A Brief History Of The Hedge

Follow us on a journey through history as we plot the timeline for the development of hedges from simple boundary markers to elaborate topiary and of course the fabulous value offered by online hedge suppliers like Hedge Xpress 😉 …

Ancient Beginnings

Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild:
William Wordsworth

Hedge or Hedgerow?

Before we start, we should clear up the difference between a ‘hedge’ and a ‘hedgerow’. All hedgerows are hedges, but not all hedges are hedgerows as the latter are, strictly speaking, ‘hedges planted and cultivated to separate fields from roads or other fields that are sufficiently well established to incorporate larger trees as well as shrubs’.

Of course, many a plant used today in the garden hedge are, in fact, trees so the Yew, Laurel and Beech trimmed and trained in your garden could just as well find itself soaring ever upwards in a hedgerow. But to talk of garden hedges is to jump the gun – by about 6,000 years…

Back in the Neolithic…

Our story begins with a question – when did mankind make his first indelible mark on the natural landscape? The pyramids perhaps? Not a bad guess as Egyptian architects started experimenting with their grand designs around 2,700 BCE but that is well over 1,000 years after Neolithic man started to cultivate cereals on 12 to 25 acre proto-farms and – here’s the answer – to devise a way of demarcating their small, quarter- acre fields.

Their solution – plant hedges. Archaeologists have traced the outlines of some of these first hedges, unearthing evidence that hedges remain today that follow the exact lines of those first laid thousands of years ago during the Bronze Age.

And that’s the thing about hedges and hedgerows – every single inch, foot, yard and mile has been man-made. Nature may do rivers, mountains and arctic tundra, but, as much as it would like to, it can’t do a hedge.

What’s in a name?

The word ‘hedge’ goes back nearly 2,000 years. In Old English we find hecg (any fence, living or artificial) and haga (enclosure or hedge) and it survives in both modern German (Hecke) and Dutch – Holland’s seat of government – The Hague (Den Haag) – is actually an abbreviation of Gravenhage that means, in full, ‘the hedge-enclosed hunting grounds of the counts of Holland’!

By the mid-14th century, ‘hedge’ had taken on the figurative sense of a boundary or barrier and from the 1530s it could be prefixed to any word to mean, according to Dr Johnson’s dictionary: ‘something mean, vile, of the lowest class’ as in hedge-lawyer or hedge-wench. The inference being that such people carried out their business under a hedge! In the 1590s hedging also acquired the meaning of evading and in the 1670s people started to hedge their bets.

Hedge has come a long way since the days of Bronze Age farming!

From the Bronze Age Onwards

The thorn tree just began to bud
And greening stained the sheltering hedge,
An many a violet beside the wood
Peeped blue between the withered sedge
John Clare

We’ve looked at how, during the medieval and Renaissance periods, the knot garden grew up to become the maze (see The Maze, August below) but long before and throughout this period, the hedge was a common and dominant sight in the landscape, just not in the garden.

The Dark Ages

While medieval England may be said to have been a golden age for the hedge, the Dark Ages weren’t exactly, well, dark. The hedge still thrived across Europe and this period produced one of the earliest mentions of the hedge in a military context…

Before Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne, became Holy Roman Emperor in 875 AD, he was King of West Francia. Not the most peaceable of kingdoms and in 864 he is recorded to have complained that, contrary to custom, practice and his orders, one group of his army were making fortifications not out of wooden palisades but out of haies et fertés – tightly interwoven hawthorn hedges.

Medieval Hedges

As farming developed, so did the need to demarcate fields, protect crops from wind, weather and roaming wildlife and to pen in livestock. And while many internal hedges were subsequently ploughed in as field grew bigger, those separating fields from lanes fared far better. Today it is estimated that c.25% of all the hedges in Devon were planted over 800 years ago while the figure is even higher in Cornwall with c.75% having an ancestry of 600 years or more.

One person wasn’t happy with the way hedges were going and around 1175, King Richard 1 dictated that no hedge should be more than 4’ 6’’ high so that a) his deer could roam freely; b) his horse could easily jump the barrier when in pursuit of the deer and c) he would always have a clear shot at said deer.

In the 15th century the quickset hedge was invented – that’s quick as in alive (the quick and the dead) rather than fast growing. Live hazel or common hawthorn cuttings were planted directly into the ground to create a dense barrier. At the same time, sheep farming (for wool) started to dominate the economy and the hedge suffered its first real setback as greedy landowners created the first mega-farms

The 18th and 19th Centuries

The hedge had to wait until the 18th century for its next boom as heaths and uplands were enclosed along with common land. However, this had devastating social consequences for those kicked off the affected land and often left to starve.

Modern Times and into the Garden

Of all formal things in the world, a clipped hedge is the most formal; and of all the informal things in the world, a forest tree is the most informal.
Henry Ward Beecher

After 6,000 years criss-crossing the landscape, the hedge finally staked its claim as part of the garden. Of course, grand houses with grander gardens have had hedges for centuries and they were by no means unknown gracing the lands of well-off 19th century gentry, but it was really only in the time of Victoria that hedges became popular in more modest gardens.

Privet and yew had found a new home and keen gardeners a new hobby – topiary. No sooner had the hedge become established in ordinary gardens, then their owners were wielding sheers with artistic intent! Perfect spheres, spiralling pyramids, not to mention assorted animals were lovingly created out of tightly leaved hedging plants.

The Current Situation

It’s perhaps fitting to end with a quick health check on the nation’s hedges and hedgerows:
– The latest estimate states that we have c.1.8 million hedgerow trees standing proud – and that’s only those whose canopies are NOT touching others
– There are c.30,000 miles of hedges in Cornwall…
…And 33,000 miles in Devon – home to numerous species including 600 flowering plants, 1500 insects, 65 birds and 20 mammals
– The art of hedge laying is enjoying a renaissance with over 30 distinctive regional styles and methods still being employed in active land management, for conservation and for the sheer joy of it
– The garden hedge is increasingly popular and Yew, Privet, Laurel, Box, Beech, Hornbeam, Photinia, Lonicera and Leylandii are being planted as fences, windbreaks, boundaries and specimen plants up and down the country

Here’s to the hedge’s next 6,000years!

Photo Credit: Tim Green aka atoach via Compfight cc