Lying just below the spring line where the London Clay overlaps the chalk of the North Downs, the commons are a semi-wild haven for people and wildlife. The oak woodland of the higher ground is full of sunny glades and areas of hazel coppice, there are ponds and marsh areas and open grassland along a flood plain that is the bed of a much larger river that once flowed from the chalk to the Thames – a varied landscape that provides pleasantly changing scenery.
The grassland of the plains is classified as “species-rich unimproved ancient pasture”, a reference to it being full of wild flowers and herbs, never ploughed-up and re-seeded (or even fertilised) and has been grazed since the middle ages… This sort of grassland is now very rare and supports a great many insects, which in turn attract a wonderful range of bird life. This area is carefully managed with seasonal cattle grazing and a careful rotation of scrub clearance, retaining some of the dense thorn bushes as valuable nesting sites for warblers and finches, thrushes and wrens. Over on Banks Common there are farmland birds such as skylarks and yellowhammers, with the occasional sighting of a barn owl.
The ponds provide a valuable refuge for all three species of newt (smooth, palmate and great crested) and wonderful dragonflies. This area is also full of insects that attract noctule, Brandt’s, whiskered and Daubenton’s bats. Visit the bird hide at Upper Eastern Pond to spot the herons, a roe deer or (from August until spring) the elusive kingfisher.
The oak woods are cool and shady in the summer… and very busy with foraging caterpillars in the spring. Look out for the beautiful woodland butterflies such as the purple hairstreak, white admiral, silver-washed fritillary or (if you’re very lucky) the magnificent purple emperor in June and July.
Come down to the commons and step back in time, enjoy the scenery and take-in the sights and sounds of nature.
For more information, check out this link: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/bookham-commons
The commons are home to badgers, foxes, roe deer, stoats, weasels, dormouse, buzzards, red kite, ravens, all three woodpecker species, whitethroats, stonechats, skylarks, snipe, woodcock, a large heronry (near the Isle of Wight Pond), sparrowhawks, kestrels, lots of tawny owls, at least 12 species of bat, dragonflies and damselflies, bluebells, primroses, southern marsh orchids, 1154 species of diptera (two-winged flies) and 1550 species of beetle!
The commons are a remnant of the wildwood that once covered most of the British Isles and, as with all of our countryside, has been affected by the activities of our distant ancestors. Many of the large wild animals that roamed the forests were hunted to extinction by these hunter-gatherers, who took over their role with clearing for primitive agriculture and by grazing domesticated animals.
The first historic record of the commons appear in the Domesday Book, with a reference to “le northwood”. The Saxon village of Bocheham made use of the local timber for fuel and building materials which, along with the grazing of livestock, led to the clearing of the lower grassland by the time of the middle ages. Another early mention appears rather quaintly in a will from the 14th Century, where they left “20 shillings towards ye causy (a causeway) across the common, there as most new is”. Large tracts of the land around Great and Little Bookham were owned by Chertsey Abbey and it is probably the monks who made a pond on the commons (shown on Thomas Clay’s map of 1615 as “A fish pond”) so that they could have fish on Fridays, though by the time of this map Henry VIII had long since taken the lands of the Abbey and given them to the Howard family – the Earls of Effingham.
When the parkland around Eastwick House was sold to a developer in 1922, they also held the deeds to Great Bookham Common, which led to suitably outraged locals raising the funds to buy it back and present it to the National Trust in 1923. The “Lord of the Manor” of Little Bookham (the splendidly-named Mr H.H. Willock-Pollen) presented Little Bookham Common to the Trust in 1924, with Mr R. Calburn gifting Banks Common in 1925.
There are strange, triangular ponds on Eastern Plain… these are gun emplacements from World War II, where anti-aircraft guns were manned by the Royal Artillery, defending London and the factory making aircraft engines opposite the railway station. As with most of the commons and heaths of southern England at this time, it had many Canadian troops camped out and preparing for D-Day. There are small, circular ponds that make an ideal home for newts, provided by bombs dropped by the opposing Air Force.
Since then the commons became rapidly overgrown with scrub and young trees, when the livestock grazing ceased in 1949, followed by the rabbits disappearing after myxomatosis in the 1950’s. This trend has been gradually reversed.
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