I hadn’t done my homework on this one and it took a few minutes to realise that we weren’t there to plant a hedge at all. Fortunately, laying a hedge is much more interesting than that. Handed a range of hand tools including pruning saws, handsaws, billhooks, axes and loppers, our job was basically to turn an existing hedge on its side. The hedge in question had been planted about eight years earlier and consisted of a mix of native shrubs and small trees including hazel, dogwood, hawthorn, blackthorn and alder. Planted between two lines of low, rabbit fencing, the hedge had grown decidedly unevenly. In places plants towered meters above us, but especially in the shade of a randomly sited beech, they barely reached above the rabbit fence. Using billhooks and saws, our job was to remove weak or damaged shoots and to bend the rest through about sixty to seventy degrees, so that they were almost parallel with the ground. To do this it was necessary to cut deep into the stem of each plant, just above the ground, leaving just enough sapwood beneath the bark for the plant to continue sending nutrients to its upper branches. Thanks to centuries of evolution the billhook, with its heavy, partially hooked nose, was weighted perfectly for the job of slicing just the right amount of wood from the hedge plants, almost regardless of their size. At first it seemed a daunting prospect, to slice away just enough wood that a stem could be bent on its side, without chopping through completely. But gradually the tools came to feel more like extensions of the body, and the cuts came easier and cleaner. There was something primeval and strangely satisfying about the whole process.
For the first few metres we were simply laying plants either side of stout stakes that had already been driven into the hedge line at roughly two to three foot intervals. This, we were told, was the traditional south country technique for laying a hedge, whereas in the Midlands all the hedge plants would be laid on the same side of the stakes in order to encourage the sharp, spiky plants to grow into the field, deterring cattle from breaking out. But soon we had to start making our own stakes from recently pollarded tree trunks. It was here that the axes and saws came into their own. The base of each trunk had to be whittled to a point with the axe and then sawn to roughly the right length. It was like making giant pencils. Then, held firm by well-gloved hands, they had to be driven into the cold ground with mallets. Once a good section had been suitably staked the hedge laying could continue.
A team of eight, we worked in pairs on different sections of the hedge for about four hours, with a short break for lunch. It was cold, barely above freezing, but beautifully sunny. There was no time for serious conversation, but the atmosphere was warm and collegial. We were bound together by the task and by a shared sense of our good fortune to be in the open air on such a fine winter’s day. It helped that our efforts were frequently punctuated by the cries of jays and woodpeckers deep in the adjacent wood, and by the quizzical attention of Wandlebury’s Highland cattle grazing in the field opposite. It also helped that everyone found they were good at something. Those who found the billhooks and mallets hard to wield turned out to be much better at topping the hedge by weaving fine branches of hazel and lime between the vertical stakes. Visually, it was this weaving which tied the hedge together. Until the newly horizontal plants sent out their side shoots, and the pollarded stumps sent up new, strong plants, these finely interwoven stems would give the hedge its strength – they would be the hedge in many ways. For sure they would not be keeping out Midland cattle, or any other livestock for that matter, but aesthetically they were a triumph. To the casual observer it was these toppings – called heatherings - rather than hacked and prostrate hedge plants, that proclaimed most loudly the continuation of an ancient English tradition.