Common Ground was established as an arts and environmental charity in May 1983 in a small office of the London Ecology Centre on Shelton Street in Covent Garden. The stated mission of the charity was to work closely with artists, authors, and music makers to inspire and embolden people across the country to speak up for their local environment in the most imaginative ways. Common Ground was founded at this time by three members of Friends of the Earth UK after a period of upheaval and change in the landscape of British environmentalism that had taken place at the end of the 1970s. Friends of the Earth itself had begun work in the UK nearby on King Street a few years earlier in 1971. They had soon made a name for themselves with the now famous ‘bottle drop’ when, after months of appealing to the drinks manufacturer Schweppes to change its policy on recycling, in a carefully engineered publicity stunt, 1,500 of their non-recyclable bottles were ‘returned’ to the front steps of its head office in London. Friends of the Earth had brought a new, energetic, and media-savvy breed of environmentalism to Britain at a time when it was much needed. They used street protest, publicity stunts, and pithy, attention-grabbing posters. They caught the public eye with ambitious campaigns such as the now iconic ‘Save the Whale’ campaign, and later with the battle against multinational corporation Rio Tinto Zinc over mining rights in Snowdonia National Park.

Active on many of these initiatives, and imbued with the movement’s spirit of urgent activism, were Angela King, Sue Clifford, and Roger Deakin. Angela King had served as Friends of the Earth’s Wildlife Campaigner since 1971 and had in fact led the ‘Save the Whale’ campaign. She had fought to challenge the use of furs in fashion and she had helped to bring about the British ban on otter hunting in 1978. Sue Clifford had served on Friends of the Earth’s board between 1974-81 while she had been a lecturer in rural and natural resources planning, first at the Polytechnic of Central London and then at University College London. Roger Deakin had worked as a creative consultant for Friends of the Earth while employed as an advertising copywriter in London and had helped to organise a number of fundraising concerts and events for the group. However, these three had begun to feel concerned about the increasingly professional and scientific turn that the environmental movement was taking by the end of the 1970s.

After a decade of quite direct and radical action, Friends of the Earth was changing tack and beginning to meet the government on its own terms, complying with institutional protocol, and producing scientific reports on such subjects as rare and endangered species, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and National Parks. Many felt at that time that not only might real change come through capitulating to due process, but that it might not be possible without it. However, King, Clifford, and Deakin were concerned that this professionalization was discouraging public participation and was already beginning to leave a large blind spot over those more ordinary and everyday landscapes that did not show up as endangered on national surveys or that were outside the remits of scientifically designated areas. A primrose bank here, a millpond there; an orchard or a bluebell wood; a network of hedges full of familiar birds and mammals, all of which give a place a character and a feeling that is often difficult to express, but that means so much to us: such ubiquitous richness was being left exposed by the movement’s focus on the rare and exceptional. And what was worse, this was happening at a time when towns were expanding, road building was reaching an all new high, and a forceful breed of large-scale agribusiness was pushing an agenda of ‘productivity and efficiency’, characteristics of what Howard Newby was calling the ‘second agricultural revolution’.

Over the years, Common Ground’s board of directors have included Richard Mabey, Robert Hutchinson, Barbara Bender, Robin Grove-White, Frazer Harrison and Rupert Nabarro but it was King, Clifford and Deakin who, in 1983, began the charity to address these pressing concerns. The name carried a nod to Richard Mabey’s influential book of the time, The Common Ground (1980). It offered a reminder that environmentalism is a concern common to all of us, not just the professionals, and that it might be about the ordinary and the close-to-home as much as about the rare and exceptional. In their first publication, Clifford and King claimed two key objectives for the charity:

To promote the importance of common plants and animals, familiar and local places, local distinctiveness and our links with the past; and to explore the emotional value these things have for us by forging practical and philosophical links between the arts and the conservation of nature and landscapes.

Second Nature (1984), the first book that Common Ground published, and from which this is taken, was an anthology of essays, poetry, and artwork that explored just such an alliance between the conservation movement and the arts. The written contributions from authors such as John Fowles, Raymond Williams, Fay Weldon, and Colin Ward were edited by Richard Mabey while visual arts contributions from such artists as Richard Long, David Nash, Henry Moore, and David Hockney were edited by Clifford and King themselves. The book was launched with three packed events at the ICA where the contributors and other visiting speakers publically debated some of the big questions of the day around nature, landscape, and conservation.

The launch of Second Nature helped the charity to set out with a fresh approach to the environment. From the start it was grounded in landscape history, it was alert to the political and intellectual context of contemporary debates, it was informed by the traditions of conservation and environmental activism, and it was dynamically alive to the creative possibilities that working with the arts had opened up. Two initiatives emerged in the immediate aftermath that typified the breadth of approach they would take over the next thirty years. Common Ground (working closely with Artangel) helped to invite a very young Andy Goldsworthy to take up a six-week residency on Hampstead Heath over the winter of 1985-6, at the same time as launching the first exhibition of his work in London, in the gallery below their office on Shelton Street. At the same time, they published Holding Your Ground (1985), an ‘action guide to local conservation’, full of useful tips and information for community’s to get to work. The book brought together new and surprisingly dynamic ideas for celebrating what people most valued about their place with living examples of the kinds of little victories people were already winning across the country.

This combination of practical know-how and artistic inspiration paved the way for the initiatives they have become so well known for today. Soon after this began the ‘New Milestones Project’. This stemmed from the idea that public works of art, with which real people have been involved, might add a meaningful layer of heritage to a given place; that just as conservation might be about protecting what we have, it might also be about celebrating, and building on that as well. Each generation leaves a mark on the land so why not make it a heartfelt mark? The project helped communities to commission new works of sculpture for their local landscape as a way ‘to crystallise feelings about their place in a public and permanent way’ (Clifford and King). Work began on the project in around 1985 and took several years to build towards fruition from 1988 onwards. Though Common Ground was based in London during this period, Joanna Morland was appointed as project officer based in Dorchester between 1986 and 1988, during which time Dorset was the focus of the New Milestones ‘Pilot Project’ (with the intention that similar work could be extended nationally). Local communities keen to commission new sculptures were given an index of artists containing their portfolios and initially five new sculptures were commissioned by local communities and landowners. These sculptures were by Christine Angus (‘Turning Point’ at Godmanstone), Andy Goldsworthy (the Hooke Park gate), John Maine (‘Chiswell Earthworks’ on Portland), Peter Randall Page (‘Wayside Carvings’, near Lulworth Cove) and Simon Thomas (‘Grains of Wheat’ on the Weld Estate). Two more were commissioned later in Cleveland, one by Alain Ayers (‘Masham Leaves’) and the other by Richard Farrington (‘Huntcliff’, after a residency at the Skinningrove Steel Mill) and one more in Somerset by Michael Fairfax (‘Riverside Sculptures’ at Waterrow). A conference and exhibition were held at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester between 16 July and 3 September 1988 where people from across the country discussed the role and potential of public art for generating conservation and heritage activities. Also in 1988 a book was published about the sculptures of the Dorset ‘Pilot Project’ by Joanna Morland with an introduction by Sue Clifford and Angela King. Even today it sets the bar high for the relationships between artists and the people for whom the art was created.

Towards the end of their early publication Holding Your Ground, Clifford and King had suggested an unusual idea among their practical tips for local conservation. In a chapter offering advice to communities on gathering and presenting research about a place (including historical and archival research, field study, oral history, wildlife surveys, photography etc.), they had proposed the idea of making a ‘parish map’ with information on natural and man-made things of importance in the locality that might then be fixed somewhere in a prominent place for the reference of everyone who lived there. As it happened, this was the kernel of the ‘Parish Maps Project’ which would go on to be perhaps their most memorable and popular project. Work was begun to develop the idea soon after the publication of Holding Your Ground in 1985 and it continues to inspire communities throughout Britain today, in fact across the world as well, to create their own maps of their local environment with the most extraordinary and diverse results.

Initially, Common Ground selected eighteen well known artists to create maps of their home parishes for an exhibition beginning in March 1987 – Knowing Your Place – that toured to twelve different locations nationally. These artists included Norman Ackroyd, Conrad Atkinson, Adrian Berg, Helen Chadwick, Hannah Collins, Garry Fabian-Miller, Stephen Farthing, Tony Foster, Anthony Gormley, Pat Johns, Balraj Khanna, Simon Lewty, Ian Macdonald, David Nash, Roger Palmer, Judith Rugg, Len Tabner, and Stephen Willats. But these were certainly not maps as we might recognise them today. These artists had been chosen for the unusual and imaginative approaches they took with maps made of collage, photographs, words, and sculpture, and with maps that were beautiful, personal, self-reflexive, and even at times quite critical. They encouraged people to be playful, witty, passionate, thoughtful, protective; in all manner of ways to think beyond the bounds of the scientific and spatial survey that we would ordinarily associate with a map.

Inspired by this very popular touring exhibition, people across the country began to form groups and create their own parish maps. The exhibition also saw the publication of the two booklets – Parish Maps and The Parish Boundary – which served as guides for local groups. By 1996 there were several thousand maps created by communities across the country with more appearing every week, so Common Ground set about organising a large London exhibition of community-made parish maps at the Barbican. During this exhibition there was also a conference which led to the publication of a collection of essays – from place to PLACE (1996) – featuring new work by Roger Deakin, Robin Grove-White, Simon Lewty, Tim Robinson, some of the mapping groups themselves, and many others. Maps from this exhibition have toured to various regional and local venues and have inspired many more communities to form new groups of their own. The idea caught hold with such popularity that nobody knows now just how many parish maps there are out there, just that it is a growing number. A recent exhibition at the University of Exeter showed how the parish maps idea has spread around the world, for the first time gathering together and exhibiting UK parish maps with examples from Italy, the United States, Latvia, and India, all inspired by Common Ground’s work.

At the same time as The Parish Maps Project was capturing the public imagination, a new initiative was begun to raise awareness of one our closest and most under-appreciated neighbours. ‘Trees, Woods, and the Green Man’ set out to remind people of the rich and distinctive cultural relationship we have shared with trees and promoted ways in which we might improve that relationship. This project ran between 1986 and 1993 and generated perhaps the largest amount of events and publications. There were a number of major exhibitions, several new books, and a host of pamphlets, posters, newspapers, and postcards; there were residencies, talks, film screenings, and new theatre, all of which won great popular acclaim in the media. ‘The Tree of Life’ was an exhibition of painting, photography, and sculpture that explored the tree as an archetypal symbol for different cultures all around the world at the Royal Festival Hall (24 July – 28 Aug 1989). ‘Out of the Wood’ was an exhibition that ran later that same year (14 Oct – 12 Nov 1989) exploring the significance of wood as a material and medium for contemporary practitioners in the crafts at the Crafts Council Gallery in London. ‘Orchards’ was an exhibition of photographs by James Ravilious touring venues across the South West in 1989 and showing vividly the rich cultural and natural heritage of apples and orchards across the region. Garry Miller’s ‘After the Storm’ offered visitors to the Natural History Museum an opportunity to reflect on the damage caused by the hurricane of 1987 through an exhibition of his photography and a series of guided walks. ‘Leaves’ was another exhibition at the Natural History Museum by Andy Goldsworthy (27 Sep 1989 – 14 Jan 1990) in which the artist created a number of large cones, boxes, and striking shapes from sweet chestnut leaves, sycamore leaves, and London plane leaves.

A host of other events saw an installation at Euston railway station, new woodland seats designed by artists in collaboration with the Woodland Trust, forest residencies for artists Michael Fairfax and Jim Partridge, several children’s theatre and storytelling events, a series of lunchtime lectures and film screenings at the Tate Gallery (‘Trees at the Tate’), and even a new broadsheet newspaper made of recycled paper that served as the catalogue for the exhibition at the Crafts Council, PULP! The catalogue for the ‘Tree of Life’ exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall also offered original essays about the history of the tree from the very different perspectives of Marina Warner and Oliver Rackham. Sue Clifford and Angela King edited a new anthology of poetry about trees (Trees Be Company. Totnes: Green Books, 1989) with an introduction by John Fowles and Neil Sinden published a ‘manifesto’ and handbook for the conservation of trees (In a Nutshell. London: Common Ground, 1990) with an introduction by Richard Mabey and illustrated by David Nash).

The project also started the annual December celebration ‘Tree Dressing Day’ in 1990 after an event in Shaftesbury Avenue under the banner of ‘Every Tree Counts’ when large reflective numbers were hung in the plane trees along the busy London street. There was an annual newspaper Tree Dressing Day Times that published information about all the other Tree Dressing Day events across the country and helped to inspire more and more events in subsequent years. In 1989 ‘Trees, Woods and the Green Man’ won the Prudential Award for Excellence in the Visual Arts, a prize of £25,000, which went towards the creation of a new sculptural work by Peter Randall Page and a photographic record of this work by Chris Chapman in the book Granite Song (with essays by Sue Clifford and Angela King, Marina Warner, Jane Hayter-Hames and Eric Robinson. This was published in 1999 by Devon Books in association with Common Ground).

In 1990, Richard Mabey, then on the board of directors of Common Ground, was able to find funding for a project that had long been at the back of his mind. ‘Flora Britannica’ is today a very well-known encyclopaedia of British flowers, trees, and plants that collects their historic and contemporary popular associations and uses in such a way as had never really been done before. But the book was a part of a wider project that was run, not out of Common Ground’s own offices, but in Northampton between 1990 and 1996 by Mabey himself, Dan Keech, and John Newton. The major published output of the project was, of course, the 1996 encyclopaedia but also a smaller booklet in 1995 called Local Flora and a regular newsletter on the subject for the great many people interested its development. It was a highly original project that involved an extraordinary level of public input. People wrote in to the office responding to magazine, newspaper, radio, and television coverage with their stories and memories of particular plants from all manner of locations. As a wider project it also helped to enable communities to take an active interest in the living landscape around them with initiatives  such as ‘Tree Tales’ which set out to map and name the much-loved trees of a given area and even to record locally distinctive stories about them.

While the phrase ‘local distinctiveness’ (and its ethos) were there right at the beginning in all of Common Ground’s first publications, and while it can be seen to run through all of their projects, it wasn’t until a little later that work began on the ‘Campaign for Local Distinctiveness’ itself. From around 1990 Clifford and King began ‘An Exploratory Alphabet of Local Distinctiveness’, a playful poster-sized list of foods, crafts, wildlife, architecture, produce, and seasonal celebrations for every letter of the alphabet. This grew into the poster ‘Rules for Local Distinctiveness’ which was printed in The Independent on May 1 1992 and received quite an excited response. In 1993, there was a conference and the publication of a booklet Local Distinctiveness: Place, Particularity and Identity, edited by Clifford and King and with contributions from Roger Deakin, Patrick Wright, and Neal Ascherson, among others and soon communities were making their own alphabets of local distinctiveness for their own parish or borough. As ever, an imaginative and inviting idea inspired people to try their own version and take things in their own direction. The ‘Campaign for Local Distinctiveness’ overlapped with the related ‘Gardening and Local Distinctiveness’ which, between 1992 and 1997 set out to promote a style of gardening that was sensitive to the distinctive qualities of the given place (soil type, native species, local architecture, history and so on). It worked closely with gardening organisations and magazines to promote this ethos and in 1995 Clifford and King published a booklet called The Art of Gentle Gardening.

The mid 1990s would see Common Ground turn their attention to perhaps the most ubiquitous English landscape form of all. ‘Field Days’ was a project concerned with the conservation and celebration of fields, not only as valuable ecological environments but as distinctive cultural and historical forms. The project came to head with an exhibition of multi-disciplinary research in a marquee at the Royal Agricultural Show in 1996. Two booklets written by Clifford and King were published in 1997 – A Manifesto for Fields and Field Days: Ideas for Investigations and Celebration. The large-scale changes in the landscape as a result of British postwar agriculture policy had meant that vast numbers of hedges and stone walls had gone to make way for much larger fields that were farmed more intensively. Where once all fields had names, increasingly only the numbers of fields were being recorded in official records, meaning that a whole body of cultural history was being pushed nearer the edge of memory. As a project ‘Field Days’ worked with theatre groups, poets, photographers, and many local communities to explore ways of engaging with the diverse kinds of stories that fields might tell. Ivan Cutting of Eastern Angles Theatre Company wrote a new touring play called Fields and Blue Nose Poets and Common Ground launched a poetry competition on the subject which was won by David Hart. Clifford and King also edited a new anthology of poetry called Field Days with an introduction by Adam Nicholson (Totnes: Green Books, 1998).

In 2012, the Common Ground board of trustees began looking for a new director, as Sue Clifford and Angela King had expressed their wish to step down after 30 years of running the charity. The trustee and author Richard Mabey suggested Adrian Cooper, a Dorset-based writer and publisher, and after several meetings with Sue, Angela and the trustees, the board agreed to appoint Adrian as the executive director to help steer the transition of Common Ground once Sue and Angela had retired – this involved moving the administrative archive to Exeter University, while the offices and art archive were to be settled in West Dorset. During this time, all new projects were slowed and major fundraising ceased to allow time for the shift of location and directorship, but by 2015 Common Ground had began a series of new projects under Adrian’s directorship, all of which work both locally and nationally to build new relationships with a younger generation, and continue to explore and celebrate human attachment to places through the arts.

Projects like Seasonal Schools, Arboreal, Trees and Woods Almanac, Exeter Tree Tales and LEAF! have deep roots in Common Ground’s past project, philosophically and aesthetically, but have invited a new generation of artists, writers, storytellers, ecologists, architects and etc. to continue the essential conversations Sue and Angela began over 30 years ago. To mark this revival of Common Ground, a new book will be published in 2018 by Jonathan Cape. Edited by Tim Dee, Ground Work will aim to raise big questions of the day around nature, landscape and conservation, providing,like Second Nature did in 1980, not only a ‘major statement about the land’ but also new thinking to inspire and form Common Ground’s work in years to come.

Written by Jos Smith, 2016.

JOS SMITH is currently a British Academy post-doctoral research fellow exploring the history Common Ground and its literary and visual arts communities connected. He is co-director of Exeter’s Centre for Literatures of Identity, Place and Sustainability and an active member of the Atlantic Archipelagos Research Project.