Over the past months I have been exploring the eight remaining pieces of common land in Hackney and recording these walks with photographs, writing and sound. These audio recordings will be the starting point for a series of woven pieces I plan to make about these ancient patches of land, remnants of a medieval world where people were deeply connected with the land. From the sound waves I intend to derive pattern and rhythm which I will weave into the cloth, so placing these journeys into the very structure of the fabric.
Memory is embedded in the making of textiles and lends itself to exploring these spaces where so much history and human life has passed. The repetition in the act of weaving, like the rhythm of walking, draws in time and opens up space for remembering and connecting to human experience.
In the 18th and 19th centuries there was a large scale programme of enclosure across Britain and land which had been held in common for centuries was no longer where the rural poor could graze their cattle, pick mushrooms, berries, firewood or trap rabbits. In fact trespass on this land meant that their previous way of life was criminalised. The land was being cleared for more intensive farming and so displaced peasants moved to the city to seek work in the newly industrialised cities. Not only displaced and impoverished by enclosure, they were also disenfranchised and disconnected from their communities.
In 1865 The Commons Preservation Society sought to stop the disappearance of this land and in the 1860’s, as Hackney became increasingly urban, the borough purchased all eight parcels of land in order to preserve some green spaces for the burgeoning population.
These commons are spread across the borough and comprise of Stoke Newington Common, London Fields, Well Street Common, Hackney Downs, Hackney Marshes, Millfields South, Millfields North and Clapton Common. Here the past is contained within these patches of land, like containers holding the memories of all the human activities witnessed by this land over which is layered our current time.
Looking at old maps of the area it can be seen that the shapes of these common lands haven’t changed for centuries and their boundaries remain intact. Stoke Newington Common is split in four by roads and the railway line, these roads follow the same route as the old coach roads did in the 16th century. The paths laid out in Hackney Downs and London Fields haven’t changed since the 19th century. But most of the history imprinted on the land is not visible and can only be imagined.
The existence still of this reminder of our collective past is a moving connection to a past world, an elemental relationship to land. Land that provided not only sustenance but a sense of self and community.
Enclosure is not something relegated to the past. Land is still being privatised at a great rate, since 1979 when Margaret Thatcher took power 10% of the entire British land mass has passed from public to private ownership. At a time of massive housing crisis and concern for the environment a celebration of our common land seems timely.