A medieval relic: Nomansland Common
PUBLISHED: 11:07 24 March 2015 | UPDATED: 11:43 24 March 2015
Nomansland Common stretching across Weathampstead and Sandridge is a medieval relic with a fascinating history and important modern ecological role, writes Countryside Management Service project officer Alex Laurie
During the 15th century the monasteries of St Albans and Westminster contested common land to the south of Harpenden for their respective parishes and the open area became a ‘No-mans-land’ between the two factions. In 1429, it was finally agreed that the parishes of Wheathampstead and Sandridge should share the common and a boulder of Hertfordshire Pudding Stone was used to mark the parish boundary.
Today, the common is owned by Wheathampstead Parish Council and the Althorp Estate and is managed by St Albans City and District Council. The Countryside Management Service works with the district council and volunteers to manage the land’s mosaic of habitats for the benefit of wildlife and people.
Historically, common land or wastes in a parish, were often uncultivated and of little agricultural value. Local people or ‘commoners’ would have ‘common rights’ to graze livestock or gather firewood and were fiercely protective of these rights against unscrupulous lords who might try to enclose the land for their own private uses.
In the 18th century, the highway through Nomansland Common was notorious for robberies, so much so that a gibbet was erected at a crossroads here as a warning to would-be thieves. According to legend, the most remarkable of these highwaymen was in fact a woman, the aristocratic Lady Ferrers of Markyate. The story (likely to be 19th century folklore founded on the discovery of a secret room at the family pile at Markyate Cell) has her dubbed the Wicked Lady, the name taken by a popular pub on the edge of the common.
Nomanland has been a venue for horse racing and bare knuckle fighting, and continues its (slighly less racy) popular use with cricket, horse riding and family picnics all taking place here.
Habitats The common lies in a dry valley, shaped over thousands of years by a river. Towards the end of the last ice age the area’s thin soil was formed by gravel and sediment sinking to the bottom of a vast lake of glacial meltwater, created when the river was dammed by boulders of ice. The common has never been farmed intensively and still supports heathland, a rare habitat in Hertfordshire. The open ground has scattered mosses and lichens, perfect for common lizards to bask in the sun and solitary bees and wasps to make burrows in the loose soil. Gorse, a distinctive plant of heathland grows well on the poor, acid soils, due to the ability of its roots to fix nitrogen. Traditionally known as furze, its bright yellow, coconut scented flowers can be found almost all year round and provide an important source of nectar for insects. The spiny, evergreen leaves and branches of gorse form impenetrable thickets, favoured by nesting birds. Visitors may be lucky enough to see linnets flitting between bushes with their distinctive dipping flight. There are three species of gorse found in Britain: common gorse, the largest and most widespread; dwarf gorse, which is smaller and less common; and western gorse, which is confined predominately to the south west of England. Nomansland Common is the only place in Hertfordshire where all three grow. Traditionally, commoners collected gorse for a variety of uses. It makes an excellent fuel as it’s easy to ignite; the branches, when bound together were made into besom brooms; and farmers would use larger boughs as a primitive harrow to prepare seed beds for planting.
Within living memory three flocks of sheep grazed the common, keeping the area open, though today much of the heathland has been lost to oak and birch woodland. The remaining heath is heavily grazed by rabbits, which love to nibble the heather, pill sedge and heath grass. To help protect these rare plants from grazing, Countryside Management Service volunteers fence off small areas of heath, leaving the plants free to grow and flower, and provide a home for small copper and small heath butterflies as well as the rare mottled grasshopper.
During the Second World War German and Italian prisoners of war cleared scrub on the southern half of the common so it could be ploughed for crops to help the war effort. The resulting open grassland is now a haven for farmland birds, such as skylarks, which can often be heard singing high above the common during the summer months.
The majority of the trees on the common are relatively young, although a small number are at least a century old. As trees age and decay they can support more wildlife. Cracks in tree trunks and branches, and holes caused by rot are ideal for hibernating bats and fungi.
This winter CMS carried on its programme of thinning parts of the woodland, ensuring strong trees have room to grow. This management allows more light to reach the ground, helping woodland plants such as bluebells and male fern. Creating clearings and sheltered, sunny glades also provides a natural habitat for insects such as speckled wood butterflies and encourages the germination of new trees, adding age structure to the woodland.
VISIT THE COMMON
Nomansland Common is two miles north of St Albans between the villages of Wheathampstead and Sandridge. Car parking is available at Ferrers Lane and Wheathampstead Cricket Club. Access has been improved recently by the creation of new road crossing points, tree management, and removal of old bollards and redundant barriers. Visitors can follow the way marked trail; a leaflet showing the route can be downloaded at hertslink.org/cms/getactive/placestovisit