One thing I have talked about in the book is what I like to call ‘hedgelike objects’. In public areas of housing estates, on patches of waste ground, on industrial estates and on traffic islands, you often see shrubs and rows of small trees or bushes, clipped into the appearance of stunted hedges. They aren’t formal, precise or regular enough to be called topiary, but they have been tended and prevented from taking on too wild an appearance. They have a slightly mutant appearance, a weirdness that perhaps arises from their juxtaposition with the urban surroundings. Here are some from a motorway service station in the Midlands.
I instinctively dislike hedgelike objects, but I am none the less intrigued by them. They bear some resemblance to the hedges of formal gardens, but they are somehow ugly and unsatisfying. On remote, bleak industrial estates you see a lot of ‘hedges to nowhere’, perfectly formed hedges that start and then stop for no apparent reason, like this one:
I think the brief explanation is this: When it comes to public areas, formal gardening is a fading tradition in Britain. But those who are responsible for the upkeep of these areas know they are obliged to keep the plants ‘orderly’ or ‘tidy’. Gardeners are expected to achieve this in minimal time, and something that looks like a man-made object with smooth surfaces seems tidier than the wild forms of nature. Sometimes the result is a kind of improvised topiary, but more often the gardeners just compress the shrubs into the weird, awkward shapes of hedgelike objects.
Without this intervention, the plants might look overgrown and neglected. But this is garden maintenance that lacks patience and real engagement. Like the architectural pastiches of the out-of-town supermarkets they often accompany, hedgelike objects make a superficial nod to the past, without truly reflecting the tradition they are imitating. They are quick fixes, closer to the prefab classrooms, badly planned tower blocks and shoddy modern shopping centres that blighted the country in the last century. It’s a shame there isn’t more time or money available to make the greenery of our public areas more genuinely attractive and well-tended.