A tale of two closures: testing the limits of open access, 1879-2020

By Michael Poole

New Series, 2021.

The coronavirus pandemic exposed many underlying fault-lines in society. One was that between different generations, surfacing most prominently in disputes about mass gatherings and the right to use public spaces. But what happened at Abbots Pool in rural North Somerset was part of a deeper history of contested access.

Security fence erected at Abbots Pool preventing public access
Security fencing at Abbots Pool prevented access to the site throughout the summer and early autumn of 2020. Image by author.

At the start of the high summer of 2020, just as the first set of Covid-19 restrictions were being relaxed, a number of signs began appearing in the village of Abbots Leigh. They announced the sudden closure of the nearby local nature reserve at Abbots Pool, which was cordoned off by the erection of heavy-duty security fencing barring entry. In addition, a number of bridleways and footpaths running alongside fields that give on to the site were closed off to the public, making a large area of countryside inaccessible even on foot.

Sign fixed to fencing by North Somerset Council stating that Abbots Pool was closed
Closure sign erected on roads leading to Abbots Pool, 26 June, 2020. Image by author.

Like many rural places located near large urban centres, Abbots Pool became popular to visit during the pandemic, as the public resorted to green, open spaces to escape the confining experience of lockdown. This was brought to an end by the closure notice issued by North Somerset Council, following reports of anti-social behaviour and failure to observe social distancing by groups of young people.[1]

On the face of it, a legitimate response to a public health emergency, if somewhat draconian in nature. Yet at the same time it carried echoes of a similar intervention nearly 150 years earlier when paths and lanes leading to what was then known as ‘Abbots Pond’ were abruptly closed by a local landowner. ‘Someone’, the Bristol Mercury reported in 1879 ‘has placed a locked gate across the path leading to this beautiful pond, and has set up the inscription “private road”.’[2] The paper went on to call this ‘not only arbitrary, but illegal’ as no one could ‘remember the time when the road was otherwise than a public one.’

Period illustration of Philip John William Miles, second Baronet, in top hat and coat. From Vanity Fair 1879
Philip John William Miles, 2nd Baronet inherited Leigh Court estate in 1878. Image: Vanity Fair, 1879.

The landowner in question, one of the most powerful in the entire Bristol region, was Sir Philip John William Miles. Having inherited the Leigh Court estate at the death of his father the previous year, Miles was intent on ‘improving it by enclosing common land by stealth. In the case of Abbots Pond, the aim seems to have been to turn the area into a secluded sporting domain where shooting rights could be sold to affluent clients.[3]

Landowners like Miles were able to act in this way owing to centuries of legislation making enclosure permissible under certain circumstances. However, by the mid-nineteenth century they were increasingly being met by a new kind of opposition, often led by organised groups such as the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society, founded in 1865. Whereas fighting against enclosure had once been about retaining the right to farm common land, now it was becoming about the right to enjoy it as an open space. One of the movement’s leading figures, Robert Hunter would later describe how he started to realise that

‘owing to the constant growth of large towns, and to the increasing facilities for escape from their smoke and noise, the importance of rural England as a recreation-ground for all classes becomes more obvious…[and] should not be left to depend on the goodwill of a limited class.’[4]

The Bristol Mercury was soon informing its readers that ‘steps are being taken to form a committee with a view to trying the question of Sir P.J. Miles right to close the pleasant lanes’.[5] At Abbots Pond itself, direct action was taken when the lock on one of the gates used to bar the way was forced open. Miles sought redress in the courts and a local man, Herbert Whitaker was charged with malicious damage.[6] But although these details were reported in the Bristol Times & Mirror, the Western Daily Press was more oblique in its coverage, making no mention of Abbots Pond at all and describing the case more vaguely as being about ‘a right of way across the property of Sir Philip Miles’. It also appeared to question Whitaker’s motives by portraying him as ‘a riding master’ who ‘had a number of ladies with him’.[7]

Part of an Ordnance Survey map from 1884 showing Abbots Pond and the Fish Pond Wood with details of local footpaths
1884 Ordnance Survey map of Abbots Pond showing local footpaths. Image: Digital Collection, National Library of Scotland

Meanwhile, a letter to the Bristol Times signed ‘Bristolian’ urged the city’s Corporation to ‘bestir themselves in the recreative interests of the constituents to preserve the old pond and picturesque haunts of St Augustine to Bristolians and the neighbourhood’.[8] Both Miles and his opponents, it seems, were redefining the countryside as a place primarily for recreation and leisure.

The heavily romanticised invocation of ‘the haunts of St Augustine’ was a reference to Abbots Pond’s ecclesiastical origins. Yet its initial purpose was eminently practical: in medieval times it functioned as a primitive fish farm. Traces of how this worked are still visible today in the way the main basin is linked to a series of smaller pools replenished by a nearby spring. These acted as fish ponds, providing a major food source for its monastic owners.

Founded in 1140 on the site of what is now Bristol Cathedral, the Abbey of Saint Augustine’s generous endowment included the manor of Leigh and associated farms and woodlands in the area – hence the later adoption of the name Abbots Leigh. These large landholdings, which included farms, were intended to support the Abbey in cash and in kind by supplying agricultural produce, food and firewood.[9] As well as the fish ponds there was an animal warren, which provided rabbit meat for the Augustinian order and later to the Bishopric of Bristol.

Abbots Pond was not destined to stay in the hands of the Church. Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, saw the ownership of Abbots Leigh manor pass to the Crown. It did not remain there long either. Like most ecclesiastical domains obtained in this way, the estate would eventually be sold off to wealthy landowners. These were usually aristocrats, but in this case the buyer, in 1551, was George Norton, one of 25 members of the Somerset landed gentry to acquire ecclesiastical lands for ‘services to the Crown’ during this period.[10]

The Norton family were to own the manor of Abbots Leigh for over 150 years. It then passed through marriage to parliamentarian John Trenchard, MP for Taunton, and his descendants, before being bought in 1811 by Philip John Miles, Bristol’s first recorded millionaire. The family ran a sugar refining business and were prominent members of the Bristol mercantile establishment and had profited handsomely from the slave trade. His son, William, successfully diversified into banking and finance, and was made a baronet in 1859.[11]

Reproduction of a banknote issued in Bristol by the Miles Bank
Banknote issued in Bristol by the Miles Bank. 
Reproduced in C.H. Cave A History of Banking in Bristol (Bristol, 1899).

Over the centuries, the traditional fish ponds had fallen into disuse, lingering on only in the name of the adjoining Fishpond Wood. A situation that did not change much during the early tenure of the Miles dynasty. Their efforts were concentrated at the other end of the estate and the building of Leigh Court mansion close to the river Avon. By the late 1870s, however, the family was having to respond to a deep crisis in agriculture as competition from the opening up of the North American prairies drastically lowered prices. When Sir Philip John William Miles took over in 1878, he responded by embarking on a strategy of enclosing parcels of common land like Abbots Pond in an attempt to turn them to more profitable uses. Recreational anglers wishing to fish there now had to obtain permission from Miles’ bank in Corn Street, or at Leigh Court itself.[12]

Miles adopted a similar approach at some of his other properties. At Kings Weston Down, north across the Avon from Leigh Court, ‘equestrians’ were banned from using bridleways. The Bristol Mercury made a direct link to the ongoing closure of Abbots Pond, noting that ‘one after another the enjoyable spots in our neighbourhood are being sealed against visitors’.[13]

That the case had been become a cause celebre is evident from the lively correspondence generated in the paper’s letters columns the following year when an unrelated dispute about access to St Ann’s Wood in Brislington prompted ‘Civis’ to write deploring ‘the closing of the beautiful ramble around the Abbots Pond at Leigh’.[14] The animated nature of the debate may owe something to the founding of the Bristol and District Footpath Preservation Society, which dates from this period. The use of the word ‘ramble’ to describe walking in the open countryside also suggests a certain familiarity with the ethos of the broader open access movement represented nationally by the Commons Preservation Society.

Black and white photo portrait of P.J.W Miles
Miles pictured during his short-lived tenure as a partner in the Miles family bank between 1852 and 1854. Reproduced in C.H. Cave A History of Banking in Bristol (Bristol, 1899).

Another letter signed ‘Occasional Tourist’ went further, calling the closure a ‘famous instance’ of a process whereby ‘places which have been supposed to be free to the public for generations [are] being found to be in reality private property, and capable of being enclosed’.[15] Despite this, Miles remained undeterred, driven as he was by financial difficulties. It didn’t help that he liked to entertain lavishly, as when the Prince of Wales and his notoriously large retinue stayed at Leigh Court for a shooting weekend in 1884.[16] The fact that he only lasted two years in his role as a partner[17] in Miles Bank suggests that his business acumen was questioned even within the family firm.

Miles died in 1888 leaving the estate in trouble. Despite a fire-sale of its collection of Old Master paintings in 1899, the family was finally forced to sell up in 1915. When agents drafted the sale prospectus ‘Abbots Pool’, as it was now called, was still being touted as ‘the best little sporting piece on the whole estate’.[18] The auction also comprised a number of properties including Old Park House, which served as a hunting lodge. The Abbots Pool lot was bought by Bristol tobacco magnate Walter Melville Wills.

View of the waterfall and pool at Abbots Pool.
Abbots Pool was comprehensively re-landscaped in the 1920s using ‘Pulhamite’, a composite stone that mimicked the existing geology. Image by author.

Wills quickly developed plans to add to his sporting domain by engaging the services of a landscaper to create a water garden there. James Pulham & Sons had an ingenious way of working. To ensure major elements of landscaping blended into the terrain, they used materials that mimicked natural ones. In particular, an artificially produced type of rock, invented in the 19th century by the firm’s founder James Pulham and patented as ‘Pulhamite’. With the appearance of a grainy sandstone, it could be used to join existing rocks or construct entirely new structures that looked as if made of original stone. In fact, Pulhamite was a mixture of sand, cement and cinders binding together a core of brick rubble.

Recent photograph of the grotto built at Abbots Pool by landscapers Pulham and Sons
The grotto, one of the features added by James Pulham & Sons. Image by author.

For Abbots Pool, the Pulham landscapers took inspiration from what remained of the old fish ponds, damming the main pool with a causeway to create a small waterfall that channelled water into two smaller ponds towards Snakeswell Wood. These were then connected by the construction of an ornamental bridge. They also added a series of water features including a grotto, boat cave and island.[19]

In 1941, following Wills’ death, Abbots Pool and the surrounding woodland was offered to Somerset council, which in turn leased most of it to the Forestry Commission. The shift from private into public hands was the culmination of a process of change over many centuries, as its frequently contested ownership passed first from Church to Crown and then from a line of aristocrats to a line of financiers and business moguls. This long history could be described as one of widening ownership, if of a limited kind. However, it was only with the transfer into the public realm that a widening of access became fully possible.

Under the 1949 National Parks & Access to the Countryside Act, the ponds and adjacent woods became eligible to be designated as a local nature reserve. [20] This would have an important impact on the site in subsequent years as it became the focus of various conservation and wildlife initiatives by community groups. But the 1949 Act wasn’t just a preservationist piece of legislation. It also required local councils to draw up legally definitive maps of public rights of way, which ramblers’ associations had been campaigning for since the ‘right to roam’ mass trespass movement of the 1930s.[21] The Commons Preservation Society was split by this aspect of the new law, with a more conservative faction led by Sir Lawrence Chubb arguing it would prevent the more co-operative relationship with landowners that they believed was now required.[22] The tensions between the two principal aims behind the legislation – preservation versus access – would eventually loom large at Abbots Pool.

In the initial post-war years, the place remained a local amenity, frequented mainly by residents of the nearby area and visited by the occasional angler in search of tench or even the odd pike. It may have been, in the parlance of the 1950s, a ‘beauty spot’, but it was under the radar as far as the general public was concerned.

Things began to change radically about a decade or so ago. Following numerous Green Flag environmental awards, Abbots Pool became much more widely known. Its greater public visibility was also influenced by a number of broader social and cultural trends, such as the growth of new recreational pursuits like wild swimming and mountain biking, which made it attractive to younger groups of people.

In the winter of 2009, Channel 4 broadcast an episode of its long-running drama series Skins, featuring extended scenes filmed at Abbots Pool. Two of the teen series’ main characters cycle to the location, go for a swim and then overnight there. In keeping with the transgressive style that gave Skins its controversial reputation, there is also a certain amount of sexual activity and drug-taking involved. The continuing cult status enjoyed by the programme is catered to by numerous websites listing details of locations like Abbots Pool used in the shooting of the series.

By 2018, rising visitor numbers led Abbots Leigh community magazine, The Link to claim that the situation was putting ‘pressure on the environment…The oxygen levels in the pool have dropped to a dangerous level…and this may cause fish to die off.’[23] Prompted by such concerns, North Somerset Council and the Abbots Pool Management Committee drew up a code of conduct to ‘protect the sensitive local wildlife and to preserve this special site’.[24] The provisions, designed to discourage activities such as swimming and overnight camping, eventually appeared on signposts around the area.

But a year later, The Link was still noting ‘ever increasing visitors over the summer months.’ In May 2020, not long after Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s 23 March announcement of a national lockdown to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, and amid fears about breaches of social distancing, it printed the following appeal: ‘In the event you become aware of people gathering at the pool North Somerset Council have asked that the police are called on 101 and they will send a patrol to disperse.’

When the ‘stay at home’ phase of the lockdown ended, new government guidelines allowing for more extensive visits to parks were introduced. After nearly two months of being restricted to their own living spaces, people now took the opportunity to get out and about and enjoy the countryside and the hot spell of weather Britain was experiencing. Among the most eager to break out of domestic confinement were students and teenagers of older secondary school age. Many of them in the Bristol area ended up at Abbots Pool, which The Link was now describing as ‘very difficult to police’.[25] Images of swimmers and sunbathers crowded onto the pool’s causeway began to circulate digitally. Social media feeds that had once helped draw visitors to the site were now drawing attention to issues with the way it was being treated by them. Was there something self-consciously defiant, even deliberately transgressive about the way large numbers of young people appeared to be reacting to the pandemic? In Pontypridd, following a mass gathering of youth in the town centre, Rhondda Cynon Taff council was concerned enough to call for a conference ‘to explore young people’s priorities.’[26]

It was in this kind of environment that, during the first week of June, the BBC started to report on a wave of illegal raves in various parts of London.[27] A rave is officially defined by the police as any gathering of over a 100 people where music with a repetitive beat is played loudly. On 14 June the Daily Mirror ran accounts of what it called ‘quarantine raves’ in Oldham and Leeds. Similar events were thwarted by police in Liverpool, according to the Liverpool Echo. [28]

Against this broad backdrop and with rumours of rave-like gatherings at Abbots Pool, on 26 June North Somerset Council announced that it was closing the site to the public. ‘Visitors have been ignoring social distancing, and using the site as a toilet which both pose a significant threat to public health.’[29]

From feudal times through to the modern era, the story of Abbots Pool had been one of widening ownership leading to widening access. A place kept apart for so long for the few – monks, bishops, aristocrats, merchants, bankers, industrialists and sporting gentlemen – was gradually opened up to the many. But with this came a widening visibility, which in an age of instant digital communication and social media brought new pressures that were starting to challenge how widely shared Abbots Pool could be as a public space in the future.

Given this context, the lockdown order was always likely to produce a perfect storm at Abbots Pool. There was, in other words, a certain inevitability about both the crowded gatherings and the reaction they provoked.  The summer emergency of 2020 brought to the surface underlying tensions and fears about how to manage the location that pre-dated the arrival of Covid-19 and this perhaps explains why it would be a considerable period before the closure was reversed.

It was not until well into the autumn of 2020 that Abbots Leigh Parish Council announced locally that Abbots Pool would re-open on 19 October, with the hope that ‘its reputation as the place to party will be forgotten’. There was one caveat: ‘It is planned to leave the yellow ‘Abbots Pool Closed’ signs in place a little longer to deter too many outsiders from visiting.’[30]

That the re-opening was to be a drawn-out affair, lasting many months in itself, invites comparison with the 1879 closure, which also put Abbots Pool into a limbo-like state. The difference being that for the Victorian public it would last years rather than months. Yet, for all that the two incidents are separated by nearly 150 years and that the one involved a private entity and the other a branch of local government, the reasons why they happened have strikingly similar roots in changing attitudes to the countryside and the conflicting ways in which different interest groups reacted to these.

For the middle-class Victorians who wrote to the Bristol Mercury to complain about the closing of Abbots Pond, the experience of agricultural decline and intensifying urbanisation had helped re-recast the rural landscape as a place of recreation and escape – and they wanted to be freer to enjoy it as walkers and ramblers. Ranged against them were the Miles’, landed aristocrats faced with the economic consequences of the waning of farming. They responded with a bit of re-invention of their own, appropriating common land to provide hunting and shooting opportunities to an expanding upper-middle class equally looking for new country pursuits.

As we have seen, the 2020 stand-off at Abbots Pool also had its origins in changing leisure patterns and shifting views about the rural environment. Like the ramblers and the walkers before them, the youthful wild-swimmers and mountain bikers were principally interested in access. As were those looking to escape the confines of lockdown with a restorative experience of the great outdoors. This brought them into conflict with another, generally older group whose interest was in the conservation of the site and who saw a threat to it in the rising number of visitors. What for the Victorian campaigners had been a relatively straightforward issue about the right to ‘open spaces’ was now much more complicated. It would take a flashpoint moment in a global pandemic to show just how much more complicated.

[1] North Somerset Council website, 26 June, 2020.

[2] Bristol Mercury,10 May, 1879.

[3] Steve Poole, Barley Brake and Prisoners’ Base: John Virgo and the Battle for Walton Common, Regional Historian, New Series No. 3, forthcoming.

[4] Robert Hunter, The Preservation of Open Spaces and of footpaths and other rights of way. A practical treatise on the law of the subject (London, 1896) Location 36-44.

[5] Bristol Mercury, 26 June, 1879

[6] Bristol Times & Mirror, 5 July,1879

[7] Western Daily Press, 28 June, 1879

[8] Bristol Times & Mirror, 5 July,1879

[9] William Evans, Abbots Leigh: A Village History (Bristol, 2015) p8.

[10] Evans, op.cit. p14.

[11] Evans, op.cit. p41.

[12] Bristol Mercury, 29 November,1886.

[13] Bristol Mercury, 12 May, 1882.

[14]Bristol Mercury, 14 May 1883.

[15] Bristol Mercury, 12 June, 1883.

[16]  The visit gained notoriety when it was revealed that a distressed farmer had turned up with a gun and threatened to shoot the future Edward VII. Bristol Mercury, 30 January, 1884.

[17] Charles Henry Cave, A History of Banking in Bristol (Bristol, 1899) p82

[18] Murray Stewart, Village in Transition: Abbots Leigh 1911-1921 (Bristol,2015) p14. Current Ordnance Survey maps still refer to the locale as ‘Abbots Pond’.

[19] Claude Hitching, Rock Landscape: The Pulham Legacy (Woodbridge, 2012) pp. 258-9.

[20] Hitching, op.cit. p258.

[21] Jeremy Burchardt, Paradise Lost: Rural Idyll and Social Change Since 1800 (London,2002) p130.

[22] Burchardt, op.cit. p103.

[23] The Link, September, 2018.

[24] The Link, May, 2020.

[25] The Link, June, 2020.

[26] Wales Online website, 17 June, 2020.

[27] ‘Coronavirus: Secret raves in London “put lives at risk”’. BBC News website, 5 June,2020.

[28] Liverpool Echo, 20 June, 2020.

[29] BBC News website, 27 June, 2020.

[30] The Link, November, 2020.

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