A quick history of English hedges

Every country has a mythology about itself, and the countryside figures heavily in England’s. Never mind that three-quarter of the population (give or take a few percentage points) lives in cities–or urban areas if we’re trying to sound impressive about this. When England looks in the mirror, it sees countryside: green fields, shiny clean lambs, and hedges.

I’m limiting this to England, leaving out the rest of Britain, whose history and laws are different. And against my better judgment, I’m counting Cornwall as part of England. That’s not a statement about whether it should be part of England or culturally is part of England. The law treats it as part of England and I know enough about its hedges that I don’t want to leave it out. So all you Cornish nationalists, grab a cup of salt and sprinkle it over your computer screen. I’m talking about hedges here and nothing else.

A rare relevant photo: Cornish fields divided by hedges.

If you’re new to hedgeology, you can think of the hedges (at least the ones that aren’t made of bare stone) as long, narrow woodlands. They grow crops and they shelter and feed wildlife and provide them with safe travel routes. They also define field boundaries, look gorgeous, and embody both history and tradition. Back when rural life was all about staying alive from one harvest to the next, they were an important source of fruit, nuts, wood, and medicine. They were valued for that as much as for their ability to define and divide territory.

And the stone ones? They do most of that but for the bare ones you can forget the long, narrow woodland part.

Why am I mentioning stone walls when this is about hedges? Because the Cornish hedge is made of stone. Some are so heavily covered in plants that you can’t see the stone undernearth and some grow nothing more than a few volunteer wildflowers and small plants. You can find stoneless hedges here, but stone ones (according to my small and unscientific survey) outnumber them. Cornwall’s rich in stone. It’s not a great way to get rich in either money or food, but stone comes with the territory so people put it to use.

[A late addition to the post. In a comment, Bill Roberts added some information about the Cornish hedge that’s worth including here:

[“There is a unique distinction between a Cornish hedge and a dry stone wall. Where the dry stone wall is as it says, a wall made of a single course of stones without mortar, usually seen in the northern counties of England, a Cornish hedge is completely different. It is built in two halves, with an earth core. It is wide at the base tapering as it rises to about 1.2 metres with a concave profile each side called a batter. It supports the structure like an arch supports a bridge. The stones are laid sloping into the centre. The top of the structure is usually covered in earth and planted with hedging plants like blackthorn, or hawthorn to increase the height, which are ‘laid’ like a conventional hedge. There are examples still in use that date back to the bronze age, and Cornish hedges are supposedly the oldest man made structures in the world still being used for their original purpose.”

[For more information about Cornish hedges, see the Guild of Cornish Hedgers website.]

Making hedges

The hedges we’re talking about here aren’t the simple lines of bushes you find around a city or suburban yard–or garden if you’re British. Traditionally, you start by planting some trees or bushes in a line, but then you cut the trunks part of the way through and bend everything above the cut to one side. After that I’m out of my depth and have to refer you to a video.

As the plants grow, all sorts of vining plants work their way through–blackberries, honeysuckle, and whatever else grows locally. By the time the hedge is established, sheep and cattle won’t be wandering through it, and neither will people. Years ago, my partner and I managed to lose our way on a walk and ended up crawling through a hole in a hedge that wasn’t well maintained (the hole wouldn’t have been there if it was well maintained). Crawling through made sense at the time, or seemed to. I came out the other side with a powerful understanding what it means when someone says “you look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards.” 

A well-maintained hedge is an effective border, and hedging’s a skilled job.

In the Cornish hedge, the stones are traditionally laid without mortar. That means you have to pile the damned stones up so that they don’t wander off. A good stone wall can last for hundreds of years. A bad one? Well, I built a bad one and I have to put the stones back in place several times a year. Not all of them, but enough to remind me of the difference between a good Cornish hedge and a bad one. So that’s a skilled job as well.

History

One source I found traces the English hedge back to the Roman occupation of (much but not all of) Britain. Another, which I suspect is more accurate, traces them back to around 1500 BCE, when hedges would’ve been used to mark the boundaries of fields, to enclose clusters of houses, and to fence animals either in or out. By 300 BCE they might have taken on a symbolic value, announcing, “We’re powerful enough to build a bigger hedge than we need, so don’t mess with us. And by the way, this is ours.”

Pre-Roman Britain was tribal and its hedges wouldn’t have indicated individual ownership so much as use, or possibly group ownership, although I’m not sure how well the modern idea  of ownership translates to that period. It wasn’t until the Roman occupation that hedges began to mark individual ownership.

Somewhere between not much and nothing at all is left of those early hedges. Hedges need upkeep, and what needs to be fenced in or out changes, so some wouldn’t have been worth the bother of maintaining. And although rock may last more or less forever, if you build a wall out of it, the wall itself will need maintenance. Still, even if they’d all disappeared completely, they set the pattern. Hedges had become part of the landscape and they were a tool farmers could reach for.

According to the North Wales Wildlife Trust, “Two thirds of England has been continuously hedged for over a thousand years, so many of our older hedgerows are a window into our past. They can range in date from medieval boundaries to the results of the 19th century Enclosures Act when many of the open fields and commons were divided up into smaller pockets.”

We’ll get to enclosure in a minute. We won’t get around to why a North Wales organization is writing about England’s hedges because I don’t have an explanation to offer.

I read somewhere–it’s lost now, so forget finding a link–that you can tell the age of a hedgerow by the variety of blackberry plants in it. The greater the variety, the older the hedge. This is useful if you can tell one variety of blackberry from another, but I can’t. What I can tell you is that blackberries not only grow wild in England, they do it enthusiastically. The fruit’s nice but they’re thorny and they build tiny engines to spread their seeds to new places (these are called birds), and one night they’ll reach through every bedroom window in the country and strangle us all in our beds. They’re only waiting for the signal.

You can also tell the age of a hedge by the variety of species in it. They add roughly one every hundged years. I think that’s in a thirty-meter stretch. It all has to do with Hooper’s Hedgerow Hypothesis.

I can’t can’t put Hooper’s hypothesis to work, but I can tell you that some hedges are old.

The 13th century marks the start of the Enclosure Movement, and hedging more common. Enclosure meant that large landowners, and occasionally smaller ones, enclosed–used a hedge to fence off–what had until then been common land. That allowed the landowner to claim it as his own, and in this period the landowner would almost invariably have been a his.

Common land was recognized in feudal law, which gave the juiciest rights to the lords but granted some to the peasants, and the use of a common–a piece of land owned by the landlord but set aside for the tenants–was an important one. And yes, the common is, at least in part, the origin of the word commoner. Even today a commoner is still someone with the right to use one of the few surviving pieces of common land.

The commoners’ rights were clearly defined. They might be able to graze animals, gather wood or reeds, fish, dig peat, or take sand or coal. The specific rights varied from common to common. Even though the commoners didn’t own the common, their rights were clear and protected by law and tradition.

Until suddenly they weren’t and commoners found the common pulled out from under them. We think of feudalism as oppressive, and it was, but as feudalism broke down former serfs found themselves personally free but also homeless and starving, which didn’t count as an improvement.

As an anonymous 17th-century poem put it:

          The law locks up the man or woman

          Who steals the goose from off the common

          But lets the greater felon loose

          Who steals the common from the goose.

The first enclosures were relatively limited and mostly, or so I’ve read, about a landowner using the land for something like a deer park, but enclosure became more widespread during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Wool prices had gone up and raising sheep was more profitable than growing grain. By now, the commons were no longer the only land being enclosed. Entire villages were destroyed and their people turned out, becoming vagrants at a time when vagrancy was illegal. According to WikipediaIn the sixteenth century, lack of income made one a pauper. If one lost one’s home as well, one became a vagrant; and vagrants were regarded (and treated) as criminals.”

This was a time of impoverishment, eviction, unemployment, uprooted people. The wool trade became the base of the English economy, but the shift left it dependant on foreign grain and prone to famine.

Hedges became a greater and greater part of the English landscape.

Starting in 1489, Parliament passed eleven acts over 150 years to stop enclosure, to limit its effects, or to fine the people responsible for it, all without managing to stop the process, although it may slowed it down and prevented even greater social havoc.

By the time the Civil War began (that’s 1642, according to Lord Google), Parliament’s leaders supported the rights of landlords. The king had been serving as a brake on enclosure, but with the overthrow of the monarchy, the brakes were off.

By about 1650, wool prices had settled down and wool was no longer driving enclosure, but changes in farming practices continued to. Large-scale farming was more profitable than small scale.  

The Wikipedia entry I quoted above says, “The enclosure movement probably peaked from 1760 to 1832; by the latter date it had essentially completed the destruction of the medieval peasant community.”

The effects of enclosure are hard to overestimate. Riots and rebellions are sprinkled throughout the period, beginning in the 16th century. People destroyed hedges and tried to reclaim pastures. The most organized and ambitious of these were the Diggers. Around 1650, they formed communities and declared the earth a common treasury, cultivating common and unused land in the hope of restoring all land to its “rightful owners, the common people, rather than the king, nobility and gentry who had usurped it.” 

Basing their beliefs on the bible, they called for the overthrow of the nobility, an equalization of wealth, and the abolition of property rights. As the radical priest John Ball had asked in the 1380s, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”

The movement spread rapidly, provoking “a fierce reaction. The Surrey Diggers were persecuted by local gentry with legal action, economic boycott and violence. In April 1650, just one year after the original settlement was founded, the Diggers’ shelters were burned down and their crops destroyed. Other communities met a similar fate to the Surrey group and the movement was effectively suppressed by the end of 1650.”

Their legacy echoes on, though. Wigan has a yearly festival commemorating them. This year’s features a list of musicians that includes Attila the Stockbroker, whose website describes his group’s latest album as “early music meets punk.” I can’t claim to love his voice but his name? Why didn’t I think of it first?

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, parliament passed laws promoting enclosure. As WikiWhatsia puts it, “These parliamentary enclosures consolidated strips in the open fields into more compact units, and enclosed much of the remaining pasture commons or wastes [uninhabited or unused land]. Parliamentary enclosures usually provided commoners with some other land in compensation for the loss of common rights, although often of poor quality and limited extent. Enclosure consisted of exchange in land, and an extinguishing of common rights.”

Fast forward, then, to modern times. With the introduction of tractors, farmers fell out of love with hedges. A bigger field’s easier to plow, and this may well have been true back when they still plowed with horses. This led to some hedges being torn down and others being allowed to decay, but depending on their length, location, and importance, it can be illegal to tear out a hedge. Some are protected by a law from the 1990s and others, in a nice piece of irony, by ancient enclosure laws.

Conservationists watch over them carefully, because they’ve become an important part of the ecosystem.

The modern role of hedges

The North Wales Wildlife Trust says, “Older hedgerows support an amazing diversity of plants and animals and often have archaeologically important old banks and ditches associated with them.”

I was going to list the animals, insects, birds, and plants that hedgerows protect and are made up of, but the quotes lean heavily and unsuccessfully toward poetry, so maybe we’d do just as well to skip them. Hedges keep long lists of wildlife and plantlife alive. For our purposes, that’s enough.

They also slow field runoff, keeping soil and fertilizer in the fields and out of the rivers. They capture carbon and pesticides. They embody a part of England’s history and self-image. They’re also incredibly beautiful.

So here we are, protecting the hedges that once destroyed a way of life.

75 thoughts on “A quick history of English hedges

  1. Oh what a lovely survey of the History of hedges. Its a fascinating subject for landscape geeks. I had always assumed that many hedges had only been planted since enclosure which had happened on a mass scale since 1750s and was surprised that 2/3rd of English hedges were over a thousand years old. I think that most rural wall are “dry stone” walls. It takes skill but it’s probably a lot cheaper than using mortar. Gower still has a lot of common land and commoners still graze their cattle, horses, sheep on the land. I am particularly fascinated by the movement of the “free range” cattle in the Three Cliffs Bay area as they move from the top of the cliffs, down to the grassy river banks and sometimes love to just chew the cud on standing in the middle of the sandy beach. Only hedges round this part of Gower are around people’s gardens.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Just to raise awareness, and to show how nerdy I am
    There is a unique distinction between a Cornish Hedge and a dry stone wall.
    Where the dry stone wall is as it says, a wall made of a single course of stones without mortar. Usually seen in the northern counties of England.
    A Cornish Hedge is completely different. It is built in two halves, with an earth core. It is wide at the base tapering as it rises to about 1.2 metres with a concave profile each side called a Batter. It supports the structure like an arch supports a bridge. The stones are laid sloping into the centre. The top of the structure is usually covered in earth and planted with hedging plants like Blackthorn, or Hawthorne to increase the height, which are “laid” like a conventional hedge. There are examples still in use that date back to the bronze age, and Cornish hedges are supposedly the oldest man made structures in the world still being used for their original purpose

    http://www.cornishhedges.co.uk/abouttheguild.htm

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gorgeous addition to the conversation, Bill, and thanks. I knew (she said defensively) about the two halves and the core of the Cornish hedge, and once knew (vaguely) but had forgotten about the sloping sides, but I hadn’t stopped to think that the dry stone walls I’ve seen up north really do look very different. And that, um, there’s probably a reason for that. I may go back and add your comment into the body of the post for the benefit of anyone who finds it later on, because it really does matter–at least to anyone who’s interested in the topic, as I clearly am.

      Like

      • Glad you liked my small contribution Ellen. You may have guessed I have a keen interest in the subject 😁
        I added a link to The Guild of Cornish Hedgers, which I used to be a member of

        Like

      • Glad you liked my small contribution Ellen. You may have guessed I have a keen interest in the subject 😁
        I added a link to The Guild of Cornish Hedgers, which I used to be a member of for anyone interested

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This was terrific history, Ellen. Who knew hedges were far more than marking property lines, containing animals, and growing necessarily plants. Well, I guess those three are a pretty big deal. Still, this was a big eye and mind opener. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. There’s so much to comment on here, so:
    1. I didn’t know that hedges were used in the thirteenth century. In my head it was all strip farming. That’s definitely something to investigate.
    2. Even as a child I noticed how small Cornish fields were compared to everywhere else. I’ve driven from Yorkshire to Hampshire today and all the fields I passed were huge. You could get ten or more Cornish fields into them.
    3. I can’t tell the difference between blackberry varieties either, but I still remember the surprise of someone with whom I was on a walk forty years ago when I picked and ate blackberries as we were going along. I don’t know where he came from not to know that blackberries grew in hedgerows, but I grew up in a town and I knew. No, I have no idea why ‘hedgerow’ makes more sense to me in that context than ‘hedge’.
    4. I have never before wondered why Cornish hedges are ‘different’. That’s probably because they’re part of my childhood. You’ve brought back all kinds of holiday memories, not least one of my younger sister walking along a Cornish hedge and falling into a patch of nettles. To this day I’m not sure why it was my fault.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I picked the first wild blackberries today and–wouldn’t you know it?–stuck my hand into nettles. My fingers are stinging as I type. Somehow blackberries and nettles always seem to find each other.

      Near Boscastle, there’s a field called the Stitches where you can still see the outlines of the strip field system. If you ever get down this way, let me know and we’ll go be awestruck by it together.

      As I read up on hedges for this post, I began to think that hedgerows are the rural things we’re talking about and hedges are their suburban imitators. but I’m not sure I’m right about that.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ellen, this is fascinating, and a post I’ll be referring back to from time to time. My first childhood home was surrounded by hedges, and so many years later when I bought a home, one of the first things I did was start planting hedges. Of course, they aren’t the intricate ecosystem hedges written about here, but … Must be my English genes!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The English seem to value enclosed spaces. It’s rare to see the kind of bleakly open spaces that American suburbs (and spread out cities) are so prone to. The house we bought is part of a 1970s subdivision–what’s called an estate here–and the front lawn was bleakly open. We planted a hedge which is the world’s slowest growing hedge and I’ve taken to thinking of it as our imaginary hedge. But low as it is, it does soften the place.

      Like

  6. It’s interesting to see something living that has spanned centuries, while humans tried to use them for different purposes. I didn’t really appreciate what the word “hedgerow” meant until I was riding next to one on one of those historically narrow roads. I can’t imagine trying to get through one.

    Thanks for the history lesson. I find this stuff fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. By some strange twist of fate I recently read a fascinating book about this very same topic: “Cræft : an inquiry into the origins and true meaning of traditional crafts” / Langlands, Alex. This dude, an archeologist, if I remember correctly, really digs in and tries to recreate things done in the long forgotten past. Or nearly so, he does find experts along the way who are still practicing the arts or crafts from back in the olden times. Fun read!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fantastic. Friends of mine who live in northern Minnesota, did something similar if less systematic, making deerhide mocassins and birchbark baskets based on paintings of traditional ones.

      Like

  8. You will be so proud. I finally understand one of the lyrics in Led Zepplin’s Stairway to Heaven. “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now. It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.” Thinking of American hedges, I couldn’t imagine what they have to do with May queens. Most of them wouldn’t support a good-sized hedgehog. But it appears that they were talking about something much more substantial. I’m sure this met one of your goals when you were doing all that research

    Liked by 1 person

    • A bustle in your hedgerow? I wonder if that’s the kind of bustle you can wear (if you’re inclined toward that kind of thing) or the kind of bustle as in hustle and…. Presumably the second, and she’s not going to come out looking her best. I managed not to catch those lyrics.

      But yes, a hedgerow is a handy thing to duck behind on a long walk when you’ve been drinking too much water. Or tea. Or beer. Or if you’ve met the love of your next twenty minutes and want the illusion of privacy. In Cornwall, they allow you to hide from half the county, but the other half has a good, if distant, view.

      Liked by 1 person

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  10. Thank you so much for this post. It answered every question I had about hedges, and many more that I didn’t know I had. The concept of the hedge is a bit mysterious to Americans, at least to those of us who are aware that an English hedge is different from our simple long low bush. And now, at least for this American, the mystery is cleared up. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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