There’s room for compromise on the High Common

B&NE’s has announced it is looking for a new operator to allow golf to resume on the former Approach Golf Course in the city.

There is a detailed story about it elsewhere on the page but – having given many of the pro-golfers space to air their views, Bath Newseum is giving the opportunity to two people who can see a different future for the land to state their case.

Below is an article – written by Bath-based historian and publisher Kirsten Elliott – that proposes a different sort of future for the land.

Kirsten Elliott

“It was precisely seven months ago that I wrote an article in the magazine The Local Look, to which I  gave the title Et in Arcadia, ego – the troubled history of High Common. I listed the disputes which had occurred during the centuries that the common had existed. Two of those disputes are relevant in the discussion about returning the common to golf. 

The most significant is one that began as far back as the late 15th century but its outcome has preserved the use of the common as an open space today.

Readers will notice that I refer to the space as the High Common – not the Approach Golf Course. It was as a result of the first dispute that the Bath Commons came under the management of the Bath Freemen – a powerful group of traders who virtually ran the city. The Recorder of Bath, Nicholas Hyde, gave judgment against the Freemen but granted the Freemen part of the West Field, which became known as the Bath Commons.

High Common 19th Century

One condition was that ‘the Common Fields were for the use and enjoyment of the free burgesses inhabiting the city, and should remain so forever’. This seemed to settle the matter, and the Town Commons, divided only by Common Lane – now known as Weston Lane – settled down to a peaceful life, grazed by cattle and sheep. However, for many years, the Freemen had been trying (and failing) to get permission to build on the Commons.

In 1827, the Freemen came up with a new idea. In 1824, in Bath’s fashionable rival Cheltenham, work commenced on a new town – Pittville. The plans for part of Middle Common and High Common show its influence. The corporation threw it out, stating it caused ‘encroachments on a spot, which had, from time immemorial, been open for the use of the inhabitants and visitors of the city’.

It was Nicholas Hyde’s earlier judgment that gave them the power to do that but it included a sting in the tail. Hyde stated that the lands could not be used for the profit of anyone other than the free burgesses of Bath – which today means the council-taxpayers of Bath. In other words, any commercial operator would have to hand over all their profits to the council for the benefit of the people of Bath. So that is the first point that any operator would have to bear in mind, unless they can find a legal way around it. 

The second point is that we are in the throes of an insect apocalypse and a climate crisis, and this council allegedly has a policy to support wildlife. Their website explains how grasslands help to tackle the climate and ecological emergencies, bring benefits to wildlife and the environment. It gives the reasons for cutting less frequently, and not until after August, to allow wildflowers to flourish. Above all it stresses the importance of not using chemicals and how they no longer use glyphosate on council land – though there are other herbicides equally as damaging. 

None of this is consistent with the way the average golf course is run. They are notorious for being wildlife unfriendly although it does not have to be so. There are organisations calling for them to be controlled in an eco-friendly way – but few listen. During lockdowns at Sham Castle, the groundsmen were still out there regularly cutting grass, strimming ‘weeds’ – aka wildflowers – and blowing leaves. None of these is an eco-friendly practice. But it is the use of chemicals that is the most dangerous. Anyone who has read Professor Dave Goulson’s books will know how lethal they are, not just to our flora and fauna, but to us, as they can enter the water supply. 

That brings me to an 18th-century dispute about the springs on High Common. Ben Reed, the gentleman promoting the use of High Common as a golf course, fondly imagines the council can use these to answer the criticism of wasting water. The dispute, which involved Wood the Younger and Thomas Attwood, shows the springs supplied the Circus Waterworks. All the waterworks came under the control of Bath and now Wessex Water. All groundwater belongs to them, so if the council used them, they would still have to pay. 

You will notice that throughout, I have referred to the area of High Common – and it is still a common. It should be used by anyone, but the fact is, golf does deter walkers. During lockdowns Bathampton Down was suddenly alive with walkers of all ages and nationalities, as well as dog-walkers, mountain bikers (who very much enjoyed the bunkers) and picnickers, not to mention a flock of migrating skylarks that landed to take a breather – something I have never seen there before. The same has happened at High Common. 

There are now picnickers, sunbathers, walkers where this was not possible previously. At present, there are mainly common wildflowers like daisies coming through but, given a chance, others will flourish. Pyramidal orchids suddenly appeared last summer in the verge near my house, thanks to the council’s new policies. 

Needless to say, politicians are leaping on the bandwagon. In a recent flier, Bob Goodman says how he thinks High Common could be a potential natural park. How right he is, but only a year ago , in a similar newsletter, he was campaigning for the return of the golf course, bemoaning the fact that ‘young people in particular will in future be denied a low-cost opportunity to learn to play golf in the City.’ 

Cavendish Crescent 1950

However, not only is golf itself declining in England – still but there is a greater decline in golf among the young. What really annoys me is that golfers seem to consider we should all subsidise them. If this were a sport which promoted fitness, I would agree, and in particular I think all children should have cheap or even free access to swimming pools. But the only fitness you get from golf is from walking – so why not just walk? Furthermore, many of us have interests and hobbies but we do not get nor expect support or subsidies from the council – why should we? The cost of a gym membership isn’t cheap, but people pay it. Why do golfers think that we should subsidise them? 

I  realise that the Lansdown councillors (both Libdems) have leapt on the pro-golf bandwagon, probably assuming that this will help to improve their election chances. I wouldn’t be too sure. In September last year, I took a Bathscape party across High Common and casually mentioned my idea for it to be rewilded. I fully expected to be told off – to my surprise, the entire party applauded and said ‘Hear,hear.’ There was not a single dissenting voice. Many local but not necessarily vocal residents are now in tune with David Attenborough’s words: If we take care of nature, nature will take care of us. It’s now time for our species to stop simply growing, to establish a life on our planet in balance with nature, to start to thrive.

If the present council wants to prove its green credentials then abandon the idea for a golf course, at least on the eastern half of High Common, and keep the 12-hole course, though it must be maintained using ecologically friendly methods.

There is a petition you can sign to persuade the council to stick to a chemical-free regime. https://www.change.org/p/keep-bath-s-public-parks-free-of-chemicals?redirect=false

2 Comments

  1. Kirsten really doesn’t like golf, does she? The point of the Approach Course is that people can play the game cheaply without having to join golf clubs, which are very expensive for the very casual player. And her claim that playing golf offers no health and fitness benefits is of course plain wrong.

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  2. Very interesting article. Does golf “deter walkers”? Probably some are worried about being hit by an errant ball, but I’ve never read of such an injury. I don’t play golf, but if that’s the only way to prevent the High Common being turned into a bike playground then I’ll tolerate it.
    As for the chemicals being used to keep the fairways in condition, how much non-poisonous land have the bees lost, in comparison the all the non-chemically-treated land in the county? By stoking alarmism where it’s not justified harms your other arguments, unfortunately.

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