THE HISTORY OF TUNBRIDGE WELLS AND RUSTHALL COMMONS
In 1942 further works were carried out. A reinforced concrete shelter was constructed by Brighton Lake, and the National Fire Service constructed three steel tanks on concrete bases, two on Tunbridge Wells and one on Rusthall Common, each holding 23 000 gallons of water. In the same year, the railings around the two cricket grounds were removed for the war effort. By this time, several pieces of land on both Commons had been requisitioned by the military for purposes which included the siting of anti-aircraft guns and searchlight emplacements. The Conservators complained vigorously about the hazards caused by the widespread presence of entrenchments and other concealed excavations, especially when a local resident was injured by falling into an unprotected gun pit.
Although the military authorities paid compensation for actual damage to the Commons, and it was reported that almost all damage had been made good by 1946, general neglect leading to uncontrolled growth of vegetation did not prove so easy to reverse. The absence of sheep and cattle left the task of keeping back scrub and bracken to human activity alone, but labour to perform the necessary work was in short supply. The desirability of reintroducing grazing was debated by the Conservators in the late 1940s, but clearly no way of achieving this could be found. In 1947, the occupant of the cottage at Bull's Hollow complained to the Conservators that "seedlings had grown into trees and her premises were now enclosed in a tangle of bracken, trees and weeds", only to be told that "owing to shortage of labour it had not been possible to effect the clearance of undergrowth". In the following year, the Freehold Tenants made more general observations on "the present unsatisfactory state of the Commons", but received a similar answer.
On the day of Elizabeth IIís coronation in 1953, Tunbridge Wells Common fulfilled its traditional role as a scene for local celebrations. These were centred on the Higher Cricket Ground, where "a great crowd assembled for the fancy dress parade, to hear the Queen's message broadcast, to see a firework display and the bonfire lit, and to take part in community singing". There was also, as on previous royal occasions, a tree planting ceremony, in this case involving two flowering cherries placed by the Mayor and Deputy Mayor on either side of the cricket pavilion.
Meanwhile, the Conservators were fighting what seemed to be a losing battle against rampant saplings and bracken. In the mid 1950s we find them discussing the fact that "sycamore and silver birch trees were becoming too prolific" and instructing the Surveyor "to report as to the action which may be taken to restrict the spread of bracken". However, as memory of the Commons' original condition faded, it became increasingly difficult to formulate a coherent policy or define a vision of what kind of landscape the Commons should be.
In 1957, H G Tucker, the Surveyor, carried out a detailed survey of the two Commons and offered proposals for their restoration. However, these now took for granted that the Commons consisted largely of woodland, and failed to address the question of vanished heath and grassland. The results were contradictory. Some saplings of unwanted species were eliminated, but at the same time 269 fresh saplings, mainly oak, were planted. The Race Course was cleared, and there was much talk about removal of undergrowth. But what this consisted of was no more than a "policy of clearing undergrowth and small defective trees alongside roads and footpaths". The possibility of grazing by goats was actively considered, while an active policy of exterminating rabbits was pursued. No one appreciated that rabbits helped to maintain open grassland.
During the 1960s, management of the Commons had clearly become a holding operation, designed simply to stabilise what was perceived to be their natural condition. Radical intervention was no longer considered. This situation was epitomised by the case of the Happy Valley viewpoint, which was under discussion throughout the decade. When it was first reported in 1961 that the view so much admired by the Victorians and Edwardians was now invisible due to obscuring vegetation, the Surveyor proceeded to order the removal of "dead and dying holly trees and relatively small and poorly shaped oak trees". The same type of work was carried out in 1967, but by the following year residents of Rusthall were still complaining that the view could not be seen. Two years later, similar arguments began over the condition of Toad Rock.
Page last updated: 13/02/2007