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The Freemen of Freeman's Wood

In a dusty old corner of Lancaster City Hall, there is a little dusty room filled with ancient dusty books. The guardian of that room and those books and that dust is a very small, very old and very dusty man. He spends his days stacking and restacking the enormous leather bound books, pausing only to take up his wooden broom to sweep the dust back and forth across the floor. Unfortunately, this story does not concern that dusty old room, nor that dusty old man but simply a single ancient yellowing page of a single book in that much-forgotten library.

This is what is written on page 783 of Volume XXIV of the Ancient and Forgotten Laws of the Great and Noble City of Lancaster.

Let it be hereupon known in these parts hereabouts that upon the lands known as “Freeman’s Wood” there shall be the following rights bestowed upon the vile and common folk:

(i)The Elders of Lancaster (that is, the eighty oldest and most crotchety men residing within the bounds of the city) shall share amongst themselves the fruit and forage, freedom and fecundity of these woodlands

(ii) The Elders shall form amongst themselves a Parliament of the Woods to fairly and freely govern the affairs of the common

At the bottom of the page there is one further line scrawled in what legal scholars have determined to be cooking pot soot.

(iii)And them there ugly old beggars shan’t be back to get under the feet of us here womenfolk til teatime or there’ll be hell to pay!

Below this scrawl, there is a crude drawing of a bald toothless man being beaten over the head with a large cooking pot.

And so it was that every morning, the eighty eldest and most crotchety men of the city would wind a slow tottering path along the river to Freeman’s Wood. One or two of the men led a mangy old cow or a grumpy billy-goat on a rope tethered to their belts. Many brought fishing rods which they used as walking sticks or swung viciously at any young whippersnapper foolish enough to get in their way. And every single one of the Elders wore a flat cap low over their bushy brows and carried a stout wooden pipe.

The line of old men would slowly gather in a large clearing filled with stools and benches and tree stumps. You see, this was the Parliament of the Woods. The seats were not arranged in a circle, nor in rows but each man knew his place and the Leader of the Woods (the eldest of all the Elders) eventually took his seat on an unremarkable stool at the centre of the clearing. After much muttering and grumbling, the Leader of the Woods knocked a great mallet against a nearby stump to start the meeting. At this point, the muttering would erupt into a racket of complaints, objections and brutal insults. No matter how much the Leader beat his mallet against the stump, the meeting rarely came to any form of order and never reached a single decision. This was very much agreed to be for the best as decisions meant change and the old men were happy enough with things just as they were. On occasion, the parliament would continue in this manner until teatime when the old men would wearily pull themselves upright and totter home. However, more often, by the time it came for their midday snap, most of the Elders had wondered off to their own little corner of the woods to fish and snooze and smoke their pipes. 

For many centuries the traditions of the Elders of Lancaster and the Parliament of the Woods continued as they always had. If any member of the eighty elders was close to death, he would pass on his cap and his pipe to the eighty-first eldest and so all the menfolk of the city could look forward to their share of the common ground. And the womenfolk of the city looked forward to clearing the menfolk out of the house for most of the day.

But as time passed, the old traditions were forgotten. The ancient law books gathered dust. And bit by bit, Freemen’s Wood was fenced off. The old men lost their rights and the old women lost their peace and quiet. It has been well over a century, now, since the Parliament of the Wood’s rowdy chorus was last heard.

Yet rumours abound. Change is afoot in the woods. Perhaps some day soon the fences will come down. And the old and the young alike will walk in Freeman’s Wood and share the common ground.

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