Monthly Archives: June 2011

Death and the Hedgerow (and Alice Thomas Ellis)

I’ve been rereading a few Alice Thomas Ellis novels, which I always enjoy – they are constantly malicious, funny and astonishing. There are a lot of hedges in her stories, especially when they are set in the Welsh countryside – characters hide behind them, emerge through gaps, and see strange things on the other side of them.

This quote from Unexplained Laughter caught my eye. I should explain that these are the thoughts of Angharad, a rather strange wraithlike girl who spends her days roaming the mountains and observing the ordinary people below:

They think that death is waiting at the end of the ride, that life is like the lane and that death waits at the end. Listen. That is death on the other side of the side of the hedgerow. And that swift shadow that is gone, before you turn, from the corner of your eye – that is death. And the whisper you scarcely hear through the sounds of the birds calling and the wind in the leaves – that is death. Not waiting, but there beside you within reach, within earshot, so close that if you should look you would see your breath cloud on his presence. There he is, just out of sight behind the wild rose and the blackthorn, not behind you, nor before you, but beside you…

Which all reminds me of something I read once about Pan hiding behind the hedge.

Anyhow, another Alice Thomas Ellis quote, from The Sin Eater, just to reassure you that she is not always quite  as morbid as the quote above:

‘Where’s Rose?’ asked Angela…  Ermyn glanced sideways. Farther down, where the hedge widened into a small thicket, was a dying alder, its low branches fabulously bowed and twisted, snowed over with lichen, eerily green. Rose stood in its indifferent embrace, a finger to her lips.

‘She’s there,’ said Ermyn hopelessly. Rose stamped ineffectually on the mouldering earth, but she came forward.

‘How lovely to see you,’ she said, pinching Ermyn on the arm. ‘I’ll come through.’ The hedge was suddenly stiffly hostile, as though it had had enough of this to-ing and fro-ing. It ripped Rose’s jacket spitefully. ‘Look,’ she said. ‘A hedge tear.’





Filed under Literary Hedges

Chiltern poppies, Fenland mud

I’ve just got back from a day trip to Wisbech in Fenland (boring story). It was pelting with rain and the forked lightning was amazing in those gigantic skies, though the sheets of water on the road and rampaging lorries made it a bit of a terrifying journey- I didn’t really get the chance to stop off and enjoy the flat landscapes, just to be grateful that the road was on a bank up above the ditches, canals and mud. (The radio informs me there have been a lot of quite serious lightning strikes, including a tower at Gatwick and the trains into Kings Cross).

On the cheerier side I stopped somewhere on the edge of the Chilterns in one of the sunnier moments of the day and saw some amazing hedgerows and fields full of poppies. Not sure why the poppies are doing so well this year, I guess it’s something to do with the combination of an early spring followed by June’s downpours. Not good for all the crops, who suffered in the early rain, but there are a lot of plants and trees who are loving this slightly tropical weather.

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Cornish hedges

In Cornwall, a “hedge” is a stone-faced earth bank, with or without vegetation. It is the bank itself that is referred to as the hedge rather than the plants, although many do have a low, dense row of shrubs, which may or may not be laid.

The base of the banks was sometimes formed from debris excavated from local tin mines. Making and repairing a Cornish hedge is a very particular craft, akin to building a dry stone wall, as it involves the assembling of the stones into a stable form.

The Cornish Hedges website has a huge amount of information on these hedges, their history and how to care for them:

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The Battle of the Bocage

The hedgerows of Normandy were serious barriers to Allied troops following the D-Day landings in 1944 . In the Cotentin area, there was intense German resistance in difficult terrain of small fields and orchards. This conflict became known as the “hedgerows war” or the “battle of the bocage” (the French name for hedgerow).

The ancient hedgerows were up to five metres high, having been neglected during the years of occupation. Dense barriers of hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel and brambles were interspersed with apple and pear trees, grown for calvados, pommel and local ciders. These created perfect defensive fortifications. Ground troops could not see through the bocage to see if a tank or self-propelled gun was waiting for them, and the Germans cut small holes in order to see attackers coming and set up ambushes.

Tanks were unable to penetrate the dense hedgerows – driving into one was reportedly like driving a car into a brick wall. American troops experimented with flamethrowers and commandos with explosive devices, both with limited success. Eventually they improvised cutting attachments by fixing blades to their tank wheels in order to slash through the bocage and head on to the easier terrain beyond.

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A few iconic English hedgerow pictures

Poppies growing in the hedgerow margin, beside a wheatfield. Even in the years of heaviest pesticide use, poppies tended to survive and propser in the hedgerows.

A white horse, through the gap in the hedge. not sure why white horses seem so iconic, though I guess the chalk horses such as the Uffington horse may be part of the reason. Lots of pubs called the White Horse too. Is it something mythological, related to white stags and white hares, or is it just the fact that white animals are relatively rare in the wild, so seem special? This picture is from the May bank holiday weekend, when the may blossom was still on the hawthorn.

Finally, a hedgerow tree. I admire the fact that this one almost died, but new growth is coming back at the base of the trunk.

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Phallic hedge topiary


Funny story here about a rather rude hedge.

The bizarre thing is that the police actually forced him to censor/clip it under threat of a fine for a “public order offence.”

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The Hedge People

I wrote recently about the use of hedge- as a derogatory prefix, as for instance in the adjective “hedge-born” which means “of low birth” or “born under a hedge”.

However there is an alternative usage of “hedge-” which I think should be encouraged, in which it simply means “common” as in “the common people.” Of course common can itself be a snobbish insult (when used by someone who looks down on the common people). But the common people can simply mean “the ordinary people.” So for instance in the Richard Jefferies quote below “hedge language” is just the everyday dialect and slang spoken by the ordinary rural folk or, as they might be called, “the hedge people.”

The boys and girls play in the ditches till they go to school, and they play in the hedges and ditches every hour they can get out of school, and the moment their time is up they go to work among the hedges and ditches, and though they may have had to read standard authors at school, no sooner do they get among the furrows than they talk hedge and ditch language.

Richard Jefferies

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Filed under Historical Hedges, Rural Britain, The Hedge Philosopher