Hiking toward the summit of Pen Y Fan, third tallest peak in Wales, the burden of keeping up with long-legged leaders forced my head down as I gasped for air. It wasn’t until I got to the summit that I finally looked around. That’s when it happened – I became captivated by the net-like pattern across the valley slopes. Also likened to spider webs or embroidery work sewn into the hills, the pattern is formed by hedgerows – the patchwork quilt of ancient people of the Bronze Age that has survived Norman occupation and the more recent accommodation of modern farm equipment.
Seen from the summit, hedgerows give dimension and clarity to the waves of green, russet, and bronze fields across the hills. Through the ages they have captured people’s imaginations and have given shape, not only to the hills and farms, but also much of Britain’s literature. Different from the dense, moss-carpeted rock walls I am used to seeing around New England, hedgerows are light and airy, living and breathing. They give life, contain life and hold life within their limbs and vines.
Up close, the texture of hedgerows is as entrancing as from a distance. During those first days in my new country, I would scour the rows in search of black berries, which clung heavily and plentifully on their vines after that particularly dry summer. I carefully maneuvered my hand through twisted branches, hoping to avoid thorns and the burning leaves of a botanical terror previously unknown to me – nettles.
Once even just looking at hedgerows proved to be dangerous. Riding my bicycle along a stretch of the Breconshire and Abergavenny Canal, I became so mesmerized by the woven texture of the hedgerow that I rode directly into it, bounced off its twined branches, and went crashing down the bank of the canal. I hoisted my bike out of the water, licked my wounds and the berry juice off my lips and rode off in search of answers to the allure of these creations.
One misty, grey January day, I visited the Museum of Welsh Life at Saint Fagan’s in Cardiff and was thrilled to find that the museum’s featured exhibit was on hedgerows. Faded pictures of the past were blown up to knobby life-size images of the men who created the hedgerows.
Dressed in shirtsleeves, ties, and trousers with suspenders, some sporting wool caps and blazers, the men worked formal wear, highlighting their pride in their craft. The setting behind them of farm vehicles and hedges appeared secondary to the tight bond between them. I felt part of their camaraderie. I wanted to slip the saws and clippers out of their hands and replace them with glasses and watch them tip them up after a hard day’s work. I could imagine the movement of their labor, the joviality of their laughter and their dignified ease; so much so that I began to wonder as much about the creators as about the hedgerows themselves.
First, like the hedgerow layers themselves, however, I would start with the basics – what is a hedgerow and how is it made?
A hedgerow layer starts with trees and shrubs like hazel, hawthorn, holly, black thorn and white thorn, and then adds various climbers and berry bushes to form the foundation. In Britain, generally two types of hedgerows are laid, and both are used primarily to protect and keep livestock.