Sometimes it’s interesting to see the internet searches that bring people to this blog. The above question was one of them yesterday. It’s a pretty hard question to answer precisely – I’ve got a whole chapter in the book called “What is a Hedge” and I still don’t claim to have the definitive answer, but here are a few quick thoughts.
Firstly, a hedge is traditionally a row of trees or woody shrubs that have been interlinked so as to form a boundary or barrier.
However this can’t be a precise definition. A hedgerow that has become gappy can still be called a hedge. And if I plant a row of trees on a bank or field boundary with the intention of laying them into a hedge, you could still call the row of trees a hedge, even though they are not interlinked.
My general theory is that a hedge is always the result of human intervention in the landscape – hedges can be grown (or early hedges were left on the edge of assarts, clearings in the wildwood), and managed as barriers, boundaries, screens or ornaments. The only kinds of hedge that aren’t intentionally created are fencerows, meaning the lines of vegetation that grow alongside barriers such as walls and fences because they are protected from the elements. But these are still caused by the creation of the original barrier.
In all these cases the hedge exists because of human action. A line of trees is a hedge if it is functioning as a hedge, is intended to become a hedge, was once intended to be a hedge, or grew alongside something else that was intended to function as a barrier or screen.
So I’d suggest that a hedge is never an entirely natural element, and can always be explained in terms of its use or intended use as a barrier, boundary, ornament or screen.
This is a sixteenth century poem by Torquato Tasso.
Hedge, that divides the lovely
Hedge, that divides the lovely
Garden, and myself from me,
Never in you so fair a rose I see
As she who is my lady,
Loving, sweet and holy:
Who as I stretch my hand to you
Presses it, so softly, too.
I’ve been up north in Lancashire for a few days – nice to see that the may blossom is out pretty much everywhere on the hawthorn hedges and trees, not just in the south.
Hawthorn is derived from the Old English haga-thorn, meaning hedge-thorn, which shows how long it has been in use as a hedging plant. A lot of magical qualities are ascribed to it, including being a home for the fairies.
It is also known as the May Tree, because the blossom traditionally appeared in late April/early May (spring has been coming a little earlier lately). The blossom was collected for the May Day or Beltane festivals, for decoration, to celebrate new life, and for rituals such as the May Queen and Green May.
The government is currently trying to scrap the May Day bank holiday. It’s worth bearing in mind that this holiday goes back much further than its recent role as a workers’ day(which is presumably why it riles the Tories) to ancient times when it was a celebration of spring in all its glory. If they do take the bank holiday away I think we should respond with a mass skive on future May Days.
“Hooper’s Law” gives us a way to estimate the age of a hedgerow (Max Hooper is a scientist who studied and wrote about hedgerows and biodiversity.)
The simplest method is to count the number of species of tree or shrub found in a 100 ft length of hedge. This number (averaged over three or more sample stretches) multiplied by 100 gives a rough estimate of the age of the hedge. So a hedge with an average of five woody species might be tentatively dated to the 16th century. (There are more complicated versions, but they give similar results).
However, it is important to bear in mind that Hooper’s Law is a rule of thumb and can only be used alongside other dating techniques such as local history, old maps, study of the field patterns, other flora in the hedge and so on.
An example of hedges where Hooper’s Law gives a misleading result comes from the area around the Stiperstones in Shropshire – squatters and free miners of the 18th and 19th century planted a lot of domestically useful trees in their smallholding hedges, including fruit trees, spindle, laburnum (for the wood) and gooseberries, so there are more woody species than one would expect.
All sort of foods can be found in rural hedgerows, which made them a traditional foraging place for the “common people.”
Fruit and nut trees included crab apple, damson, wild cherry, hazel, and pear. Flowers and fruits were used to make drinks such as blackberry or elderberry wine, sloe gin, cider and perry. And while it would now be illegal to trap birds or take their eggs, it was a common practise in the past. Firewood was also often taken from hedges, although the crime of “hedgebreaking” was introduced to try and prevent this.
If you want to go foraging in hedgerows, the classic book on the subject is Richard Mabey’s Food for Free. A more recent option is the excellent River Cottage Handbook No. 7 by John Wright which includes advice on species such as bilberries, blackberries, cloudberries, common mallow, dandelions, hedge garlic, horseradish, pignuts, nettles, sloes, sweet chestnuts, water mint and wild cherries, as well as a rundown on the current legal situation regarding foraging on various forms of land.
This is an old article, from 2003, but still an interesting read:
I very much like this – ‘duchthas, the Gaelic word that means something like “the sense of belonging in a place” ‘ – it’s a word I wasn’t familiar with before. I guess that’s a large part of what I’m trying to convey in the book, the way that hedges form part of our (or my) sense of belonging in Britain. (Which could be described as “Britishness” though I’m not sure that’s a coherent concept).
Hedges aren’t only characteristic of the countryside and the way in which the land has been divided and used. They also map out towns and cities, firstly because they surround so many gardens, and secondly because urban development often followed the old field patterns, as the fields were sold off piecemeal and gradually built on. So urban roads often follow old hedgelines. And, as fragments of forest, hedges are also reminders of the wildwood which grew here before we created the modern landscape. For every freestanding tree on these islands, there are many more that make up the hedges of town and country.
So while hedges are only one element of the natural world around us, they carry a significant amount of information about our relationship with nature.
A couple of nursery rhymes today:
There was a man of Newington,
And he was wond’rous wise,
He jump’d into a quickset hedge,
And scratch’d out both his eyes:
But when he saw his eyes were out,
With all his might and main,
He jump’d into another hedge,
And scratch’d ’em in again
(A quickset hedge is one planted from live cuttings, usually hawthorn – “quick” here means “alive” as in “the quick and the dead” rather than “fast” – although such hedges were planted partly because they grow quickly.)
Little lad, little lad, Where wast thou born?
Far off in Lancashire, Under a thorn;
Where they sup sour milk, From a ram’s horn.
It’s always risky to try and guess what nursery rhymes “mean” – however the “thorn” here may well be a hedge – being “born under a hedge” or “hedgeborn” traditionally meant a humble background.
This rhyme might be related to the fact that, in the middle ages, the saying “Horne and Thorne shall make England forlorne” was used to refer to the sheep and hedges that were invading the landscape because of new enclosures (inspired by the thriving wool industry) – the result was a lot of common people losing their homes and livelihoods, and being forced to move “far off” to the new towns and cities.