There are two commons in the Parish of Ditchling; Tenantry Down on Ditchling Beacon and Ditchling Common itself, about two miles to the north of the village. Rights of Common still apply to both areas as they have done since feudal times. Originally the Commons and the farms around them belonged to the Lord of the Manor, the Marquis of Abergavenny. His tenant farmers, (the Commoners) had rights of grazing and, in some cases, the right to cut bracken, shoot and fish, called Estovers. Lists of Commoners, their land and their grazing rights exist dating back to 1794. Their rights were attached to the land they were farming rather than to the Common itself.
The total area of land to which the rights were attached was divided into 61 units, called yards, each yardholder having the right to graze either one horse or two bullocks on Ditchling Common and four sheep on Tenantry Down, such rights being known as “leazes”.
The public too have rights over the Common. The registration of the Commons under the Law of Property Act 1925, giving rights of “air and exercise” to the public, recognised in law what had been taken for granted for centuries. The right to “air and exercise” anywhere on the Common now officially applies to both pedestrians and horse-riders.
In 1950 the Marquis of Abergavenny agreed to sell the freehold of the two Commons to the people who were Commoners at that time and they set up a company, Ditchling Common and Tenantry Down Ltd to make the purchase. 146 shares (valued at £1.00 each) were issued and divided between the Commoners in proportion to the number of grazing rights they held. The Company still exists to hold the land in trust for the benefit of today’s Commoners.
The next significant date in the recent history of our Commons was 1965 when the Commons Registration Act 1965 came into force. Its aim was to create a much-needed up-to-date register of all Commons and common rights. It required all Commoners to register their existing rights before a certain date after which, if they had not done so, the rights would be extinguished. While a significant number of Ditchling Commoners did so, several did not and consequently their rights were extinguished.
In 1970 the roles of ownership and management were separated and Ditchling Commoners’ Association was formed to manage both Commons on behalf of the owners, Ditchling Common & Tenantry Down Ltd. Membership of the Association was and is open to all who hold Rights of Common.
The 1970s brought further changes when the northern part of Ditchling Common was acquired by East Sussex County Council by compulsory purchase to establish a Country Park with the result that all rights of Common on that area were extinguished. In 1977 the southern part of Tenantry Down which lay along the west side of the road leading from the Beacon to Brighton (which since the war had been heavily cultivated) was also sold and de-registered as Common Land.
Most recently, the Commons Act 2006 is attempting to put right certain anomalies of the 1965 Act, in particular prohibiting commoners to sell, lease or let their rights away from the property to which the rights are attached, with effect from 28 June 2005. In addition, DEFRA are working to make the legislation relevant to commoners of today, most of whom are no longer working farmers.
The Commoners of today are the current owners of the parcels of land whose grazing rights were registered under the 1965 Act. A register of today’s Commoners is held by East Sussex County Council and by the Secretary of Ditchling Commoners’ Association and, where possible, is kept up to date when land to which grazing rights are attached changes hands. However, because the rights are not registered at the Land Registry, it has always been difficult to keep an accurate record of ownership. An additional problem has arisen when farms have been sold and divided up to build new houses and therefore the rights need to be distributed between multiple owners. As a result, both grazing rights and company shares have not always been transferred to the new owners and much work remains to be done to correct this and bring our records up to date.
Very few present-day Commoners have any use for their grazing rights, so for a number of years, the rights have been pooled and let to those who can make use of them. The small rental income is used to manage the affairs of the Company and the Association.
Tenantry Down, the area on the northern slope of the Beacon, remains as common land and is currently let to the Sussex Wildlife Trust for a peppercorn rent. Each year they try to graze parts of the Down to keep undergrowth in check and preserve the area’s unique flora.
The area east of Common Lane and south of Folders Lane East on either side of the railway line remains in the ownership of Ditchling Common and Tenantry Down Ltd and is let to a local farmer who is one of the Commoners. The smaller areas to the west of Common Lane and south of Folders Lane West are also owned by the company.
Traditionally commons are unfenced areas and permission has to be obtained from central government (currently DEFRA) if any sort of barrier is to be erected. Over the years, permission has been granted for parts of the Commons to be fenced in order to protect livestock from the ever-increasing traffic. Other parts of the Common remain unfenced and are therefore vulnerable to incursions by groups of travellers. In recent years this has been an enormous problem at Bulls Brow and the Directors of Ditchling Common & Tenantry Down Ltd have obtained permission from DEFRA to build a ditch and bank around the area and install metal barriers.
Ditchling’s two Commons are valuable resources and the current Commoners are anxious to do what they can to protect them. In the past year the Commoners’ Association have changed their constitution so that those who live next to one of the commons or who have a right of way across them can take up Associate Membership if they wish. The purpose of this change is to involve more people, particularly those who have an immediate interest in what is happening to the commons, in the decision making process.
Secretary of Ditchling Common & Tenantry Down Ltd and Ditchling Commoners’ Association.