Hedge Britannia: a curious history of a British obsession, By Hugh Barker
Barrier, border, habitat, evergreen history – a rich past dwells inside your humble hedge.
Saturday 02 June 2012
It sounds like a hobby for people who find watching paint dry rather too exciting: observing hedges grow. Hedge-laying competitions are never going to achieve the viewing figures of an Olympic sprint. Cutting hedge is not exactly cutting-edge.
Naturally enough, there isn't much sex or violence in Hedge Britannia. But the first does feature, as hedged gardens were once handy for lovers' trysts, and the second because feuds over excessive growths have lead to death in the suburban shrubbery.
Hugh Barker digs around in history, prehistory, mythology and his own North London garden, where he managed to grow a (very diminutive – he blames the rubble in the soil) hedge to keep out neighbours' kids. In the wrong hands, his subject could have ended up as pretentious verbal undergrowth.
Fortunately, we are in the horny hands of a man whose dustjacket snap reassuringly suggests he has been dragged through a hedge backwards and then trimmed his hair with a billhook. His down-to-earth prose means that he is convincing even when making the most sweeping of statements: "Hedges roughly divide the last millennium of British history into two halves." They were employed when common land was privatised in the shift from a feudal society to a modern agricultural economy.
Although hedges are good news for dormice enjoying protection, they were bad news for villagers excluded from the land on the owner's side. The most spectacularly unpleasant was The Great Hedge of China. Begun in 1840 during the British occupation of India, this consisted of 1,500 miles of hedges, plus a thousand miles of walls and fences, to prevent the smuggling of salt, which was, disgracefully, subject to tax.
The earliest literary reference is probably to the decorative hedge in the posh palace visited by Odysseus. Actual hedges, for farming and protection, date back to Neolithic times. Or maybe earlier: his caption to a Doré illustration of the angel barring Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden describes the celestial bouncer as "standing in a gap in a dense shrubbery or hedgerow". More seriously, Barker asserts that we are surrounded by the ghosts of old hedges: the streets we walk down sometimes follow the boundaries of the fields beneath, marked out by these leafy fences.
Disputes over leylandii aside, today's hedges are more benign. "I'd like to propose the hedgerow as the new national symbol of Britain," says Barker, "a green, gold and brown design to replace the red, white and blue of the Union Jack." His more modest proposal is a plea for us to top up our topiary: every street should have its green whale, elephant or dinosaur. Start saving for your street's communal clippers now and club together for a real hedge fund.
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