Recently, listening to BBC Radio 4, I heard extracts from a recently-published book entitled ‘Hedge Britannia’.
Written by Hugh Barker and published by Bloomsbury Publishing at £16.99, the book is subtitled ‘A Curious History of a British Obsession’ and the best way to give a flavour of its contents is to quote from the publisher’s description.
“Hedge Britannia is a portrait of the nation unlike any other. It is a tale of how agricultural and gardening traditions came to the British Isles, and of how our ideas of territory, neighbours and boundaries came to define town and country alike. Over the centuries we have proved ourselves to be a nation of ardent hedge-growers and this has shaped the landscape we know today. From rolling acres to suburban plots, nothing would be quite the same if the hedge had not made its appearance. It was the arrival of hedges that turned the forests and open pastures of our ancestors into a land of segregated fields, twisting hedgerows, enclosed gardens and, eventually, over-the-top topiary, decorative borders and controversial leylandii.”
What set me thinking was the statement, “Over the centuries we have proved ourselves to be a nation of ardent hedge-growers.” No, not here in Scotland, I thought … and ever since I have become aware of just how many hedges there are right here in Scotland, from field boundaries to garden enclosures and from roadside features to windbreaks for animals. One definition of the noun ‘hedge’ is that it is a fence made from a row of bushes or trees. Early hedges were normally made from the spiny Hawthorn, which makes an impenetrable hedge when laid. Laying a hedge entails removing unwanted twigs, old leaves, debris, brambles, rusty wire and what have you. Next, the stem that is to be laid is cut part-through, about 30cm above the ground, so that it can be bent over to an angle of something of the order of 45°. Nearer the top, the stem is cut at an angle; and it is from this point that the stem will grow vigorously with vertical shoots. Continuing along a line of stems, laying each in this manner, will result in a hedge that soon becomes an impenetrable barrier to animals … and to people, especially if a hostile plant like Hawthorn is used! Need I add laying a hedge is a tricky task, best done by persons with experience in this ancient craft?
Now, I haven’t seen many examples of laid hedges in Scotland; and I suspect that my childhood memories are correct, for I think that there were many fewer hedges here when I was a boy. North of the border, I fancy that hedges were more usually decorative, with dry-stane dykes more commonly used, especially in Scotland’s more barren areas, to confine animals within defined spaces, while householders more commonly had walls … look at the number of older houses in our towns and villages which have a boundary wall fronting the garden … or railings. Many of these railings of my childhood were iron; and they were relentlessly culled by the government during the Second World War, allegedly to help the war effort, though I understand that much of the metal was of poor quality and was unsuitable for use in war machines or munitions. Subsequently, my recollection is that many of these fences were replaced by hedges, usually of privet. Certainly privet hedges sprang up all along the street where I grew up; and one of my childhood regrets was that we never had one of these post-War status symbols. My father was a realist who didn’t fancy annual pruning.
Hedging limits the size of a piece of land; ‘hedging one’s bets’ places limits on one’s risks; ‘hedge funds’ limit financial hazards. We are indeed surrounded by hedging today.
Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society