One thing I’ve come to appreciate about my homeland over the years is its hedgerows. Lending a distinctive appearance to the English countryside, hedgerows are part of our cultural heritage and historical record, an abundant source of food, and a haven for wildlife.
Some hedgerows still thriving today were planted on banks built in the Bronze Age 4,000 years ago. Others are remnants of the original wildwood that covered Britain before fields were even carved. The Romans occupying Britain liked to plant them with thorny shrubs, and in Devon, a quarter of the hedges are more than 800 years old. A more recent boom in hedgerow cultivation for agricultural purpose happened between 1600 and 1850 dictated by the Enclosure Acts. Before then, much farmland was open. People had rights to cultivate strips of it in the growing season, and it was grazed by village livestock the rest of the year. In the process of enclosure, many rural laborers sadly lost their livelihood.
There is more to hedge laying than planting a line of woody vegetation. It was a country skill with regional variations in style and technique. The basic concept behind laying a new hedge is to reduce thick upright stems. The remaining stems, or pleachers, are angled toward the horizontal. Smaller shoots called brash are partly woven between pleachers. Upright stakes are placed at regular intervals for strength and sometimes for visual effect.
In addition to defining the landscape of British countryside, hedgerows prevent soil erosion, reduce pollution, regulate the water supply and reduce flooding, and have long been a larder for the locals, a source of berries for jams, apples and nuts, and edible plants like nettles, dandelion, burdock, and wild mustard and garlic, and materials such as walking sticks.
Hawthorn is probably the most common hedgerow plant. Its name is derived from the Anglo Saxon hagathorn, literally ‘hedge thorn’. It has a profusion of white blossoms in spring, shiny red haws in autumn. Other common plants are field maple, honeydew, hazel, bramble, dog rose, field rose, and guelder-rose. Hedgerows are bustling to birds, dormice, butterflies, caterpillars, and bugs of every size, shape and color. The hedgehog, or heyghoge as it was called back then, was so named around the year 1450 after its preferred habitat.
lost and saved
Modern farming techniques began to spell their demise–hedgerows were no longer needed to mark boundaries. In 1946, there were about 500,000 miles of them, falling to less than half that by the early Nineties, when the Hedgerow Regulations was introduced to protect ones of landscape, archaeological and historical importance.
married in the hedge
Hedgerow also held social importance. In the Middle ages, before it became the domain of the church, getting married was easy. All you needed to do was recite a few lines in front of a witness in the street, field, tavern, or by a hedge.
shot in the hedge
And has anyone ever told you that you look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards? In 1826, some poor blighter did drag himself through the hedge backwards, and shot himself in the process. The Westmorland Gazette reported: It is supposed from the position in which the body was found, that the unfortunate young man was endeavouring to make his way through a bushy hedge backwards, and, in drawing the gun after him, the trigger caught a twig.
hedges around us
Today we often hear the word hedge used in financial circles to describe a hedge fund. The term indeed derives from the verb to hedge a piece of land, meaning to limit it in terms of size, giving rise to the meaning ‘secure, limited risk’.
And you’ve also very likely sung the word hedgerow—we’re all Led Zeppelin fans here, aren’t we?
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.
So, if you are planning a trip across the pond, I’ll be the piper leading you to reason–be sure to travel beyond the sound of the Bow Bells into the English countryside. Take in a castle and a quaint village or two, wander through a church graveyard, and make sure you get a close look at the diversity of life in a British hedgerow.