August 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

Up to Loxley Common yesterday with my son for a bit of bike scrambling.  There’s a sign at the entrance to the Common announcing a proposal to graze highland cattle there to try to preserve the lowland heath from woodland encroachment.

Pushing up through the bracken, rain gathering, I began musing on the kind of place this had been in previous centuries.  Given that grazing would have been commonplace, would the cattle have wandered between stands of trees; or was the scarp a raw, open heath?  Certainly, a report of the death of John Oxley, renegade accomplice of Spence Broughton, in 1793, suggests the latter:

On Friday last was found dead, of hunger and cold, in a barn on Loxley Moor above Sheffield a man… Turnips partly eaten were found in his pockets and about the place where he lay.

– Newark Herald, Jan 30, 1793, cited in Bentley, The Sheffield Hanged (2002)

The place had also been the site of a gibbet, erected for the body of a Bradfield man, Frank Fearne, who had been hanged at York 10 years before Broughton and whose skeleton still remained in the gibbet at the time Oxley sought refuge there.

So far, so Gothic; and there is lots of other detail, from Mary Queen of Scots to a house built into a cave, to encourage Romantic considerations of the Commons of Loxley and Wadsley.  Oh, and of course, there’s Robin…

Actually, the land was gifted to the people of Sheffield in 1913.  For almost 200 hundred years before that, it was privately owned.  Trees grown there were an important local resource – but landowners, whether through the Enclosure Acts or the indentured labour they employed, were the main beneficiaries of the Commons.  The two men who ended up there, vicious as they were, were products of a system which privileged very few.

So what of the cattle on the heath?  Well, their introduction appears ecologically sound and, in my view, would be a good thing; but Sheffield City Council have also made good use of our associations with the past to present a little bit of a vision.  Doing their bit for (Danny Boyle’s) Britain.


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