Bill Rowland interview: The Common today

Can you tell us how the Common has changed in your 30 years of working here?

A perfect example is cycling. The bye-laws always stated 30 years ago that you couldn’t cycle on the Common. But since then we have opened cycle tracks but because cycling has become so popular now and it is still a bye-law offence unless you ride on a cycle track that we spend most of our time just catching cyclists. Barbecues, of course, on sunny days and also dog problems. That seems to have escalated, especially with these professional dog walkers, it has become very popular with that. We have to keep a check on them. Mainly dog fights and people arguing with each other. Golfers. That’s got more popular and there are quite strict rules on how they dress and how they treat the public on the Common. Mainly our job now is sorting out domestic disputes between Commons users.

How many rangers are on duty at any given time?

We have altogether seven uniformed rangers, inclusive of me. We never drop below three. We have four horses, mainly as four keepers on a day. During the summer months we have one chap who starts at 12.30 and works until 10. Otherwise the guys are all staggered during the day. One keeper is definitely at each end of the Common, northern and southern ends, and if we have enough men we also have a man now who drives around in a vehicle. Years ago we never had a vehicle. We always had to cycle around or walk but now we are very mobile.

Can you tell us something about how decisions are made on which trees to cut down, how grass is mown and general maintenance of the Common?

The Chief Executive of the Commons makes the decision and the manager of the maintenance team but it’s very hard to keep a balance here, especially with cutting in the spring. Most people like to see the wild flowers and long grass and would rather it be kept long and natural. We had a chap a few years ago who kept it very manicured. But now in 2014 we tend to leave it and let the wild flowers grow. But I’m a bit worried because it is drying out so quickly that we are going to be prone to fires later in the year if this dry weather keeps up.

Can you recall any particularly bad fires during your last 30 years here?

Well 1976 was a year that most of us of a certain age remember. I was in the Household Cavalry then and sat outside on a horse and it was the first time they ever gave us drinks with a straw. Then coming up here and talking to some of the older keepers they permanently throughout the whole of the summer spent time with fire beaters and hosepipes. We actually have a water bowser and when I first came here we had a little fire engine – hence my fire experience. But now  we have a water bowser which is always on standby ready to move and we try to tackle fires but once started sadly they take off. Then it’s a job for the fire service. 

Last winter it was more a case of flooding than fires. How did you deal with that?

In the 30 years I have been here we have had quite a big maintenance team and they spent quite a time digging by hand all the ditches on the Common. Then we had a couple of warm summers where the trees were drying up and the theory then was that we were letting water run off the Common and that we should keep the water on the Common. So they haven’t bothered to de-block ditches and now it is coming back to bite us. They are saying we should have ditches dug out and all the ditches should be flowing water off.  So we are at a bit of a stalemate now what to do.  But yes, it’s been a terrible last couple of years. The Common does retain water very much and it gets very muddy but it still dries out in the spring and summer months and tends to become a dust bowl then.

Is it a good idea to dredge the ponds?

The ponds do get silted up and otherwise you will end up with just a muddy silted bog. I know there are certain creatures which thrive in that type of environment but as long as you only clear sections of the pond – not the whole pond at once. I remember years ago when Kingsmere Pond up near the A3 dried out completely and we built the island in the middle. We had a JCB on there and we dredged up five or six German incendiaries which had been dropped. The older people among you would remember the KLG factory on the A3 and old Portsmouth Road which was their aiming line. They jettisoned the incendiaries which fell into the lake which we found, dug out and donated to the Wandsworth Museum.

Have you noticed a change in the range of species on the Common in the last 30 years?

Rabbits are still here. We go through a seven-year cycle of myxamytosis. Years ago there was a lot more poaching and we were always catching these guys who were netting with ferrets. But no, the balance always stays the same. There are no more unusual creatures than there were years ago. But there are a lot more people who are interested, who understand the wildlife and enjoy looking around.

You mentioned a lot more dogs.

The Wimbledon people can afford to have dog walkers. There are a lot more guys and girls walking around with groups of dogs while the owners are out working and only come up at weekends with them.  We are very strict now on picking up dog poo. We have plenty of dog litterbins around the Common, especially in the open areas around the Windmill and the Café area. The trouble is that a lot of dogs aren’t trained enough. We share the Common with the equine fraternity around the area and we do get quite a lot of accidents involving dogs chasing cyclists or horses. They have talked about having cattle – longhorns - and sheep on the Common but it is felt this can never happen with the number of dogs and people about.