The late Roger Deakin, who died far too young in 2006, would have been seventy today, and in his honour we are going to talk hedging, a subject of which Roger would most certainly have approved and on which he most certainly has something to say.
A small group of writers of Roger Deakin's ilk, with their keen eye and astute observations of so much that I hitherto seem scarcely to have noticed, let alone understood more deeply, are proving more influential to my reading than I could ever have imagined. I would place Roger's book Wildwood, which I have finally finished after a six month very slow meander through it, near the top of the list. These books are opening my eyes to what is in front of them and when I read the chapter entitled A New-laid Hedge in Wildwood recently it all chimed... I know of what he speaks...
'I know of nothing more saddening than a machine-flailed hedge. It speaks of the disdain of nature and a craft that still dominates our agriculture. Even after years of benign neglect, plashed hedges stand as monuments to the best traditions of good husbandry.'
We do love the hedgerows along our lane with a passion, to the point of feeling a little possessive and protective of them, ours is the only house you come to as you drive along that first mile and you will only pass one more by the time you reach the little row of cottages at the other end.
That makes it all ours really doesn't it.
I can't pretend to know much about hedge-laying, or how-to, though I discover there is a National Hedgelaying Society devoted to the preservation of the craft. It's all about keeping the stock in the fields, providing shelter for them and supporting the healthy growth of the hedge, which if left untended will eventually revert to a row of trees.
I do know a little more now thanks to Roger...
'I began at the left-hand end, working along the hedge to my right and laying the cut trees and hazel stems to my left. I cut through each stem as close as possible to the ground with a diagonal stroke of the billhook that severed the stem almost right through, but left the bark and enough connective tissue to allow the sap to flow. Once cut in this way, the stems or trees are called pleachers....'
And we screeched the car to a halt driving home from town last week at the sight of this newly laid hedge, a rare sight indeed.
This is winter work to be done when the architecture of the hedge is most clearly visible; labour for a waning moon when the tide of the sap is low apparently. And who knew that there were differing styles of hedge-laying across the country. Sadly our hedges are now the victims of the regular massacre that Roger speaks of. Expediency and a different form of land stewardship and conservation being the main aim, whilst time and labour spent making hedges look nice and traditional would hardly be a priority on a busy farm nowadays. We stay indoors whilst it is being done or risk losing an eye as the branches become lethal shrapnel, jettisoned in all directions, and when we walk out afterwards the lane is a carpet of razor sharp splinters, death to bicycle tyres and the hedge itself a mess of sharp, jagged ends.
All a far cry from the swish of the billhook.
But there has been progress and the cutting is regulated to avoid crucial phases in the life of the hedge, which is resilient and somehow seems to recover quickly, and once done and repaired it has to be said the lane look very neat and tidy from afar. This is how it is looking at the moment, and perhaps thanks in some part to some meticulous hedge-laying many moons ago.
Imagine then, if you will, our horror when the council turned up to do their once a decade resurfacing of 'our' lane a few years ago, and started the project with a massacre of the hedges at the beginning of June when they were looking like this...
...just as the birds were nesting, and the wild flowers were approaching their full glory and would then set seed for the next year ...well we nearly cried, and in the name of all that is Roger Deakin we did our level best.
It was all about having access for the tarmacing machine apparently, and though we made many desperate phone calls to the county highways department, the RSPB and the environment agency... you name it we tried, it was all to no avail.
I suspect Roger would have gone and camped on the steps of the council offices or something.
In fact it was more than a massacre because the contractors were brought in from outside, so not the farmer who usually does the work and does at least understand the nuances of the growth. We watched in despair as the hedge was flailed back to the soil and the foundation stones in places, and started to disintegrate before our eyes; the birds disappeared for the remainder of the summer and we can still see the spots where the hedge has never properly recovered. This being us we did keep on...and on...and on... out of principle and until the council reluctantly sent a solitary worker in for about an hour to rebuild the parts that were collapsing.
But as we walk in the winter, when the skeletons of the hedgerows along our lane and around the fields are laid bare, and seeing through to the bones of the hedge, it is if we are granted a little window onto a visible social history, and easy to spot where the hedge-layers of old may have been at work.
'Very old laid hedges can be works of the hedgers art: a kind of tree jazz, improvised down the generations..' says Roger, and I would most definitely agree. I almost want to sit at this one and play a tune..
...and spot the stock peering through at us...
So there you have it, a quick Monday morning session on hedge-laying... bet you weren't expecting that, and here's remembering the inimitable one and only Roger Deakin on his seventieth ...and with much gratitude for my eyes now wide open.
Any more Roger Deakin fans out there??