I’ve been going all a bit pastoral of late. I’m reading about the medieval field systems around Cambridge and even been dipping into the writings of Richard Jefferies. And now as I lie in bed as still as a Devon Bank (which is nowhere near as effective as it’s Cornish counterpart) Radio 4 are about to serialise ‘Hedge Britannia’ by Hugh Barker as their Book of the Week.
Alas, I have not read this esteemed volume, what with my busy Life in the Fields of Cambridgeshire, but after just the first episode listened to, I may, and this is in no way a promise dear readers, get myself a copy.
Mr Barker starts his book looking at the start of his life wherein he asserts one of the first things we learn as children is that boundaries exist. His external boundaries were walls, fences, roads, alleyways and at the bottom of his parent’s garden, of course, a hedge. The ancients knew a hedge as a hecg, hegge, haga or even a haw; but what indeed is a hedge? A line of closely planted shrubs or trees is the dictionary’s answer, the law goes on to say this forms a screen or a barrier but does not necessarily mark a boundary, disconcerting. Are a couple of bushes a hedge? What happens to our non-boundary barrier hedge when a few holes appear? If a hole becomes a gap? Is there some metaphysical hedge that hides behind the real, asks Hugh.
A hedge has an element of human agency behind it, rather than just being a random collection of bushes. This could be from assarting, the historic clearing of woodland often leaving a relic forest as a hedgerow; planted hedges as boundaries; or a fence row hedge which brings us back dangerously close to our beloved Cornish Banks. And on we go through Hugh’s historic hedges from Caesar to more recent colonial collisions on the battlefields of Europe.
Over the next four days the BBC assures us we will learn how modern humans are practising the ancient art of coppicing invented by our Neolithic ancestors which led to their fall from grace and our own ecological endangerments, how topiary became so fashionable, how to annoy the neighbours with hedges and other more mundane uses of the parochial hedgerow.
And finally, Hugh reminiscences about returning to England and seeing the checkerboard of field and hedgerow from the aeroplane window as it was coming in to land. This echoes my own experience of returning from a 6 month sojourn in the russet orange heat hazed mountains of Spain, my sunbaked eyes were soothed by the subtle shades and hedgey hues not of Jerusalem, not of Blake’s England but of our own landscape of green and pleasant pastures.