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Thursday, 31 August 2006


Written by Katherine Breen
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viewHiking 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?

hedgerowsA 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.



One type is called crop-and-pleach and the other is called stake-and-pleach – both forms representing art entwined with economics.  In other words, if stakes are available and economically feasible, they are used; otherwise foundation crops are cut to stand like stakes and then the pleachers (or saplings) are woven through the stakes or crops giving a rich, raw texture to the hedges, becoming living strands of these dynamic fences.

Welsh hedges are distinct from the hedges found around other parts of Britain.  Welsh hedges stand between 30 and 45 inches tall because they are designed with sheep in mind.  Deadwood is often incorporated into the lower rungs of the hedges in spots where young lambs can squeeze through. Land and weather patterns determine distinct regional difference in the shape and thickness of hedges. As I stood before them, I could feel not only the life within them and on the other side of them, but I also felt their creators’ attempts to control the effects of punishing weather and contain the land and animals. I also noticed their whimsy in placing their individual marks upon their work.

My new home in Wales was nestled in the Black Mountains on a 2,500-acre farm, better known as the Glanusk Estate. Each day began with the bleating of the 1,200 ewes and lambs in the surrounding fields.  That was my cue to begin my daily investigative-jog between the estate farm and Jubilee Cottage, my home. Between the sheep, cattle, border collies and sows, I would have had trouble keeping informed of each day’s developments if I hadn’t made it part of my daily routine.

hedgerowsOn one March morning, a newly-lain hedge popped up.  Next to it was a stretch of saplings yet to be pleached to join the new hedge.  It was obvious a hedgerow layer had been in the vicinity, but had taken a break. After taking a few photos of the new hedge and the tiny birds already making a nest within its hour-old strands, I resolved to return the next day.

Night mist had only begun to lift from the center of the fields as I set out the next morning.  I turned left into the farmyard and caught my breath as I realized the workers were only a few yards in front of me, their backs heaving and lowering in synchrony as they worked. One man wore a royal blue cotton tee and the other a green-and-khaki hound’s tooth blazer, the proud dress of the St. Fagan’s photos.

I silently watched the rhythm of their rising and falling as they pulled the strands out of the earth and through the stakes, which stood rigidly at uniform angles. Finally, the man in the blazer straightened up and revealed himself to be the elder of the two. He rose to give silent directions to the younger man, who peered up at him, a sapling in his hand.

Trying to hide my excitement, I introduced myself. “Hi, I live in that house there,” I stammered. “My name is Kathy.”  The older gentleman crossed the back lane of the estate and straightened the flaps of his blazer as he walked. “Oh, you live in Jubilee, do you?” using a casual reference to the cottage in which I lived. The younger man remained crouching.

“Yes I do.  You wouldn’t believe it.  I went to St. Fagan’s yesterday…”

“Yes, in Cardiff…” the man in the blazer looked worried and raised his eyebrows to the younger one beckoning him over.  He stood smiling and sauntered over to join us.

I accelerated my pitch; “I saw an exhibit on hedgerows.  I see you are using stake and pleach…”

Both men smiled, faced me fully and relaxed their shoulders as if we had all the time in the world to discuss their craft.  It was only the older one who spoke, but the younger one smiled and nodded.  Mick, the estate’s farmer, rounded the corner and pulled up in his Land Rover.  Billy, his red Welsh border collie, was riding shotgun and hopped out when Mick opened the door. Mike passed bean poles to the men, saying, “Are these what you needed, Sook?”



The elder man nodded, took the poles and passed them to his son. Billy hopped back into the car and Mick sped off.

Sook, then, patiently identified examples of the various crops used in his hedges.  “The catkins are out early this year on the hazels,” he noted as he playfully brushed his index finger underneath a clump of them.  “And here…here are the black thorn, or are these the hawthorn?” he asked the younger man.  They determined those were the hawthorns and then he hauled out a white thorn branch from the pile of brush he trimmed from the pleachers.

In just a few minutes Sook answered all the remnant questions I had about the hedges themselves.  “But what about you, Sook?” I wondered.  “How do you know how to do this?”

“Well, my father and his father and grandfather before him have done the hedges on Glanusk for over a hundred and fifty years.”

“And you two?”  I didn’t say anymore and yet he knew what I meant.  He touched his index finger to his breast and extended it out to the young man and nodded.

“You are father and son.”

“Ay.” It explained the traditional dress on one and the modern dress –American baseball shirt, cap and jeans on the other. I knew I entered a rare space, suspended somewhere between past and present, silence and direction, axe and chainsaw.  It was where father and son work in such close harmony that over 150 years of understanding can pass with no words spoken.


Just then, the Honorable Lady Shawn Legge-Bourke squealed up in her bright red Peugeot, blocking the farm entrance from the back lane. She parked as if she owned the place, which she does. She and her forebears gave a home and work to all of Sook’s family.

It was immediately apparent that owner and tenant alike laid claim to the hedges. “You know Kathy, I planted those trees seven years ago for that hedge.”  Mrs. Legge-Bourke spoke in a delicious London accent that poured out of her throat as smooth as the fine tobacco that cured her chords. She was the last of the landowners who take personal pride in her role of provider for all who lived on her land .  She could speak to anyone from royalty to hedgerow layer with equanimity.

She and Sook lapsed into a moment of gossiping about things which hedgerow layers would be most concerned about – neighbors who neglect their hedges.  Their technical language surrounding the needed repair to the neighbor’s hedgerows exceeded my novice understanding.  But all was quite clear when Mrs. Legge-Bourke raised her eyebrows, lit a “fag,” and declared, “It’s just a nonsense.”  Sook and his son nodded in somber agreement.

As I turned to leave, Mrs. Legge-Bourke stabbed the air with her cigarette; her deep, rich voice sluiced after me like thick, warmed syrup, “Daahling, you need to stop that jogging.  It could kill you.” She needn’t have known that it was my obsession with the hedges themselves that almost killed me that first September. Together she and Sook walked to the completed hedge and his son loaded the trimmer, axe, and chain saw into the cart.orphans



Helpful “bits and bobs” should you visit Brecon Beacon and the surrounding area:

Come prepared to enjoy hiking and “gourmet refueling.”  Trekking can range from rugged to gradual slopes – all with glorious vistas.  Stop into the Mountain Centre in Libanus (5 miles southwest of Brecon) to get your bearings and any maps.  The area and surrounding towns are also host to a plethora of gourmet restaurants – most featuring their own organically grown vegetables, herbs and free-range meats.


Surrounding Towns worth a trip:

Town of Brecon:  Market Town and named for the idyllic Brecon Beacon Mountains, which surround the town.  There is a mid-August Jazz Festival and a farmer’s market on Saturdays.

Do not miss White Swan Restaurant or the Lion Yard Ice Cream bar after trekking the mountains or visiting the Mountain Centre in nearby Libanus.


Crickhowell – A hiker’s paradise and upscale-market town situated in the heart of the Black and Brecon Beacon Mountains…hikers paradise, known as the “Gourmet Center of Wales.” Do not miss the Nantyfin Cidermill with its homegrown, organic vegetables and free-range meats (if visiting once order the Lamb Comfit) or the Bear Hotel – a famous in-town pub and hotel. Hike through the Glanusk Estate- all off the A40. Green Man Festival on the Glanusk Estate August 18-20.


Cardiff – The capitol city of Wales, home to Cardiff University, trendy Cardiff Bay, The Museum of Welsh Life, St. Fagan’s, Cardiff Castle, and two city markets with produce, craft, fabric, and book stalls.  Recommend visiting the center of the city  –  all the St. David’s arcades, which are small alleyway stores, many trendy and upscale.  Do not miss Wally’s Delicatessen, featuring a world-class deli-counter, meats, cheeses, cakes and herbs from around the world.


©Katherine Breen


Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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