When I was boy in Berkhamsted I used to collect our family’s meat from the butcher. One hot day he explained how he always kept the back door of the shop open ‘to let in the fresh air from the common’, which lay a mile to the north. The 3,000-acre tract of wood and gorsy heath (Linnaeus is reputed to have knelt to give thanks for the blaze of furze there) was saved from enclosure by Augustus Smith, a commoner, and the Commons Preservation Society (the original Open Spaces Society) in 1866.
The society had only been formed in 1865, but within a year it was nobly conspiring to throw down Lord Brownlow’s illegal fences. The action was a turning point in the history of commons. No wonder the place still inspires local people, from butchers to bolshie conservationists: in 1966 the town carnival found more space for ‘the Battle of the Common’ than for William the Conqueror, whose army pivoted towards London at Berkhamsted in 1066. The common, now largely owned by the National Trust, survives. Its cryptic iron age ditches, its orchids, the 400-year-old beech pollards inscribed with poignant messages from Second World War airmen a long way from home—and all that fresh air flowing down into the town—remind us that such things must be fought for, as they still are by the Open Spaces Society.