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.