This is an old article, from 2003, but still an interesting read:
I very much like this – ‘duchthas, the Gaelic word that means something like “the sense of belonging in a place” ‘ – it’s a word I wasn’t familiar with before. I guess that’s a large part of what I’m trying to convey in the book, the way that hedges form part of our (or my) sense of belonging in Britain. (Which could be described as “Britishness” though I’m not sure that’s a coherent concept).
Hedges aren’t only characteristic of the countryside and the way in which the land has been divided and used. They also map out towns and cities, firstly because they surround so many gardens, and secondly because urban development often followed the old field patterns, as the fields were sold off piecemeal and gradually built on. So urban roads often follow old hedgelines. And, as fragments of forest, hedges are also reminders of the wildwood which grew here before we created the modern landscape. For every freestanding tree on these islands, there are many more that make up the hedges of town and country.
So while hedges are only one element of the natural world around us, they carry a significant amount of information about our relationship with nature.
A couple of nursery rhymes today:
There was a man of Newington,
And he was wond’rous wise,
He jump’d into a quickset hedge,
And scratch’d out both his eyes:
But when he saw his eyes were out,
With all his might and main,
He jump’d into another hedge,
And scratch’d ‘em in again
(A quickset hedge is one planted from live cuttings, usually hawthorn – “quick” here means “alive” as in “the quick and the dead” rather than “fast” – although such hedges were planted partly because they grow quickly.)
Little lad, little lad, Where wast thou born?
Far off in Lancashire, Under a thorn;
Where they sup sour milk, From a ram’s horn.
It’s always risky to try and guess what nursery rhymes “mean” – however the “thorn” here may well be a hedge – being “born under a hedge” or “hedgeborn” traditionally meant a humble background.
This rhyme might be related to the fact that, in the middle ages, the saying “Horne and Thorne shall make England forlorne” was used to refer to the sheep and hedges that were invading the landscape because of new enclosures (inspired by the thriving wool industry) – the result was a lot of common people losing their homes and livelihoods, and being forced to move “far off” to the new towns and cities.
Nice to see all the hedges coming back to life in the spring: Sunday was an especially lovely day, and I took a few pictures of the garden hedges around my area:
I think this is a cherry laurel. It’s an evergreen, but you can see the fresh green of the new little leaves.
Flowers in the hedge:
Privet – this is a hedge that was cut back during the winter so was almost completely bare, now the new leaves are starting to grow:
I think this is red-tip photinia, though feel free to correct me. Either way, it’s a lovely spring hedge species as the new leaves are bright red, and as striking as any blossom, flower or berry.
And my miniature box, still pretty small but some promising new growth.
Just to lower the tone, today’s second hedge poem is a traditional limerick, not in the best possible taste:
There once was a man called Reg
Who went with a girl in a hedge
Along came his wife
With a big carving knife
And cut off his meat and two veg
John William Streets died on 1st July in the Battle of the Somme. In the period before his death he wrote some memorable poems, frequently contrasting the hell of war with the beauty of nature. In this poem he describes a hedge on the battlefield.
Like memories born in a dream my Fancy around thee plays,
Re-embodies the life, the beauty of olden days
That were thine ere the scourge of war-
aflame in the sweet blue sky-
Wither’d thy full expanding life-leaving thy spring to die.
Those were the days when the violets bloom’d blue at thy brambly feet,
Beauty’s own flower, shedding upon the winds perfumes sweet;
When the bee went hunting down the trail of the celandine,
And the primrose starr’d the May with loveliness divine.
When the sunbeams played in thy leaves and the wild brook fled to a
When the wild rose trailed its beauty thro’ the noons of June;
When the silver-throated thrush sang on the dewy thorn,
And the lark sprang mad with love beyond the top of morn.
The wild birds hid their nests within thy secret bowers,
And sweet-faced children joyously gather’d thy pageant of flowers;
In the soft deep twilights of summer when the stars stole out in the night,
The moths on silken wings stole down thy ways in flight.
Now like a woman who keeps but the ghost of a wasted life,
Alluring, breeding pity, thy vestige fronts the strife:
With bullets and bursting shells, thy trees all splinter’d and torn
Thou remainest a ghost of thyself-a glory alas! now forlorn.
Behind thy broken line, brown faces their vigil keep,
Peering into the night, and into Death’s shadows deep;
Fronting the great unknown as thou frontest the twilight now,
Bold, enduring, grand, with flowers on thy scorch’d brow.
For thy sap still stirs in thy veins and defiant of death will rise
And weave thro’ the years’ wild beauty ‘neath soft summer skies-
And the men who peer thro’ thy leaves facing the battle’s
Like thee will project their life beyond the phase of Death.
There’s an interesting article here http://tinyurl.com/6ay4c3o on experiments in America with flowering hedgerows, which are designed to encourage pollinating insects.
In this case the hedgerows are areas left to grow a little wild, with flowers for the insects – rather different to a typical British hedgerow, which is made up of trees and woody shrubs. However British hedges play a similar role – insects are encouraged both by the trees and the plant species and flowers that grow in the base of the hedge and along the hedge margins.
To encourage populations of bees in particular and insects in general it is a good idea for farmers to leave a fairly wide hedge margin rather than ploughing right up to the hedge. This also encourages birds and other small mammals as it gives them a habitat in which to feed or live. And finally predators such as hawks and bats are also thus encouraged, so the positive effect of hedges goes all the way back up the food chain.
A couple of quotes from the wonderful I Capture the Castle: one mentions hedges, the second doesn’t but I’ll include it anyway because it’s rather lovely.
“…when I opened my eyes, the fields and the hedges and even the sky seemed so close that they were almost pressing on me. Neil looked quite startled when I told him; he said that was how he felt most of the time in England.”
“He stood staring into the wood for a minute, then said: “What is it about the English countryside – why is the beauty so much more than visual? Why does it touch one so?” He sounded faintly sad. Perhaps he finds beauty saddening – I do myself sometimes. Once when I was quite little I asked father why this was and he explained that it was due to our knowledge of beauty’s evanescence, which reminds us that we ourselves shall die.”
Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle
These hedges are from the 18th-century elliptical walled garden at Netherbyres in East Lothian. The garden is over half a hectare and includes Victorian glasshouses, as well as a wide range of fruit and vegetables, flowers, herbs, climbers, and other plantings.
It’s not open to the public, as the house has become a home for retired gardeners.
Thanks to Betsy for the pictures.
The Daily Mail are clearly fond of their giant hedge stories.
Apparently this one is the biggest yew hedge in Britain (though not the tallest*, as that’s the Cirencester one I already posted about.)
I do like the fact that its location is a “closely guarded secret”. I think I might know where it is, but I suppose it would be inappropriate to speculate.
(For any pedants offended my tabloid-style headline, I should concede that yew clippings don”t “cure cancer”, they are just used in the manufacture of drugs that help to fight cancer.)
*Edit – I originally described this as the tallest hedge in Britain, which is wrong, because the Meikleour hedge (which is beech) is much higher.