Hedgerow History and a New Project

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. 

The overgrown hedge on the left; the drystone wall starts a little further up on the right of our little country lane 

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 drystone wall was probably built only a couple of hundred years ago

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. 

In places, the hedgerow is barely recognisable for trees have grown to huge proportion

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.

 Bluebells are an ancient woodland indicator.  Here their new leaves emerge at the foot of the hedge – it will be several weeks before they flower

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.

 

 The ‘old’ road had been trodden for centuries by countless generations of drovers moving their cattle and sheep to market.  It was probably still used after the opening of the turnpike in the late 1700’s to avoid paying the tolls

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!

In places, the ancient hedgerow is still tightly clipped and, over time, has become very wide

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A Roman Villa in the Cotswolds

These days the Cotswolds, with its rolling landscape, dry stone walls and picture postcard villages, give the impression of being sleepy and sparsely populated, basking (or some may say smug) in its glory of being one of the jewels of the British countryside. But this is not so. For it is a working landscape with its people going about their daily business, admittedly often in an unhurried way – for our narrow lanes and lack of motorways limit the speed that one can travel. And often our straightest and, therefore, easiest routes have not been made in recent years but by Roman settlers, attracted to this region some two thousand years ago, for much the same reasons as we are now.
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Ryknild Street, Fosse Way, Akeman Street, Ermin Way – just their very names conjure up images of Roman legions marching long distances through the country – linked their towns and cities with Corinium, now our modern Cirencester, the centre of both their commerce and entertainment (it still has the remains of a Roman ampitheatre that held over 8000 people). And, as time passed, they settled in more remote parts of the Cotswolds too: one such place is the villa built at North Leigh, near Witney. The track that leads you to the remains is as straight as any other Roman road but was used solely by servants and traders, the owners and visitors arriving by a more grand approach no longer visible.

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Now cared for the nation by English Heritage, admission is free and the site is open all year. Strategically placed notice boards explain the layout of the 60+ rooms and of its history but nothing quite prepares you for the sheer size of area which seems at odds with its present day position – somehow, you expect a small cottage sized building. In fact, the first thing I noticed was the irrepressible She-dog who had run on ahead, in order I imagine, to steal the limelight, as usual!
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One of the greatest pleasures of exploring the remains is that they are relatively unknown and so are rarely visited. I explored for over an hour and saw no-one – just perfect! The photos below show the north west range and also the south east range. Beneath the floor of the latter even earlier remains of a hearth were found , dating back to the Iron Age, circa BC100.
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Although the site was known as early as 1783 it was not until the early 1800’s that the ruins were excavated, the first plan published in 1823. Further excavations took place in 1908.
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The remains of the under floor heating can be clearly seen in the photographs below. It is strange how such an ‘advanced’ civilisation could then be plunged into the relatively primitive period of the Dark Ages after the Romans left.
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In amongst the stonework of the walls pieces of tile protrude. No matter how carefully I looked I saw no signs of pottery.
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The’jewel in the crown’ of the villa at North Leigh are the mosaic floors. Several were discovered and lifted, presumably to a museum although I do not know which. However, the floor of the dining room, discovered in 1816, in the south west wing has been preserved in situ and is protected from the elements by a modern building. The mosaics were laid by craftsmen from Corinium in the fashionable geometric style of the time.
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The dining room, again with underfloor heating, had a vaulted roof supported by columns, parts of which can be seen against the back wall of the shelter.
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Who were the people that lived here and why was the villa suddenly deserted in the fifth century when it was so obviously thriving a century earlier? It is probable that they were farming here so perhaps there was a change in climatic conditions or with the water supply. Whatever the reason, it is now the most perfect spot to sit and ponder in total peace and quiet.
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Of Blue Skies and Blue Flowers

The sun is shining and the rain has stopped! The wind is still cool but it feels good not having to walk with head tucked low against the elements.

The lane outside our cottage is narrow and winding as it climbs out of the secret valley. To the right the river follows its meandering course below us and, on the left, the lane is bound by an ancient hedgerow, full of wild flowers.

Crane’s-bill is in full bloom there now and has been for a few weeks. This is the Geranium pratense of gardens and flowers so profusely in this part of the Cotswolds it could be our county flower. In places the banks and verges are dominated by this plant creating a sea of colour – and when the wind moves it, it has the appearance of rippling water.

In the garden I like growing it amongst shrub roses where it can hook onto the thorns and peep out amongst the more exotic rose flowers. Once the first flush of crane’s-bill flowers are over, I cut the whole plant down to ground level and within days new leaves and flowers start to appear again. And when the contractor’s cut the roadside verges it is always the crane’s bill that shows through first.

Blue seems to dominate this hedge. First the blue-purple of the dog violets and bluebells, now there is also wild scabious with its little powder puffs of flowers. It would be interesting to try to recreate this mixture in a meadow garden. I shall have to persuade a client to let me have a go!

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