The Town and Manor of Hungerford: Working for the love of the common people
The cattle are back on Hungerford Common for summer grazing.
It marks another year of Commoners rights, which are an ancient land management practice that dates back to principles laid out in Magna Carta.
The cattle are looked after by the Hayward - an equally ancient post in the Hungerford Town and Manor.
The Town and Manor is a now a charity, but historically, its trustees have looked after the common lands since around 1617.
One such trustee is Philip Porter. He is also the Hayward and he checks his herd twice daily. He’s a retired investment banker, and freely admits that ‘wild horses would not drag me back to the city’.
“I absolutely love this job,” said Philip. “Cows are just lovely, nosy characters. I like them.”
It seems they like him too as they gather round his truck as we speak.
“We have to graze the land to keep in as common land,” he explained. “Natural England gives us a certain amount of money, but we must keep it natural.
“We are supposed to keep a grass sward of about 10 cms on the common at all times. That's why we don’t have sheep on here as they will take it right down.”
Today Commoners are economically dependent on government support payments.
Their value to history and landscape is not rewarded in livestock prices.
The cattle now on the common are a mixed herd belonging to three farmers and the Hungerford Graziers Syndicate. Philip is in charge of which animals graze the common.
“We need to manage that,” he added. “It wouldn’t be good if someone just decided to put a bull up here.”
Last year, the Town and Manor, along with the town council got West Berkshire Council to reduce the speed limit from 40 to 30 miles per hour along the common road.
As we spoke, the herd moved across the road, and we witnessed two cars drive at speed at and round the cattle rather than waiting for them to cross.
“It is so upsetting if the cattle get injured,” said Philip. “Most people know what to do and they drive slowly or wait. But we do get people here who drive like maniacs and go straight up to the cows and hoot their horns.
“I’d like people to recognise the the cattle have right of way and getting impatient for a one mile stretch of road isn’t going to save them much time.”
Two had to be put down last year, after being hit, with another two badly injured.
“I really worry for them at night,” said Phillip. “It’s hard to see a black cow at night, and some people drive very fast up here.”
Commoners rights in Hungerford evolved in the fourteenth century with John O'Gaunt - the then land owner and Duke of Lancaster granting fishing rights on the Kennet and Dun rivers.
There’s a pub and a school named after him, and nods to his Duchy of Lancaster title are in street names including Lancaster Square and Lancaster Close.
There is, in the town's possession, a battered brass horn said to have been given to the town by John O'Gaunt as guarantee of those rights.
There are 120 commoners in Hungerford.
One such commoner is Ellie Dickins. She is a former constable of the Town and Manor, so a senior commoner. She is now the Chief Executive of the Hungerford Town and Manor.
“It's a brilliant job,” said Ellie in her Hungerford Town Hall office.
On the wall are maps of the Town and Manor area - showing commoners properties which are mostly those along the main street in Hungerford and the odd outlying farm. The right to be a commoner in Hungerford comes with the property.
It also owns the 600 acres of land more or less surrounding Hungerford which is commoners land. 500 of those acres are grazed.
“We keep the traditions of Hungerford, but we also protect its common land,” said Ellie. She ensures that the fencing around the common is maintained.
“It is the responsibility of the property owners adjoining the common to keep the fences in good order.” she said. “Cattle are very curious creatures so if there is a hole in a fence, they will investigate it.”
Last year, the herd escaped the common and walked across the A4 into the woods.
“It took us three weeks to find them all and get them back, but thankfully they were all ok,” she added.
She also worries about litter, and regularly organises litter picking on the common.
“Litter can kill cows,” she said. “I wish people would take it with them, but I expect that’s a common theme everywhere sadly.”
Aside from the Hayward, there is also a salaried Waterkeeper, and an Underkeeper to manage the fisheries, as those commoners rights are being commercialised to raise money.
Farmers are charged around £50 a head of cattle to graze.
Money also comes in from renting the impressive corn exchange room in the town hall for weddings and functions.
The Town and Manor owns the Town Hall - a proud feather in the cap of the Town and Manor as it claims to be the only Town Hall in the country NOT owned by a council.
It also owns the John O'Gaunt pub and a selection of historic properties in the town.
Cash also comes in from Vodafone - there are three telecom masts on their land - one in the clock tower of the Town Hall.
The Town and Manor work closely with the town council on all things ‘of benefit’ to the Hungerford community.
“We gave £15k of grants to local organisations last year,” said Ellie. The town band, the cricket club and the Christmas lights all benefitted.
The Town and Manor has been doing its work for more than 400 years, and is still purchasing small pockets of land along the chalk streams it is duty bound to preserve.
“Imagine if it wasn’t common land here," she added. "There’d be 2,000 houses on it.”