Walking through the woods in Highfield Country Park and Reddish Vale, I’ve been struck by how this edgeland, at the margins between city and country, has become real shared space. People walking dogs, families looking at nature, musicians playing in the open air… they are exercising their rights to the common land, in areas that were once industrial and have now been reclaimed by nature.
Hidden in clearings, camouflaged by the trees, are shelters and the remains of campfires, the embers sometimes still hot, with benches and seats circling around them. The combination of schools being closed and the beautiful weather has led to children and their parents (and possibly adults?) actively playing, building huts and enclosures. Some of them are quite ambitious, with sticks woven into roofs, but more often they are sticks leaning against trees forming a sort of wigwam. What they all show is that, given the opportunity, people like to play outside. Last year the local history group was visited by two groups from Green End School and we talked about how playing has changed between the generations. There were obviously differences – children now have games consoles and TVs – but assumptions about children not playing outside were partly wrong; most still enjoyed the open air.
The hunter gatherers who lived in the region during the Mesolithic, 10,000 years ago just after the last Ice Age, would almost certainly recognise the shelters built in Highfield and Reddish Vale. They were not settled in one place, but moved in small collective tribal groups, taking regular routes and returning to the same places in different seasons. A hazel nut tree I spotted in Highfield would have been an autumn attraction, and they would probably gathered blackberries at the same time, much like people today. The animals from the period haven’t survived, but they would have hunted deer, wild pigs and aurochs (wild cattle), while hoping to avoid wolves and bears! The shelters that these Mesolithic people built would have been simple, temporary and rapidly built, using the materials around them. They would have sat around outdoor fires, sharing their experiences and making tools. In some parts of the country archaeologists have found the remains of fires from this period, with the debris of stone tool making still on the ground, behind where they sat in a circle.
Another shelter I found in Reddish Vale is more like a shrine. Made from woven wood, the branches are festooned with messages of hope, ribbons, toys. It reminded me of a tree I saw at a Hindu temple in Sri Lanka a couple of years ago, weighed down with small wooden cots and ribbons, given by people hoping to be blessed with fertility by the gods. It is also very similar to shrines in Catholic countries. At some point these may be of interest to future historians, but for now they show a simpler ways of doing things, and people playing and working together, sharing our common land.