One of the greatest and most picturesque, natural aspects of lowland Britain is its patchwork of fields divided by neatly clipped hedgerows. In hill country, or where there is a wealth of stone, the fields are divided by dry stone walls and the Cotswolds are renowned as much for these as for the limestone cottages and houses built of the same material. Here, domestic and farm buildings merge into one with the landscape for, as the fields were cleared of stone, it was natural to use it as a building material.
However, the Cotswolds also have their fare share of hedgerows and these often go unnoticed – overshadowed by the craftsmanship, colour and texture of the old walls. In the secret valley we are fortunate for we have both: outside our little cottage – also built of stone 160 years ago – one side of the lane is bordered by a hedge, the other a dry stone wall. At a glance, the hedgerow is unremarkable whereas the wall attracts attention for its weathered appearance and moss encrusted stones. But not all is as it seems.
The wall was probably built at the time of the great land enclosures, when large areas of England were partitioned, the ground cleared and ‘improved’ to grow crops (or here, in the Cotswolds, more likely wool) and may not be more than a couple of hundred years old – ‘new’ to us Brits. However the hedge, shabby and overgrown in places, could well be a relic of the ancient wildwood, the forest that once covered most of lowland Britain in the days of pre-history before man started cutting it down. ‘Our’ hedge would almost certainly have been part of the Wychwood Forest, a royal hunting ground, for written records go back to the time of the Domesday Book of 1086. As the forest was cleared (for more details click here) to make way for fields, it was easier to leave strips standing than to create new dividers.
How do we know that it is an ancient hedgerow and not one planted at the time of the enclosures? There is an accepted formula for dating them known as Hooper’s Law: the number of tree and shrub species found in a thirty metre section x 100 is equal to the age of the hedge. It is normal practice to take three thirty metre sample lengths and apply an average for greater accuracy. There is also a second method of deciding if the hedge is of ancient origin: by the types of wild flowers that grow in it. Certain species are very slow to spread, or perhaps only would normally grow in certain conditions such as woodland shade. These key species are known as ancient woodland indicators and we have a number of them growing at the foot of our hedge.
What is even more remarkable is that the plants tell us what is old and what is new hedge with such accuracy that it is possible to follow the old even after it has left the roadside. For our little lane that winds uphill as it leaves the secret valley to join the main road (‘Turnpike‘) is also part old and part new. Before the Turnpike was built in the late 1700’s, the lane beyond our house took a sharp turn left and crossed the fields, it’s way now marked only by sunken turf and yes, you’ve guessed it, also by the old hedge and its associated flora.
I always consider March to be the start of the gardening year, the month when nature turns its back on winter and spring moves rapidly forwards. Leaf buds burst, seedlings germinate and the first of the flowers remind you that long, hot days are not too far away. It is the same with the plants that are beyond our garden gate. And so on our first really warm, sunny day of 2012 I have decided to embark on a new project: to catalogue and photograph a year in the life of our hedge on a month by month basis. Watch this space!