Friday, 7 November 2014

Hungerford Arcade: General Dwight D Eisenhower on Hungerford Common - A Remarkable History

Our great author, Stuart Miller-Osborne has written a wonderful article about Hungerford Common - the history of which is fascinating.  The Common is a very beautiful place and Stuart has captured everything we all love about it.  It is one I shall read over and over again.  I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did.

Although it cannot be seen from the High Street in Hungerford, the presence of the common can be felt by all. It is indeed the lung of Hungerford.

Whilst we are surrounded on all sides by the most glorious countryside, Hungerford Common has a special place in the hearts of all who live in the town. 

We however do tend to take this vast area for granted somewhat and would miss it greatly if it was buried under yet another housing development. This will not happen due to its unique part in the history of the town. 

If you are a visitor to Hungerford then you can find the common very easily. Just drive or walk up Park Street (which is almost opposite Hungerford Arcade).

Hungerford Common is only a couple of minutes away. If you do walk please be careful as Park Street is a little narrow in places and does not have a pavement for its full duration. 

The first thing you will notice when you find the common is how vast it is. It has been measured at some two hundred and twenty acres. There is an inn called The Downgate immediately to your right (which is highly recommended) and to your left, stunning views over the railway, canal and the water meadows. The road in front of you rises slightly and is pleasantly bordered by an avenue of trees.

The other thing you will notice are the cows which appear to be everywhere. The area is used by our bovine friends (usually yearlings) between April and late October each year. There are usually around one hundred and fifty of them and road signs warn motorist of their presence. In my experience the creatures are quite docile but with all large animals common sense is an advantage. 

One other thing to look out for are the gifts left in the grass which if you are not very careful can suddenly spring up and cover your shoe without warning.
The full name of the common is Hungerford Common Port Down. The latter part of the name coming from the French (porte) which means door or gate (i.e the gated down).

My researches indicate the first mention of Hungerford Common was in about 1513 when a survey noted that there was a common of some fifty acres next to the town.

A later survey (1543) noted that the common had now grown to some sixty acres and trees had been grown to supply timber to the town. Within thirty years the common had acquired other adjacent lands and was of some one hundred and forty acres.

It appears that extra acreage was added during the next two hundred years although this was interrupted by the building of the Kennet and Avon Canal in the late eighteenth century. The Great Western Railway also cut through the common during the mid nineteenth century.

One would have thought that the addition of these man made methods of transportation would have scarred the common but today it is exactly the opposite. You hardly know that they are there. The canal is obviously silent and the odd train does little to break the mood of the common. 

Opposite the inn there are a couple of benches. It is very relaxing to sit there with your favourite ale and just share the common with your senses. 

Almost in the middle of your view there appears to be a long bank and ditch which is quite overgrown by trees and shrubs. This is believed to be the remains of the Old and Great Market Road which ran between Newbury and Hungerford.
Another thing you will notice is what appears to be terracing. This is said to date from medieval times and is quite pronounced as are the various gravel and chalk pits which dot the common. Like a large number of areas in neighbouring Wiltshire the common is quite mysterious where you can only just guess about its history.

Above the Downgate looking south towards Inkpen there are traces of a Prehistoric or Roman system of fields (The English Heritage website has more information about this).

If you visit this area of the common you also have good views of the distant downs (again well worth a visit). Exit the common via the Inkpen gate and head in the general direction of the downs (about five miles away) there I promise you that you are in for a treat. 

What does strike one when walking on the common is how quiet it is even on the busiest of days. Apart from the cows and the people walking their dogs and the odd picnicking family not much else really happens. 

Well if I told you that the most famous general of World War Two had visited the common during the conflict and that a local aviator requested that a small airport be built on the common in the 1920s then you might think me quite mad.

You would be on the point of locking me up if I further informed you that once there was five hole golf course on the common and that bare-knuckle fights has also taken place within its boundaries during the nineteenth century.

But this all true and the Downgate ale would have been very popular with the crowds that attended the first bare-knuckle fight in 1821 if the inn had existed then.

Records show that The Downgate began life in the early 1840s and had previously been known as The Royal Exchange and The Spotted Cow before adopting its present name in the 1980s. 

The fight which took place on the 11th of December 1821 was between a Tom Hickman and a Bill Neat and attracted an incredible twenty-two thousand people to the common. It was bloody affair which lasted eighteen rounds before Hickman was punched senseless and the fight was stopped.

The boxing match resembled the early rules of football (namely there were not any rules) with a variety of wrestling, butting and hair pulling being part of the contest.

Contemporary reports say that some £200,000 was wagered on the outcome and that carrier pigeons were dispatched to Bristol (where Neat had originated from) to report on his victory.

Another interesting fact was that the writer William Hazlitt (1778-1830) also attended the fight and recorded the event for posterity (you can find this report on the internet). 

Six years later another bare-knuckle fight took place in April 1827. It was originally scheduled to take place in Marlborough but this was stopped by the authorities so was moved to Hungerford Common.

The fight was between a Mr Marten and Mr Gybletts was obviously illegal (as I suppose the 1821 fight was) and was stopped by the arrival of four constables after three rounds (again a good account of the fight can be found on the internet). 

It appears that the common was also used for army manoeuvres in 1872 and saw use in the First World War with some eight thousand men camping there with a further two thousand billeted in the town. 

In August 1944 General Dwight D Eisenhower (1890-1969) visited Hungerford to inspect some eighteen thousand men. This was part of a great build-up of American troops around Hungerford at the time. An extract from the diary of a certain Barney Welton I think illustrates the flavour of the day.

"We arose at 5:30am, August 10th, dressed in pinks and drove to Hungerford Park. There was a parade of 18,000 soldiers of Troop Carrier Command and 101st Airborne Division. General Eisenhower himself presented many with decorations and then made a short speech. He promised us big doings soon here and in the south Pacific and announced the formation of the 1st Airborne Command made up of us in Troop Carrier,  the 101st Airborne Division, 82nd Airborne Division and 6th British Airborne, under the command of General Brereton". 
There is a photograph of General Eisenhower pinning the Distinguished Service Cross onto the uniform of Ist Lieutenant Walter G Amerman for bravery during action in Northern France which I find a little haunting. We all know that Eisenhower went on to become the thirty-forth president of the United States but I wonder what became of Ist Lieutenant Amerman. Did he survive the war and if so is he still alive somewhere in America?

It is said that time changes people but does not change anything else. Well I think that is partially true as Hungerford Common in the background of the photograph looks very much as it did on Sunday when I last visited the area.

In the last few paragraphs I have concentrated on rather violent (or soon to be violent activities) however the common has been used for much more peaceful endeavours.

Did you know that airplanes used to land on the common which gave rise to Mr Cobham’s request for a small airport (it worries me to think what the common would be like today if that scheme had been given the go ahead). Again, there are some excellent photographs on the internet recording these flying machines. 

Hungerford Common also hosted a steam fair in June 1970 which raised funds for the Town Hall and Corn Exchange which were in need of repair. The event was an outstanding success with some twenty thousand people attending which was nearly as many as the number attending the initial bare knuckle fight in 1821.

Attractions ranged from a narrow gauge railway to a free-fall parachute display. I would imagine that there are a great number of people in the town who can still remember this event.

My favourite secret of the common is the five hole golf course which if you are eagle eyed can just be made out today. The facility was built in 1903 and was on the land nearest the railway line (quite what the cows made of it all is not recorded).

The actual golf club existed between 1903 and 1925 and was briefly revived in 1929 before finally closing in 1931.

The golf course is another of the many ghosts of Hungerford Common which a visitor might encounter when visiting. I am lucky as I currently live within ten minutes’ walk of the common and frequently visit it with my wife whether it is to sit down and write or just to take in the silence of the area.

Hungerford Common is different things to different people. One of my favourite activities is to pick up the small pieces of marble that can be found on the rough track that leads to the stone masons just to the right of The Downgate. When I have a spare moment I try to carve them (at present unsuccessfully) into small chess pieces.

You might well find if you look hard enough, references to Hungerford Common in Hungerford Arcade or other shops in the town. Medals have been struck and presented on the common. Books have been written and I would imagine many thousands of photographs have been taken there by casual visitors. 

Anybody passing through Hungerford by train cannot miss the common it almost jumps out at them as they either leave the station or pass under the bridge where the World War Two anti-invasion defences are located.  

Whatever the month it is a sea of green that rolls gently towards you (usually dotted by cows) gently losing itself in the water meadows that hasten the view to the north.

The next time you are in Hungerford do take time out to visit Hungerford Common it is an experience that you will not regret. 

As I have noted previously there are a couple of excellent websites dealing with Hungerford Common one being the Hungerford Virtual Museum website the other being the English Heritage website. Both have lots of information about Hungerford Common and the surrounding areas and like Hungerford and its common, are well worth a visit.  
Stuart Miller-Osborne

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