fuel.  One interviewee recalled collecting firewood to ‘put under the copper’ for boiling water.  Perhaps most striking is the strong recollection of most of the interviewees of collecting fir cones for kindling/burning.  This seems to have been mainly carried out by children.  One interviewee described how fir cones collected in summer were stored in under-stairs cupboards, to be used over winter; these were mainly collected from ‘Snowball Ridge’, running parallel with Priory Lane.  There was also a recollection of timber being taken from the common to the big sawmills at Tilford (but perhaps this was during the War?).

One interviewee recollected taking gravel sometimes from the top of the ridge (‘a cartload or two’).  Another had been told that her grandfather collected sand from the floor of the Great Pond whenever it was drained, for sale. She herself remembered sometimes collecting sand from the edges of the Ponds, because ‘it was ever so good for cleaning knives’.

It is apparent that many of these activities were carried out by local residents without them having (or knowingly having) specific common rights; there seems rather to have been a range of traditional community uses which were generally accepted without reference to rights.  For example, one interviewee stated that ‘everyone’ collected firewood; another recalled that anyone collected firewood and fir cones, whether they had rights or not; another recalled that ‘no-one ever suggested whether you had a right or not’.  Apparently, the School House had rights of estovers but did not exercise them.

It should also be noted that a number of dwellings were described as being on the common itself.  For example, one interviewee was born in 1908 in a cottage which she said was on heathland (an area which is now wooded) on the Churt village side; another interviewee said that she was born on the common in the early 1930s, in a wooden bungalow that had no running water or electricity.  Another recollected that people lived on the common, mainly near Lowicks, and in houses situated in the valley, which are now owned by the National Trust.  Those people living in the houses in the 1930s were said to be estate workers. Another interviewee described two small cottages on the common at the Lowicks which were owned by the estate, and were occupied by families whose men had been killed in the First World War.  Another interviewee recalled that the people who occupied houses on the common were mainly local farmers or estate workers.


FIELD SPORTS (grouse shooting, wildfowling, fishing etc)

Summary: duck shoots, rabbit catching

One interviewee described duck shoots: after the Second World War, one of his jobs was to cut rushes round the Pond using a punt with a cutter attached, to increase the area of water for pleasure boats and rowing boats, and to reduce cover for ducks during shooting parties.  Interviewees also described catching rabbits.


MILITARY USES (training, trenches, radar stations etc)

Summary: trenches, tank activity, landscape changes (draining ponds), manoeuvres

Frensham Common was used extensively by the military in the twentieth century.   One interviewee noted that the Canadian military were present in 1911, having come over for the coronation of George V, and ‘Thousands’ of troops were present in 1914.  Another interviewee explained how First World War soldiers would practice in trenches on nearby Shortfield Common [CL 230], before moving on to Frensham Common.  One interviewee recalled these First World War manoeuvres, trenches, and mock battles, and had seen horse-drawn gun carriages dragged across the common.  The Common was also reported to have been used by the army for manoeuvres in the 1930s, especially for the month of August, originally with horses, and then with tanks in the later 1930s; artillery was also used.  During the Second World War, the Great and Little ponds were drained [apparently to prevent them being used as navigation aids by enemy aircraft].  One interviewee recalled helping to drain the Little Pond, and subsequently helping to clear it of scrub so it could be refilled.  Tank activity seems to have made a major impact on the landscape, and is described as having churned up the common.  One interviewee described how trees were flattened and the land made bare, mostly by tanks; the ground was also kept bare for paratroopers’ activities.  Another recalled large numbers of soldiers, and six foot long dugouts made throughout the common.  Military activity was said to have diminished after the Second World War, when alternative training grounds were used.  One interviewee said the post-war vegetation came back as birch and bracken over large areas.


RECREATION (walking, rock climbing, paragliding, swimming, picnicking etc)

Summary: Walking, swimming, sailing, sports and games, day trips, trial bikes, car climbs, horse riding.

Frensham Common was evidently a very important recreational space for local residents. As one interviewee explained, children and adults used the common more in the past, since they didn’t travel anywhere else; the common was their ‘playground and larder’.  Interviewees recalled roaming freely over the common as children, swimming in the Ponds, and playing sports such as football and cricket. One interviewee recalled that ‘it was a wonderful playground’.  Another described how children had played out all day, boiling duck eggs in an old tin can for lunch.  Another described watching trial bikes and cars climbing up Kings Ridge.  One described going on long walks as a child.  The teachers at Frensham Village School took children on nature walks on the common and taught them to swim in the Little Pond; a grassy area opposite the school was used as sports ground by pupils (who had to pay the schoolmaster penny a week for using it).  Two interviewees noted that there had not been riding schools or much horse riding when they were children; another thought that horse riding had begun to increase from the 1950s.  One interviewee noted that the points of access on to the common had reduced from the 1930s when more private houses were built in the vicinity.

Over the course of the twentieth century, Frensham Common also became increasingly popular with day trippers.  A Sunday afternoon treat for one of the interviewees in the early 1930s was to go to look at the ‘Londoners in their big charabancs’ – the daytrippers coming from London to the Great Pond.  This interviewee remembered charabancs parking all over common, making it sandy.  Another speaker remembered many visitors coming to the common to sail on the Great Pond, and using the area as a beach.  One interviewee described how ‘thousands and thousands’ of people had come to the Great Pond beach and Sailing Club in the later 1930s and after the Second World War.  Another interviewee had not seen sailing on the Great Pond as a child, and thought it had come in after the war.  One interviewee suggested that numbers of trippers had increased from the 1930s; another pointed out that numbers had increased greatly after the Second World War, when Frensham appeared on advertisements in Waterloo station.  It was also noted that many soldiers who had trained on the common brought their wives and children back to visit.


‘OUTSIDERS’ AND THE TRAVELLING COMMUNITY (such as Gypsies, Roma, Tinkers, New Age Travellers, the homeless etc)

Frensham Common seems to have had a number of travelling or homeless visitors or ‘characters’ over the years: interviewees described several individuals, some of whom may have been the same person.  Thus, one interviewee said that a ‘hermit’ once lived near the Little Pond in a hide made of bracken, and cooked in a hole in the ground.  He apparently earned a little money boiling water for day trippers.  He was believed to have died in 1925.  Another interviewee recalled a ‘tramp’ who lived near the Little Pond and was a ‘great naturalist’.  One interviewee named a member of a local family who had suffered from shell shock in the First World War, and lived on the common all year round; he didn’t want to live in a house, and ‘lived on his wits’; her sister had once found him lying under frosted blankets in the middle of winter.  Another interviewee remembered an ‘old professor’ who lived on the common for several years in a tent, was said to have dug flints and written occasional articles for the local paper.  There do not seem to be memories of Gypsy families staying on the common itself, though they were regular visitors to the village, where they helped with hop picking, sold pegs and traded for rabbit/ and mole skins; they also gathered in the village for an annual ‘Pond Fair’.


Continue on to next theme: 2. How was the use of the common regulated?