History in our Hedgerows

Whether by tree surgery, forestry, hedge-laying or farmers’ flail, winter is the peak tree management season down the Daffodil Line. In England we are surrounded by a man made landscape, and our trees and hedgerows help us trace its history. 

The original primaeval wildwood was composed largely of lime trees with leaves edible to the ruminants grazing between their boughs, opening glades and rides. The Neolithic transhumance cycle of summer upland and winter lowlands grazing, created an early semblance of common land. This evolved as early Celtic settlers arrived from the continent, and at their peak, Cymru was the language spoken across what is now England and Wales. 

Then, Romans literally and figuratively paved the way for movements beyond the implosion of their empire. The Anglo-Saxons came after, making enclosures for their families and animals in what was still a formidable landscape, ironically giving the Cymru people the title Welsh, meaning foreign…

In the words of dulcimer musician Arlen Olesen: ‘In mediaeval times a pale was an enclosing barrier. It could surround an animal pen or fence in a settlement; it marked the edge of what was secure and familiar. So it was that beyond the pale came to mean everything else: the unknown, the unwanted, the unacceptable. But whichever side you’re on, over the fence is the other side. Join us, further beyond the pale!’

Some of the paling fences and brush ‘dead’ hedges of the Anglo-Saxons inevitably struck roots, and the hedgerow was inaugurated into the landscape. The repeated pleaching of the shrub layer formed an impenetrable barrier, the taller standard trees maintained a source of timber and firewood as the wildwood receded, and pollards grew to become markers of territorial boundaries. The brutality of feudalism was tempered by rights of Common over post-harvest fields and meadows, woodlands and manorial ‘waste’, creating perfect habitats for wild daffodils! So enshrined were these rights that most survived even the arrival of the remorseless Normans.

By the C14th , the wool market had grown and the C16th dissolution of the monasteries created a new mercantile class of farmers eager for enclosure. From the C18th  their wish was granted by Enclosure Acts, and though new hedges spread across the privatised land, many old trees and woodlands vanished with the rights of way that connected them. It was also a period of religious intolerance, thus the heathen lost their heaths.

Hammer flails eventually exhaust hedges, exposing the barbed wire, but regenerative hedge-laying can be found throughout our region and the craft lives on. The aforementioned mass movements of people would now be illegal: trespass with the intent to reside has been outlawed in the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, by the same party that brought you Enclosure law. Fun. 

But, there is a history of organised resistance, from the Peasants Revolt and early agricultural Trade Unions to Via Campesina; Diggers, Levellers and Robert Kett to HOOF. 

This bus is not just public transport, it’s a movement… Fortunately, we still have rights of way and a bus, so get onboard and explore what trees, coppices, commons and laid hedges we have down the line. Don’t just witness the emergent shoots of new wild daffodils, be one! 

Jack Guest, Jack-by-the-Hedge Land & Garden Care futurerustic@zoho.com 07553908784

Suggested Reading

https://tlio.org.uk/a-short-history-of-enclosure-in-britain/, S Fairlie, Bridport, 2009

‘The Common Lands of England and Wales’, WG Hoskins and L Dudley Stamp, Collins New Naturalist, London / Glasgow, 1963

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