Tuesday 14 May 2024

Hedge Britannia by Hugh Barker


It was National Hedgerow Week (6-12 May) recently, which seemed like a good prompt to read this book. 

Hedge Britannia examines the history of hedges in the United Kingdom, from their first origins in Roman times through their time as hated emblems of land privatisation during the Enclosures (particularly between 1750–1850) to their current status as ecological gems, seen as a type of linear woodland and hosting many species that are not often found elsewhere in our countryside. It is engagingly written and amply illustrated with photos, many of which are in full colour.

The author visits farmers, historians and scientists (including at the Monks Wood nature reserve which was originally an ecological research station with a particular interest in hedges) to study the role of hedges in various aspects of British life, from marking out field boundaries, to defining territories, to ornamental features of grand gardens (including mazes and topiary designs). We are given insights into the ancient art of hedge laying and some of the people working to continue this art in a world moving more and more to rough, mechanised ways of making hedges. We're also given a brief history of the art of topiary, forming hedges into decorative shapes, such as birds. 

The author contemplates our love of hedges with this:

"Perhaps, deep down, we are still a bit scared of 'nature'? We like to use plants and trees for decorative purposes, but there is an ambivalence in our attitude. We allow nature to flourish, so long as we can be sure that we are still in control"

Hedges certainly do seem to embody this ambivalence very well, an attitude to nature that is also seen in removing wild growing plants to replace them with prettier, more well-behaved species or planting squadrons of trees in neat lines, rather than encouraging natural regeneration.

Interspersed with the regular chapters are profiles of outstanding hedges around the UK, including The Elephant Hedge at Rockingham Castle and The Giants Hedge in Cornwall. The author also glances at other aspects of hedges, including the so called hedge schools of Ireland, in which Catholics in the 18th century taught their faith and the Gaelic language in secret schools hidden behind hedges. 

This is a fascinating, readable account of hedges, which will appeal particularly to anyone interested in the history of the British countryside. 

Hedge Britannia by Hugh Barker, published (2012) by Bloomsbury


Here is an interesting link on Hedgerow Plant Diversity from the People's Trust for Endangered Species.  

You may also be interested in my review of A Natural History of the Hedgerow by John Wright, which you can read here.


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