Having narrowed down my sphere of paying-close-attention to a mile in each direction from home, I am watching everything with a much keener eye. I can really recommend this approach, especially for someone like me who is always wondering what might be over the next hill and then can't stop themselves from going to have a look. Nowadays nothing would induce me to venture forth because I have too much of interest to see nearer to home, and it is also Rogationtide next week, so the proper day for Beating the Bounds, and I have a bit of Parish boundary ready and waiting.
My hedgerow watching has been aided immeasurably by a little book I came across in the library and which no one seemed to have borrowed since 2008. I have now had it for the maximun three reservations so The Living History of Our Hedgerows - A Guide to Dating Hedgerows and I must soon part company. For such a small book, forty-eight pages. there has been a huge amount of Did You Know material with which to drive Bookhound to distraction.
I had no idea that Saxon ploughs needed a wide turning circle for their oxen which is why their fields were long and thin with curved sides to cope with that, and apparently, when dating a hedge it is often field shape that will offer the first clues. They won't have any sharp corners and if the fields are 'S' shaped it will be a reverse 'S' because the ploughs always turn anti-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere...no I'm not quite sure why either...can someone explain that??
Nor did I know that names like Hay, Hayes, Hayne and Hey are all parts of place-names which mean 'enclosed by hedges'.
Land-sharing in the Middle Ages involved dividing fields into strips, which I did know, but not that they measured twenty-two yards wide and two hundred and twenty-two yards long, ancient measurements still familiar today as 'chains' for cricket pitches and 'furlongs' for horse-racing.
By this time Bookhound has meandered off to clear out the shed which has resident rodent activity, and you would all be every welcome to wander off elsewhere too if I am having the same effect....except you'll miss a really good Did You Know bit coming next.
You know how you often see a row of trees in the middle of a field??
This one is just along the lane and I had often wondered...
Well, apparently, when a farmer had earned enough money to buy more strips of land he would plant a hedge (usually hawthorn, meaning hedge-thorn) and plant an oak tree every twenty-two yards. Perhaps these hedges have disappeared but the trees live on.
The familiar rule for dating a hedge, based on a formula derived from considerable research, is one new species every hundred years measured over a thirty metre length. Lesley Chapman recommends doing six separate counts for six thirty metre lengths, avoiding gates or adjacent woodland and then taking an average, so that's my next task on a fine day. Except now I realise I'm going to have to buy the book because there is a really helpful chart in the middle for filling in as you count, and much pictorial detail about species, along with useful information about the red herrings that can have you barking up the wrong tree and lead you right up the garden path etc....quoting a few salient pointers here...
...Hawthorn dominance may indicate a fairly new hedge not yet colonised by other species, or an unintentional hedge because it grows so fast and is unlikely to be eaten by animals.
...Hazel is an indicator of former woodland, and of great age of the hedge.'
...Ash was deliberately planted for tool handles, so if dominant indicates a deliberately planted hedge.
...Beech and Sycamore were popular in the eighteenth century, and deliberately planted for their appearance.
... There appears to be a maximum number of possible species in a hedge because there can only be a certain number, about thirteen of fourteen, that like the same soil.
...If you see Primrose, Bluebell, Dogs Mercury and Wood Anemone together in a hedge it is probable that it was once a wood.
...Dogwood and Field Maple will only grow if there are at least four species well established, if present you can conclude that the hedge is over four hundred years old at least.
... A badly neglected hedge will lose some of its species. This has implications for dating, for example lack of manpower because of the Black Death when one third of the population died, therefore the hedge may be older than the number of species suggests. I wondered about the impact of the Great War too.
Maybe the biggest surprise of all though came when I read about Spindle.
Do you remember this little hedegrow phenomenon a couple of years ago when great swathes around us here were festooned in webs which we eventually discovered were the intricate labours of the Spindle Ermine Moth..
Well, this is what Lesley Chapman has to say about the discovery of Spindle in a hedge..
'Common in Southern England it got its name from its use in making the hand spindles used for spinning wool. It has very hard wood useful for knitting needles... a hedge will have to be six hundred years old before Spindle can grow in it, as it needs thick shelter for its seedlings.'
So, unbelievable though it may seem, that could make some of our hedges fifteenth century before I even begin, and expect me to go into knitting needle production any day now.