People first cleared the dense primeval forests to develop farming in this area around 6000 years ago. Excavations in the early part of the 20th century discovered prehistoric and Romano-British settlements. You can still see the shape of the Iron Age hill fort (below left) above the small settlement of Nutterswood, an ancient boundary in the form of a long, linear earthwork crossing the hill (the Cross Dyke - below right) and a curious circular earthwork known as 'The Ring' (below centre), thought to be the remains of a Roman animal pen (see Places to go). These 3 features are Cleeve’s Scheduled Monuments, but there are many other earthworks that provide clues to the past.
The practice of villagers grazing livestock on wasteland had been developed well before the Norman Conquest and by the 11th century the pattern of grazing on the Common was well established. The Common was divided between the manorial estates of Southam and Bishops Cleeve and old boundary stones (right) can still be seen today. Competition for summer grazing as long ago as the 14th century led to community disputes. Records from 1389 show that the Hill was heavily stocked with over 5000 animals, not only sheep and cattle, but also pigs, horses and donkeys.
The agricultural way of life continued largely unchanged for hundreds of years. However, Cheltenham’s boom as a fashionable spa resort in the 19th century meant that the open spaces of the nearby Common became attractive for recreation. Horse racing and training began in 1818 and lasted until 1855, when it moved to its current home, Prestbury Pak. There was a figure-of-eight race track and grandstand close to where the radio masts are today (bottom left). The first golf course opened in 1891 and the first club house dates from 1895 (bottom right).
The problem of balancing agriculture against recreation led to the need for more formal management structures. Following a public parliamentary enquiry, a board of Conservators came into being under the Commons Regulation (Cleeve) Provisional Order Confirmation Act of 1890.
The Bylaws include many references to leisure activities, some quaint by today’s standards, such as the prohibition on “gambling, betting, or playing with cards or dice at any time on the Common”. Nevertheless, the need to reconcile recreation with agriculture and conservation was clearly evident then and has grown into a significant challenge for today.