One of the things that always lifts my spirits and adds an anticipatory tingle of excitement to the approach of autumn and winter is that it is time for hedging.
This surely marks me out as an old man more than anything else, as I have rarely come across anyone under the age of 30 interested in the art of hedge laying (or any other traditional rural skills).
I have tried to persuade many a student of the attractions of sticks and stones (hedges and walls/banks) but to no avail, thus I have to save this part of my skill set for out of work activities!
Hedging time is here again
So what is this mysterious craft, this dark art, with its own language of billhooks, crooks, steepers (or pleachers/plashers), combs and precise regional variations?
It was over 15 years ago when I first came across Devon Hedge Week and signed up for a course at the urging of a friend. It was a crazy, wet and windy day, not unlike the weather at the moment (February), at TCCT’s Occombe Farm and after just a morning of wrestling with 20 foot hazel stems whipping about I became hooked (billhooked maybe?).
Since then I have even entered the Devon hedge week, hedge laying competition several times (though only ever as a novice) and there is a national competition too!
The aim of hedge laying
The aim of hedge laying is to create a stock-proof barrier by bending young healthy tree growth down to the horizontal, often with the use of judicious cutting using a billhook, and weaving it together before securing it in place with long hooked pegs called crooks.
A billhook is a sharp edge tool with a nose or hook at the end, of which there are many different styles and sizes and the crooks are cut from the material removed from the hedge and usually from hazel trees.
The old growth and any dead wood is cut out before laying begins and at the end you have a secure living hedge that will continue to grow (despite the cutting) and due to the pruning effect will be very vigorous.
While hazel is probably the easiest to lay, a good variety of plants in the hedge makes for a better barrier and encourages wildlife and biodiversity. Blackthorn and hawthorn are both regular and valuable hedge plants (though rather vicious and unforgiving) and dog rose and honeysuckle often provide some floral adornment.
In Devon a hedge is traditionally atop a stone-faced bank, whereas in Cornwall a hedge can be just the stone-faced bank with no growth on it at all! In the Midlands style there is a line of ash or hazel stakes driven into the ground around which the laid stems are woven and it is not on a bank.
Hawthorn is most commonly used here and the hedge is finished off by weaving long thin binders (heathering rods) along the top of the stakes to lock it all together. This style covers most of the country from County Durham in the north all the way down to Buckinghamshire and Berkshire in the south.
The Welsh and border county styles are influenced by it but with subtle differences such as using sawn timber for stakes or laying it lower but on top of a bank (as in Devon) and the angle at which the steepers are laid varies too.
In the South of England style the binding is more complex sometimes incorporating dog roses.This is just a brief sketch of the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the art, which will have developed over time due to the varying regional agricultural practices and local availability of plants/material.
For me, as well as being a practical skill, hedging is a form of meditation allowing me to focus completely on what I am doing and escaping any concerns or worries I may have, while at the same time letting my subconscious mull over them.
Despite the often very physical aspect of the work I come away feeling energised (if a little aching and scratched up) and feeling more positive.
We all need something that gives us this and I’m hoping that maybe this year I’ll be let loose on a hedge at Running Deer in Butterdon Wood!