Monthly Archives: February 2011

Hedge of the Day

Weirdly shaped hedges always appeal to me. I love this way this hedge, which is on a side street near Hammersmith, has been topiarised. It reminds me of the cat bus in the wonderful Studio Ghibli film My Neighbour Totoro.


Cat=shaped hedge topiary

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Magical Hedges

Many common hedge species are the subject of magical or mythical beliefs.

Hawthorn is the subject of endless superstitions – for instance the proverb “cleave to the crown though it hangs in a bush” is said to derive from hawthorn’s connection with the House of Tudor. After Richard III’s death at the Battle of Bosworth his crown was said to have been rescued from a hawthorn bush by the Henry Tudor’s men and used to crown him. Meanwhile an Irish tradition involves leaving out a hawthorn wreath for either the angels or the fairies to find.

Elder often grows in hedgerows, though farmers regard it as a nuisance and tend to grub it out. Elder flowers are a traditional remedy, but the wood was said to be unlucky – if used for a cradle, the child would become sick, while burning elder wood could summon the devil. On the other hand hazel taken from hedges was often used for both divining rods and as a magical wand or stave.

Yew trees and hedges were frequently present in medieval churchyards, partly because of their supposed magical qualities in protecting the sanctuary of the church. The magical quality ascribed to hedges themselves is indicated by the fact that “hag”, referring to a witch-like figure, is probably derived from “haga”, meaning hedge. It is speculated that a hag was able to “hedge-ride”, or cross the boundary of the civilised settlements into the wild forest and return unscathed, which some took to mean that they were in league with dark forces beyond (although they may simply have been wise old women). The rural superstition still survives that one can foil witches by leaving holly trees growing in one’s hedges – because they are supposed to be repelled by holly.

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The Azalea Maze

This maze is from the garden of the John Paul Getty Museum in LA – it is called the Azalea Maze.

Azalea Maze

It’s always a moot point where a “border” becomes a “hedge”. Not sure I’d call this a hedge maze, but it’s fabulous either way.

(Thanks to Rachel, via Betsy, for the picture).

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Lewis Carroll

A couple of quotes:

‘They did things very simply in those days: if you had a lot of money, you just dug a hole under the hedge, and popped it in: then you said you had “put it in the bank”

From Letters of Lewis Carroll to his Child-Friends

And one I already mentioned:

“Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

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Why Write About Hedges?

I get some contrasting reactions when I tell people I’m writing a book about hedges. Some people just look uncomfortable and change the subject. Some immediately see the point. Others just say “Why?”


What I find most fascinating about hedges is the way they are intertwined with British history. For instance, most of the land used to be covered by the wildwood: when it was cleared for agriculture, the earliest hedges were created by simply leaving the trees and undergrowth on the field boundary in place – some of these “assart” hedges still exist, the most ancient we have. The subsequent development of hedgemaking (through coppicing and hedgelaying) was closely related to people’s increasing skill at woodcraft.

Later on, the enclosures period saw the planting of huge numbers of new hedges, as the landscape was carved up and common land was privatised. Hedges also played a fundamental role in the development of gardens, through formal patterns, boundary hedges, knot gardens, topiary and other features.

In Britain today many people see the suburban-style house with a garden protected by a hedge as the ideal home. Private ownership of land (and property) is a key political issue and part of the way we mark our place in life. Rural hedgerows are in need of preservation. And we have a rich gardening tradition, from the knots and parterres of the Tudor period, to the cottage garden to the formal gardens of our country houses, all of which use hedging as a primary building block.

As a result of these strands, the story of hedges gives us an unusual variety of perspectives from which to think about the history of the British landscape and people – philosophical (because of the way that hedges create boundaries, insiders and outsiders), political (because of the way that land-ownership conveyed status and power), and even aesthetic (with respect to the relationship between wild, natural trees and the formal structure we impose on them when we form them into hedges).

In addition, there are less abstract reasons for being interested in hedges (and wanting to preserve rural hedgerows) – they are invaluable contributors to biodiversity as they create the habitat and shelter for a wide variety of plants and creatures; topiary is an intriguing subject in itself; while the phenomenon of massive leylandii hedges has been the cause of many disputes between neighbours.

So whether you see them as linear forest, barriers, woodland ghosts, boundaries, screens, decorations, or the rural maze, hedges and hedgerows have a huge amount to tell us about the country we live in today.

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When is a Hedge not a Hedge?

When it’s a “fedge” apparently.

Living fences (also called “fedges”, as they are a cross between a hedge and a fence)” (

I’ve seen this neologism used in various places, but I’m not sure it’s a necessary invention. The word “hedge” can already be used to refer to “dead hedges” as well as ones that contain live plants. The earliest hedges were created in a variety of ways – sometimes saplings were taken from woodland and replanted. The art of hedgelaying relies on the flexible new growth created by coppicing or plashing a row of live trees – this new growth is then woven into a more solid barrier. And it also seems likely that dead hedges were sometimes built from willow which would then reroot and become a living barrier, much like a willow fedge. So a line of interwoven willow saplings falls easily within the boundaries of the concept of a “hedge.”

To me, a “fedge” seems simply to be a relatively formal hedge, wherein the saplings are interwoven in a fence-like pattern. This is not dissimilar to a newly laid hedge, which can have a very precise pattern to it.

Over time this pattern will presumably become more ragged as the saplings grow, and the fedge will eventually be seen for what it really is – a hedge.

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Hedge of the Day

A couple of everyday hedges that caught my eye recently:

Hedge Gateway

I always like it when hedges are cut into gateways. There’s something slightly mysterious about it – especially as hedges have often been seen as portals to alternative worlds. You see this in fairy tales where they are home to elves, bogles, fairies and other strange creatures, and in literature, for instance in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where the rabbit hole Alice falls down is beneath a hedge (not in the roots of the tree as in the Disney version). But hedge gateways can also be a bit pompous as they often suggest that you will discover something rather more extraordinary than a suburban garden beyond them.

McDonald's Car Park

I’m not a fan of McDonalds, before you ask. I’m just entertained by the use of hedgelike objects in an attempt to soften the ugliness of municipal and corporate carparks (and other public spaces).

Not quite topiary, not quite a proper hedge. In short, this really is a hedge that is “neither use nor ornament”.

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