Category Archives: Historical Hedges

Hedgebreaking, John Evelyn & Peter the Great

There was a comical case of hedgebreaking in the seventeenth century when Peter the Great stayed in the diarist John Evelyn’s house in Deptford. He was there to study shipbuilding on the adjacent Thames dockyards, but was prone to throwing parties back at the house. Evelyn, a devoted gardener, was especially proud of his holly hedges and was appalled to discover that the Tsar had been playing drunken games in which a servant pushed him in a wheelbarrow through not only the flowerbeds, but also the hedges.

Happily the hedges recovered from any damage inflicted – soon afterwards Evelyn wrote:

Is there under heaven a more glorious and refreshing object of the kind, than an impregnable Hedge a hundred and sixty feet in length, and seven feet high, and five in diameter, which I can shew in my poor Gardens at any time of the year, glittering with its armed and vernish’d leaves? The taller Standards at orderly distances blushing with their natural Corall. It mocks at the rudest assaults of the Weather, Beasts, and Hedgebreakers.

(Quoted from Hedge Britannia).

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Filed under Hedge Politics, Historical Hedges

Irregular hedges at Montacute

At the Garden Media Awards* ceremony yesterday I was talking to Paula, a journalist, who had a lonicera hedge that had been squashed into a lop-sided shape by the snow. She went to some trouble to cloud-prune it, only to be informed by her teenage son that it “looked like a turd”. She eventually cut it down though she is planning to plant a new one, possibly beech.

This anecdote reminded me of the strange patterns of the yew hedges at Montacute in Somerset – the winter of 1947 left one hedge weighed down by snow and twisted into new shapes. But over the following years, the gardeners tended the result, and added the same effect to an opposing hedge, giving the garden an intentionally abstract feel.

There’s a nice picture of a rather precarious looking gardener at Montacute here.

* I didn’t win the inspirational book category, which was won by Led by the Land but the lunch was excellent and it was all good fun.

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Filed under Garden History, Historical Hedges, Topiary

Ravilious Hedges

My mum sent me this card – I love Eric Ravilious’ pictures and this is a nice one that includes a hedgerown (although it looks a bit gappy or lollypopped).


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Filed under Historical Hedges, Rural Britain

Britishness and the Hedge (and Burgess Hill)

I’m in Burgess Hill, the town where I grew up. The last of my family moved away over twenty years ago and I have lost touch with most people I knew here. It is a dormitory town, an hour from London and fifteen minutes from Brighton on the mainline. There wasn’t really a proper village here before the railway came – nearby villages such as Ditchling, Lindfield, Cuckfield, and Wivelsfield didn’t want any truck with newfangled railways so the line bypassed them, and a town grew up around the station.

It doesn’t seem to have changed much since I left. The iron bolts on the railway bridge look the same, although the station itself has had a lick of paint. At the highest point of the town, the Top House pub is still there with an old oak tree on its steps. I walk down Silverdale Road, past the house I was born in, and further along to the house we lived in when I was about ten years old.

It was a marvellous, big old detached house, which my father could barely afford in the first place. At the side, there was a rickety greenhouse with a mangle, strange old pots of chemicals and clay planters, and a slightly mouldy croquet set. Inside the house it was cold and draughty, there were squirrels (or possibly rats) scampering in the rafters, and a pervasive smell of gently rotting garden apples, as we usually attempted to store windfalls through the winter in a unplumbed bathroom. There were also redcurrant and blackcurrant bushes and wild strawberries growing under the hedges beside the old garage.

It’s a house I often return to in dreams, perhaps because I lived here at an impressionable age. Today, everything about it looks smaller to me, and the ramshackle edges have been cleaned up in subsequent renovations. The only thing which doesn’t look like a miniature, tidied-up version of my childhood is the laurel hedge at the front which I used to trim.

To my delight, it has grown to a gargantuan, messy height, and sprawls across the pavement in a manner that would have appalled our 1970s neighbours. It is not of Leylandiian proportions, but it is in its own way a beautiful monster of a hedge.

While writing and researching my book on hedges, I have been pondering the role that hedges and hedgerows played in the creation of Britain, but I’m still not sure that I know what Britishness is. National identity grows out of our sense of territory and tribalism, which starts from our immediate surroundings. So at least part of what my country means to me must have come from my childhood and the things I discovered about the world as I grew up among the hedges of Burgess Hill.

So what did I learn?

I learned that a ball going over the hedge might never be returned. I learned the importance of keeping your hedge well-clipped. I learned that neighbours can be friendly, but more often like to keep themselves to themselves, in the privacy of their own space. I saw the wide disparity in the spaces in which people had to live. And I learned that hedge topiary was a slightly eccentric habit, but nonetheless within the bounds of social acceptability.

I also came to see that fields, trees and hedges were not just part of nature, but objects with historical resonance. Many roads in this part of town are named after trees or the landscape they replaced. Ferndale, Birchwood Grove, Glendale, Ravenswood, Woodland Drive. These are wide leafy roads, with plenty of trees remaining, but they were once woodland or fields leading down the hill to Ditchling Common, where the local commoners had had grazing rights. We used to walk there via the abandoned One o’Clock Farm. It was a lovely route, through overgrown fields, past hedgerows full of wild flowers, and a few derelict farm buildings sinking gracefully into disrepair. When the land was eventually sold to developers to become a housing estate, we hated the builders as they concreted it over, field by field. But still we could cycle to countryside beyond, or drive up to the South Downs where the footpaths passed Iron Age forts and looked down on the patchwork fields of Sussex below.

Nationality is about what we think of as normal, as part of “us” rather than “them”. The landscape around us is important not just because it is a familiar scene that we get accustomed to, but also because we feel that it somehow belongs to us. As a key element in the transformation from wilderness to the modern landscape, the hedges of town and country tell us a great deal about the ideas that shaped our nation.

In exploring the roots and history of the British hedge, I’ve been tracing unbroken lines that stretch back into the past. These lines make a web that criss-crosses the country, partly structured but with much of its form owing to natural growth, tendrils looping out and back again, composed of the new growth of personal recollection on the ‘dead hedges’ of those who’ve gone before.

I think this is where Britishness lies for me, somewhere in that great constantly changing hedge of different roots, in the growth and regrowth that has led us to where we are today and will lead us into the future.

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Filed under Historical Hedges, Rural Britain, The Hedge Philosopher

Six Weeks to Go

It’s been a long and winding road, but the book (Hedge Britannia) will finally be published on 10th May. It is being printed right now, so I am looking forward to seeing copies.

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Filed under Historical Hedges, Literary Hedges

Hatfield’s Knot Garden and Mazes

This is Hatfield’s knot garden, with its lovely low maze and topiaries.

The site of the garden originally lay under a wing of the house which was devastated by a fire in the early 19th century. The brick paths were handlaid by the prizewinning hedgelayer Larry Laird, from bricks recycled from a demolished bothy in the grounds, by hand. Although the garden was only created in the 1980s, the final result has the feel of a renaissance formal garden.

There is also a much larger yew maze in the east garden, which is a Victorian creation – this garden is only open to the public on designated days.

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Filed under Garden History, Hedge Mazes, Historical Hedges, Notable Hedges

The “hedge-publisher” and the hedge professor

Following my various posts on the use of “hedge-” as a derogatory prefix meaning “humble” or “of low origins” I was interested to find this usage buried in a 1922 book called A Dictionary Of The Printers And Booksellers Who Were At Work In England, Scotland And Ireland From 1668 To 1725 by Henry R. Plomer.

MALTHUS (SARAH), bookseller in London, London House Yard, at the West End of St. Paul’s, i7oo(?)-i7o6. Widow of Thomas Malthus. Her only entries in the Term Catalogues were made in 1704: The Royal Diary (William Ill’s) and Dunton’s New Practice of Piety. [T.C. ill. 397-8.] She was then at London House Yard. Dunton speaks of her kindly in 1703 in his Life and Errors, and as if she was then newly set up in business, and she published the book two years later ; but by 1706 he had quarrelled with her. He accuses her of slandering him in The Wandering Spy ; she attached his goods for debt, and he abused her violently in The Whipping Post, 1706, calling her “a hedge-publisher”, “the famous publisher of Grub-street News”, &c.

(Bold added for emphasis)

As a publisher myself I’d be happy enough to be called a hedge-publisher, though when the book comes out (in May, just being typeset now) I might be presumptuous enough to start calling myself a “hedge-professor” instead…

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Filed under Everyday Hedges, Historical Hedges