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.