Freeman's Marsh is an area of common land to the west of Hungerford. It fulfils the same purpose for the Sanden Fee Commoners as the Common Port Down does for its Commoners of the Town.
The boundaries have varied over the centuries, but in the present-day it comprises about 90 acres (41 hectares) of permanent pasture, marsh and
bog. At times land was added, and at other times land was lost to the canal and the railway.
The origin of the name "Freeman's Marsh" is not clear. The first mention by this name was in a survey by the Duchy of Lancaster of c1552, which described it as
"a common marsh called Freeman's Marsh belonging as well to the town of Hungerford as to the fee of Sanden, containing by estimate 6 acres". By 1568 (the 11th year of the reign of
Queen Elizabeth I) it was reported that "there being 20 acres or thereabouts".
There was a case in the Duchy of Lancaster Court in the 11th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1568/9) brought by the inhabitants of Hungerford
against one Brian Gunter when again there was mention that it was 20 acres of grazing for geldings and nags belonging to Commoners of both Hungerford and Sanden Fee.
In the James I feoffment of 1617, the tithing of the Liberty of Sanden Fee was not mentioned, nor was the land known as Freeman's Marsh. The feoffment spoke of
the Borough and Manor of Hungerford, and it is thought that the Sanden Fee tithing was by then part of Hungerford Manor.
See also: Names of The Marsh.
By 1803 (in the case of Webb v Salisbury in the King's Bench) the Marsh had increased in size to 45 acres 2 rods and 18 poles including the area occupied
by the Kennet & Avon canal - 23 acres was taken by the canal and 22 acres of feeding land and 33 poles of "water and bogge".
The Enclosure Award in 1819 added 21 acres, 2 rods, 24 poles of arable land in Westbrook Field "for the grazing of nags". This area is shown on the 1819
Enclosure map as "North Westbrooks", and is the area to the south of the canal. On 1st March 1637 Edmund Sexton, a tanner, from Hungerford assigned in consideration of £5. 0.
0d a half acre of arable land in the Common Fields of Hungerford called West Brooks to Jeremy Eyrton, fell monger of Hungerford which had previously, on 4th October 1622 been leased
to William Atkins of Hungerford, fell monger, for two thousand years, at a rent of one penny per annum. Atkins assigned the lease to William Wayte, a tanner, who died. Sexton
married Alice his widow and thus came into the possession of the lease.
In 1974 the Trustees of the Town and Manor purchased 7¼ acres of pasture from the neighbouring estate of North Standen, owned then by Lord Rootes. This was a
land-locked area of pasture in the south west corner of the Marsh. A bargain was struck for the abandonment of the land south of the railway known as Pennyquicks and the stream in it,
and extinguishment of the Commoners Rights. "Rootes Meadow" was added to the Marsh.
The area is grazed by 30-35 store cattle each year, and although it is technically without Commoners Rights, the grazing by all cattle is overseen
by the Trustees.
It is well know for its rich diversity of flora and fauna, and much enjoyed by local walkers and bird-watchers. It is crossed by the river Dun, as well as the Kennet and Avon canal (built here c1800) and the railway (extended west from Hungerford in 1862). At the eastern end the Shalbourne Brook joins the River Dun flowing
eastwards towards the town through the adjacent meadow known in recent times as Hungerford Marsh.
An old road crossed the marsh leading from the town along Church Street, then Marsh Lane, and onto the marsh at marsh gate. The way can still be seen, crossing
the canal near marsh lock, and then the ford near Marsh Cottage soon merging with the route of the modern A4.
The River Dun forms parts of the Hungerford Fishery, and the Commoners of Hungerford have the right to fish the water, but the Commoners of Sanden
Fee do not have the right to fish the Kennet. It is said that in mediaeval times the Sanden Fee Commoners got into financial difficulties and were bailed out by the stronger Town
Commoners and therefore were obliged to give up some of their historical rights. This remains the situation today.
Overlooking Freeman's Marsh are Isbury Cottage and the old Pest House.
Freeman's Marsh is one of the rare pieces of southern England combining chalk streams and alkaline marsh land. In recent centuries little attempt
was made to interfere with the natural plain and water courses and there has never been any cultivation within the area. There has been management that is essential to control
injurious weeds and river work to maintain the water courses, and the benefit of doubtful management and husbandry has been the legacy of unimproved marsh and pasture land.
The northern part of Freeman's Marsh was registered with English Nature as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1990, recognising the exceptional
habitat for both wild flowers, birds and water voles. Much of Freeman's Marsh is technically herb-poor semi-improved permanent pasture, but the area is known for its healthy populations
of water vole, brown trout and grayling. Otters are also resident in the area (2010). The SSSI area of Freeman's Marsh has examples of local rarities such as Bogbean, Flat Sedge as well
as a wide variety of marshland wild flowers including orchids.
Along with the Lower Common (east of Denford Bridge), it was entered into a 10-year Higher Level Stewardship Scheme contract with Natural England in May 2008.
There is now an agreed long term management plan aimed at protecting the natural environment and the area's biodiversity.
2010 was the third summer under the agreement. Much work has been done to restore the area's wildlife - with more works to be carried out in 2010-2011. Follow
this link for further details of the 2009-11 wildlife restoration work.
Freeman's Marsh is a splendid site for seeing unusual birds, including green sandpiper, water rail, snipe, jack snipe, kingfisher, and, in
mid December 2010, a glossy ibis and waxwings. In May 2011 there was a pair of Chinese Swan Geese happily joining a family of Canada Geese.