In the sense that it is common land, Prees Heath has been free to be commandeered, appropriated, and 'disappeared'. What remains is to be found three miles south of Whitchurch, in North Shropshire, in the English West Midlands.
About half a mile across, east to west, it stretches 2.5 miles south from the Brown Moss turn-off along the eastern side of the A41. What sort of place it is depends on your viewpoint. Most casual observers will see no more than wasteland and farmland. Prees Heath is more than that.
The foundations of the heath were laid 16,000 years ago in sand and gravel washed out from an ice sheet, when it stopped for a while during its northward retreat. It was named from the Celtic 'Prys' for brushwood, after the scrub which grew in the scree, although it has been referred to as Whitchurch Heath for parts of its history.
The people of the Bronze Age made a burial mound there. The Romans built a road over it in 1 AD, where the A41 now runs and which presently forms the heath's western boundary. It has been used several times for assembling armies, the earliest recorded being in 1211, when King John marshalled an army to fight the rebellious Welsh.
During the English Civil War, Royalist Lord Capel, of nearby Whitchurch, set out from Prees Heath in 1642 with 4000 men, 120 wagons, three cannons, two drakes (5lb field guns), and a great mortar piece, capable of firing a 30lb shot, to storm Wem (ten miles south) on behalf of the King. He was foiled, however, by 40 soldiers and the women of Wem... or so the story goes.
In 1644, Prince Rupert mustered 14,000 men on the heath for the cause of the King.
In 1915, a training camp was set up and 30,000 men passed through, after practising trench warfare there, on their way to the World War I frontlines.
In World War II an internment camp was built, followed by an RAF airfield for bomber training.
With two main roads meeting on it (now the A41 and the A49), it was a very public place, highly visible and not too close to town. And so it was the obvious choice of location for the Whitchurch town gallows. There are records of a gallows here in 1296 and the mid-16th Century. In the second half of the 18th Century, there was a racecourse, and in the early 20th Century, a golf course. It has even had its own cricket club, with room still left on the heath for gypsies.
Those are the parts of its past which have been traced, recorded, or are still remembered. It was also, throughout all this and up until World War I, an unfenced land of grass, gorse, broom, wild flowers, sandy patches, boggy pools, scrubby trees, birds, rabbits, and butterflies.
Present Day Prees Heath
Prees Heath is a 300-acre registered common. It has an owner, but his power over it is limited by the commoners' rights to grazing, wood collection, and extraction of sand. These rights belong to some of the local people living around the heath. Commoners rights date back 1000 years to Norman times. They came in with the feudal system, when the land was owned by the Lord of the Manor but his serfs had rights to graze animals, collect wood etc, in return for their work. The rights, mainly attached to their homes and land, became recognised as law. The owner is entitled to the balance, after the commoners' rights are exercised. Part of the heath has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a designation aimed at giving legal protection (in the UK) to sites of conservation or geological interest. This places further restrictions and responsibilities on the owner's use of the land.
It survived as a heath, one of the last places in the UK where the Silver-studded Blue (Plebejus argus) could be found, right through to 1945, being restored, as promised, after World War I. The heath was not restored, however, after being commandeered in 1945: old runways and the concrete shells of airfield buildings still stand, while much of the heath has been ploughed up, having been let to tenant farmers.
There are three large Government owned grain stores there, rented by the Intervention Board1 to store grain bought to support prices.
Today, some cows are still tethered on the heath but the commoners don't exercise their grazing or other rights the way they used to. It is occasionally used by the travellers2, and there are still areas of gorse and rough grass, broom, heather, trees, and brambles. It is used for illegal rubbish tipping, grain storage, farming, releasing racing pigeons, parachute jumping, dog walking, and mountain biking. Despite this activity, it is an important habitat in the West Midlands for butterflies, in particular the Silver Studded Blue (Plebejus argus).
The heath still has the large deposit of gravel left by the glacier, which is its backbone. Without the gravel there would have been, and would be, no heathland. In recent years planning permission for the large scale extraction of gravel has been applied for, and has been refused.
The Future of the Heath?
No one worries much when wasteland is taken and 'improved', but one man's wasteland is another's wild place. Ploughing of the heath has been variously referred to as 'reclamation' of a disused airfield for farmland and as 'encroachment' of common land. For a place with such a history it seems a pity to let it all turn to farmland.
At the time that planning permission to extract gravel was sought there was a campaign to protect the heath, using the Silver Studded Blue as a focus. Enough money was raised for Butterfly Conservation to put in an offer to buy it, but the offer was refused. These funds are still held in trust.
In 1991, Eleanor Cooke wrote a poem called Who Killed Prees Heath?. The Shropshire Wildlife Trust published it as a book with extracts from her research. It was read on BBC Radio 4's Kaleidoscope programme, where it is said to have resulted in an 'unprecedented listener response'. She says in her preface that what started as a work about a place became something much bigger; that the answer to 'Who Killed Prees Heath?' is that we all have. She asks the readers to look at it...
... not just for what it is, but for what it is telling us about ourselves, and what we are allowing to happen in many areas that are threatened by less visible destruction.
She sees the neglect and disrespect of the heath as symptomatic of other breakdowns in society.
Whether or not the heath would be better as farmland, or better allowed to become wild once more, the insidious way in which the heath has evolved has left some local people with a sense of betrayal. Rights handed down over centuries have become devalued. Local people who gave to the fund raising appeal, wanting to protect the heathland, have been frustrated in their efforts.
More of the heath has been ploughed since 1991. In 2001, a bite was even taken out of the tarmac public road which crosses the heath leading up to the village of Ash!
Pit-stops for Passers-by
Just as the junction of what are now the A41 and A49 main roads through the county was an excellent place for a gallows, it is now an excellent place for servicing motorists. In a small area on the other side of the road from the heath, also known as Prees Heath, the junction has collected a petrol station large enough to have a shop and sell coffee; a Little Chef; Dinky's Dinah's Café; Midway Truckstop3; a parking lot (a convenient viewing point for the cycle trials, which often take place on the Roman-straight stretch of A41); and the Raven Hotel, a large coaching inn.