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Gadding About On Woolwich Common

February 14, 2013
Autumn colours, early morning.

Autumn colours, early morning.

I admit it. I’m rather obsessed with Woolwich Common. The first time I saw it, I didn’t really know what to make of it. It’s not a park: it’s too rough-and-ready for that. From a distance it looks like a wasteland or perhaps a farm belonging to a determined old bugger who’s refused to sell his land to developers. On a dull day it looks a bit forbidding, to be honest. I’m ashamed to report that it took me months to muster up the courage to venture onto it.

In February it snowed and the common became magical.

In February it snowed and the common became magical.

Up close, however, the common reveals its character. One of the first things you notice is that a network of rudimentary paths runs around its edges and across the middle. These form part of the Green Chain network of walking tracks that will take you as far afield as Erith, the Thames Barrier, and Crystal Palace. It’s not unusual to see groups of jolly ramblers marching across the common with their rucksacks, OS maps, and sensible footwear. You will also observe how the place changes as  you venture further uphill, from a wide open space of hardy grasses and wildflowers to a more heavily-treed zone that muffles the noise of traffic hurtling along the nearby roads.

White-leafed trees in the spring.

White-leafed trees in the spring.

The common is officially “managed as a meadow”. I’m not quite sure what that means, but there are certainly no manicured lawns and decorative fountains. I guess it’s a bit like Woolwich itself: a bit ragged around the edges, certainly not posh and proper, and all the more beguiling for being so.

Stormy common.

Stormy common.

In truth, it is a wild, ramshackle, often-windswept tract of land that has been many things to many different people over the years. For several centuries (before the military took possession in the early 19th century) it belonged to the Crown, and the poor of Woolwich enjoyed “estovers” and “turbury” rights: they could help themselves to wood and gorse to use for fuel. When I walk across the common, especially on a bleak winter’s day, I like to think about those 15th- and 16th-century Woolwichers roaming over the land to collect whatever they needed to stay warm.

Winding the clock back further still, I imagine hardy riverside dwellers wandering up the hill from the Roman settlements that were built on, or near, what became known as the Royal Woolwich Arsenal.

In the 18th century, the military used the common as a testing ground for artillery and ordnance, not without upsetting the locals. Also around this time, men taking sheep and cattle to London’s markets were allowed to graze their stock on the common. In about 1774, a ha ha wall was built along what is now called Ha Ha Road to stop the animals from wandering onto the Royal Artillery fields. The brick ha ha survives as one of the longest of its kind in the U.K. and is classified as a heritage-listed building.

A late summer evening, looking north.

A late summer evening, looking north.

In the mid-19th century, the northern part of the common facing onto Ha Ha Road was used by thousands of Woolwich residents who enjoyed promenading around it at weekends. The only remnant of this time is the granite obelisk that you can see on the north-east corner of the common. It used to be a drinking fountain and is a memorial to Major Robert John Little, a barrack-master at the Royal Marine Barracks, who lived nearby.

In the first half of the 20th century the common was given over to a variety of war-related activities. After the second world war, the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment set up sheds on the common in which components for nuclear weapons were developed and tested: a long way from those early peasants dragging wood around.

During the Olympics, with wildflowers.

During the Olympics, with wildflowers.

Woolwich Common has been a playground, a destination, or a workplace for so many. For ramblers, dog-walkers, drinkers, drovers, soldiers, footballers, farmers, engineers, water-colourists, cadets, prostitutes, peasants, mathematicians, highwaymen, bird-watchers, and horsemen.

These days, however, hardly anyone seems to use it, save for the occasional jogger or dog-walker or odd-ball like me. And yet it’s a charming patch of ruse-in-urbe, a wide open space lying under the big Woolwich sky. It lets you fill your lungs with (relatively) fresh air and invites you to gaze out at a distant horizon. You can walk around it in about 20 minutes then follow the Green Chain to the stunning Oxleas Wood and Meadow on the other side of Shooters Hill. I can’t really figure out why it’s so underused. Perhaps a lot of people simply don’t know it’s here.

IMG_20130212_210826 (2)

A note on the photos: I love the way the common changes along with the seasons, the weather, and the time of day. I’ve included here some photos I’ve taken at various times, on my camera phone and with a little filtering.

A note on the historical bits: My main source for this blog was the Survey of London’s brilliant book on Woolwich (Survey of London Volume 48), edited by Prof. Peter Guillery. The book was published by Yale University Press in 2012.

A medieval note:  While perusing Greenwich Council’s Conversation Character Area Appraisal for the common and surrounds I learned about all six legal commoners rights that had been granted to the people of Woolwich: “pasture”; “pannage” (to let pigs eat acorns etc); “estovers” (to take fallen branches); “turbary” (to dig turf or peat for fuel or thatch); “piscary” (to take fish); and “of common in the soil” (to take stone sand and minerals). Pannage is my personal favourite.

From → In Woolwich, Reviews

  1. Lovely post! After ten years of living just down the road it’s probably time I actually visited Woolwich Common…

    I liked the detail of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment ‘setting up sheds’. Sounds very English post-war striving for a modern world, but still based in sheds.

  2. Thanks for the feedback Neil, much appreciated. Re the sheds, I think that earlier on (maybe just post-WW1) there was some sort of radio signals unit based on the common, in a van!

  3. Good post! I’ve lived with the common on my doorstep (only a slight exaggeration) for 50 years and haven’t spent any time there either.

    • Thanks Alan. Judging by the lack of crowds — ie there’s only ever about three people and two dogs on the common at any one time — you’re in the majority!

  4. Mrs Joyce Snipp permalink

    I read with interest, about Woolwich Common. Is there anyone who would be able to give a talk to a LocaL Society. I would be grateful of some information please.

    Joyce Snipp

  5. Vanessa Jones permalink

    Fantastic post and especially enjoyed the photos. I am currently writing up something of my own about the common and wondered if you would be happy for me to reference this page and maybe incorporate your stormy photo?

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Friday lunchtime reading | NeilClasper
  2. Cocktail Hour: Introducing The Woolwich Common | towiwoolwich

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