Category Archives: Hedge Mythology

“…a bustle in your hedgerow…” (slightly demystified )

Just to take a quick look at the well-known line from Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin…

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, Don’t be alarmed now, It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen.

I’ve mentioned that fairies and witches tend to emerge from hedgerows (in folk tales) – the May Queen is an old superstition which may or may not have its origins in human sacrifices which were intended to pacify magical forces – but it also refers to the coming of spring and in particular the blossom on the hawthorn tree, which is also called the Queen of the May, and is the most common hedgerow tree in Britain. The blossom was used for decoration at the May festivals.

Robert Plant had been reading Lewis Spence’s Magic Arts in Celtic Britain when he wrote the song – so a lot of the lyrics to Stairway to Heaven, including this one, are just slightly garbled allusions to those old traditions. (I guess “spring clean” is mainly there because it rhymes and scans rather than because it means anything much.)

There’s always a slightly sinister undertone to those traditions (as can be seen in something like The Wicker Man) but also they can just be celebrations of the coming of spring, without the original bloodthirsty tendencies.

So, if you do hear something bustling in your hedgerow today, hopefully it’s not a witch or malevolent fairy…


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Witches and fairies in the hedgerow

Following on from the last post, fairies are often found living in or emerging from hedges in British folk tales – which makes sense because hedges symbolise boundaries and often work as magical gateways, and also because they divide the wild, strange beyond from the safe space within.

But there is also a connection with witches – the word “hag” is probably derived from “haga”, meaning hedge. This is because a hag (witch) could “hedge-ride”, or cross the boundary of enclosed settlements into the wild forest and return safely (which probably just means they were old and canny enough to know their way around).

If you don’t want witches coming through your hedge, you are supposed to be able to foil them by leaving holly growing there. I’m not sure if there is a recommended remedy for keeping out fairies though…

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More Alice Thomas Ellis hedge quotes

Sorry for the repetition, but this is mostly what I’m reading this week and there are loads of interesting hedge moments in her novels. Fairy Tale is her darkest book, not as much comedy as usual and some really quite unsettling stuff about the pagan countryside and the Tylwyth Teg needing a changeling. I’m very fond of it, but maybe not the best place to start if you’ve not read her others.

Anyhow, here the hedge becomes rather malevolent, reflecting the hostile magical environment surrounding the main characters:

‘Simon,’ said Miriam, ‘what are these scratches on your arms?’

‘They’re nothing much,’ said Simon indifferently, glancing at them. ‘The hedge needs cutting back. It’s almost closed the lane. I had to fight through the brambles.’

‘It was all right yesterday,’ said Miriam.

‘Things grow quickly here,’ said Simon. ‘They grow out of control.’

Then in this bit, the hedge  becomes symbolic of the boundary between our space and the chaos that lies beyond:

Flowers throve on death relying on dissolution for their nourishment. She could smell decay on the summer air… She shook her head, scowling at the prettiness that fringed the great shadow, the horror of chaos that lay just beyond the garlanded hedge and the limits of her comprehension…

A bit morbid, admittedly, but I particularly like this, as it’s one of the themes that often crops up in British mythology and thinking – assart hedges were originally carved out of the wildwood, then hedges were planted to surround the cleared fields. What lies within the hedge (in gardens and countryside) is what we control – what lies beyond is “the other”, wild nature, territory that we can’t control. The hedge is the boundary in between.

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Rosamund’s Bower – a hedge maze at Woodstock

Henry II supposedly built a hedge maze at Woodstock, with a hedged arbour at the centre, designed for trysts with his mistress Rosamund Clifford. As it happens, this is probably an apocryphal story, an “urban myth” that was passed on because it was an amusing and salacious story. Either way it helped to popularise hedge mazes in subsequent centuries, possibly because it gave them a faint promise of sensuality.

This is an sixteenth-century poem about “Rosamond’s Bower”, which comes from “A Mournfull Dittie on the death of Rosamond, King Henry the Seconds Concubine” by Thomas Deloney. (Here the hedge has been hyped up into “stone and timber”.)

Yea, Rosamond, Fair Rosamond,
Her name was called so,
To whom dame Elinor our Queene
Was known a deadly foe,
The King therefore for her defense
Against the furious Queene
At Woodstock builded such a Bower
The like was never seen.
Most curiously that Bower was built
Of stone and timber strong,
An hundred and fifty dores
Did to this Bower belong,
And they so cunningly contriv’d
With turnings round about
That none but with a clew of thread
Could enter in or out.

(It’s worth noting that the “clew of thread” detail almost certainly derives from older labrynth legends such as the Minotaur. Possibly a rumour about the king’s trysts became mixed up with older stories to create the story of “Rosamund’s Bower”.)


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The Billhook: tool and weapon

Here’s another interesting Richard Jefferies quote, about how the billhook, traditionally used to cut and lay hedges, was also used as a weapon when need be.

The billhook is the national weapon of the English labourer. As the lance to the ancient knight, the rapier to the cavalier, the bowie to the backwoodsman, so the billhook to the man of the hedges. It is never far from his side; it is always somewhere within reach; the sword of the cottage. When he was a boy, while his father sat on a faggot on the lee side of the hedge eating his luncheon he used to pick up the crooked tool and slice off the smaller branches of the cut bushes to fit them for binding together. He learned to strike away so that the incurved point, if the bough was severed with unexpected ease, might not bury itself in his knee. He learned to judge the exact degree of strength to infuse into the blow, proportioning the force to the size of the stick, and whether it was soft willow, stout hazel, or hard thorn. The blade slips through the one with its own impetus; in the other it stays where the power of the arm ceases……..

This was quoted elsewhere (on by Bob Burgess, who collects billhooks, and used to have a good site on them – it has disappeared and the new one is a work in progress, but worth keeping an eye on, if he updates it:

I can understand a fascination with billhooks, they are a really satisfying tool, that haven’t changed that much since the Iron Age. And you get strange variations in local billhook styles, which probably depend on how the local blacksmiths learned to make them, and the most common use to which they were put in particular areas.

If it became necessary to fight, billhooks could be adapted, with longer handles, or spikes being added to make them more dangerous to the enemy. Then in more peaceful times they would revert to being farming tools, in a rather literal version of the “swords into ploughshares” idea.

Warning: Etymological pedantry follows…

Billhooks may well be named after hedges as well as being used to cut them. “Bill” can mean knife or axe in Old English, Dutch and German (in slightly varying spellings) – “Haga” in Old English, “Hecke” in German and “Haag” in Dutch were words for “enclosure” or “hedge”.

I’ve been told that in etymology it’s best to ignore the vowels (and to be a bit flexible about consonants). From Hecke to Hook or Haag to Hak seems at least a possible explanation of the hook in billhook and the hak in hakbijl (a Dutch version of the word). Also when the word was used to mean “enclosure” it could refer to woodland assarts, so this interpretation needn’t imply it always meant “hedge-axe” or “hedge-knife” – “enclosure-axe” is also a possible meaning.

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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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