Here in Chislehurst we are surrounded by 180 acres of private land that every one of us has the historic right to make use of.
Since medieval times, ‘common’ has been the term used for parts of a private estate that commoners have traditional rights over as part of the feudal system.
Most of England’s commons were lost due to enclosure, but to this day, Chislehurst Commons are privately owned by the Lord of the Manor. Although the landowner is under no obligation to maintain them, these beautiful green spaces have been preserved for our benefit, thanks to some forward-thinking Victorians.
Concerned about the erosion of the Commons – for gravel extraction and the like – prominent Chislehurst residents formed themselves into a preservation lobby group and successfully pushed for an Act of Parliament. This was passed in 1888, giving legal protection to the Commons. (Incidentally, the gravel extraction is how we come to have our two largest ponds.)
Under the Act – still in force today – a voluntary Board of Trustees has legal responsibility for management and maintenance of the Commons and is governed by its own Bye-laws.
Historically, Board members were known as Conservators, but this term was abandoned 10 years ago as they were too often assumed to have an affiliation with a certain political party or mistaken for purveyors of garden conservatories!
There are currently 16 Trustees who run the Commons as a registered charity, based at the Old Fire Station at the top of Hawkwood Lane. Strictly speaking there are two Commons – Chislehurst and St Paul’s Cray – but they are managed as one entity and maintained by two salaried Keepers.
The Keepers and Trustees are assisted in their mammoth task by a committed team of local volunteers, whom you may have seen grafting on a Wednesday morning in their distinctive high-vis jackets. Between them they give up 2,000 hours a year to keep the Commons looking so spectacular.
You may be forgiven for thinking that Chislehurst Commons amounts to the grassy areas at the top of the High Street and adjacent to St Nicholas church. In actual fact, they encompass a diverse landscape of grasslands, heathlands, woodlands and several ponds, stretching from the High Street, down to the Ramblers Rest and almost as far as Petts Wood. (Think of all that dense woodland on both sides of St Paul’s Cray Road). People who have lived here their entire life may not be fully aware of the scale of it.
Excuse the pun, but it is not commonly known that the ponds, or the cricket ground for example, are part of the Commons. Prickend Pond is what makes our High Street unique and many assume that it is maintained by the council. Not so. The Keepers work incredibly hard all year round, though their efforts are hampered by land encroachment, fly tipping, littering and pest infestation. Not to mention all that mowing.
Chislehurst Commons is a completely separate entity to The Chislehurst Society or any other local organisations. The Society (though very committed to preservation of the Commons) has a much wider remit to improve the overall look and feel of the town, whereas Chislehurst Commons is a smaller charity purely concerned with the privately owned land.
The Board derives no income from the Common and upkeep costs £100k a year. The charity currently receives around a third of this from Bromley Council, raising the rest from donations and fundraising events, such as the Big Draw, Chislehurst Chase and the Open Air Cinema.
There is a loyal core of supporters who have been incredibly generous over the years, but the current Board is now committed to raising wider awareness of its work in order to safeguard the Commons for future generations.