Torrington is surrounded on three sides by 365 acres (146 hectares) of common land. The area is freely accessible to all and visitors can walk the 20 miles of footpaths which include the golf course, ancient wood and flower meadows, steep bracken and gorse covered slopes, and sheltered river valleys.
In about 1194, during the reign of Richard I, ‘a large waste called the common’ was given to the people of Torrington by the lord of the manor, William FitzRobert. In 1889 the rights of this land were transferred, by an act of parliament, to an elected Committee of Conservators which now administers the commons. The earliest management was mainly concerned with control over the grazing and quarrying but since 1981 grazing has stopped and various management techniques have taken its place to prevent the area reverting back to scrub and woodland.
One of the first bills to be issued in 1889 prohibited the burning of furze or gorse on the commons, known as ‘swayling’, but this activity continued judging by the number of fines listed in the Conservators’ minutes for this misdemeanour. Swayling was part of the year’s cycle for grazing land. Women would go out and collect ‘fuzz-stubs’ for faggots and kindling and then the land would be burnt. The alternative was clearing by hand. Before the Second World War one official swayling went disastrously wrong. The wind changed and four thatched cottages in Mill Street backing on to the commons were completely gutted.
There were far fewer trees on the commons in the 19th and early 20th centuries because of animal grazing. There were donkeys and goats, and sheep were run on the commons until 1981. Dr O’Flaherty’s goat ran loose near seats on Castle Hill and the boys of the town enjoyed baiting the billy goat. There was a duck pond on Mill Street common and geese and hens were everywhere. There used to be hunting around Furzebeam and meets at the Old Bowling Green in the 1960s as well as informal shooting and rabbiting.
Various sports have taken place on the Old Bowling Green in the past – football, hockey, shinty, golf, bowls, and the Coronation Sports of 1902 – and the area is now the setting for the Cavaliers’ bonfires which take place every five years or so.
Past generations have happy memories of playing on the commons with their friends, making dens in the bracken and under shrubs, playing football, hide-and-seek and ‘tin can’ (throwing a ball at each others’ legs). They would swim in the river and go fishing, catching eels and having mud ball fights, or ride down ‘Sliding Rock’ on Castle Hill on tin trays.
There is a wide variety of flora and fauna to be seen on the commons and lists of these, together with suggested walks, can be found in pamphlets available at Torrington Information Centre.