The story our hedgerows can tell

The Chiltern landscape is characterised by its hedgerows which define boundaries, and accompany rights-of-way. What story can these hedgerows tell about the history of our locality? How can you interpret these clues the next time you go for a walk?

The word ‘hedge’ comes from the Old English haga or enclosure. Hedges are not natural features. Some are the managed remnants of woodland clearance ‘ascarting’ (derived from the Old French meaning ‘to grub-up trees’). Others from more recent times were purposefully planted with hawthorn (‘haw’ also comes from haga) to enclose large open fields and commons. Hedges also became established as a result of mounds of earth or lynchets being deposited at the bottom of strip-ploughed common fields or when saplings on ridges and around ditches between fields were allowed to remain and were ‘adopted’.

We know that up to early Saxon times this area was so heavily wooded that most of it was impenetrable. The Saxons set about clearing woodland mainly along the dry upland valley slopes for winter pasture. They also replenished woods with economically valuable trees and shrubs. Despite the more recent impact of beech re-plantings for bodging and charcoal burning, examples of this earlier woodland management are still identifiable. Captain’s Wood near Hivings being one such local example. Until very recent times parts of Hawridge and Cholesbury Commons owed their existence to this way of life.

Thorny Barrier

Woodland edges more often were the combination of a ditch and steep bank, the latter planted with trees such as elm, or hawthorn and blackthorn which were periodically coppiced and formed a thorny barrier to both enclose and exclude animals. Medieval or later clearances often left this original woodland edge intact and can been seen today as contorted tree stools punctuating the hedge or in the form of field banks such as those at ‘White Hawridge’.

The Saxons also maintained hedges aside the lanes and hollow ways connecting communities that sprung up in association with woodland clearance. In some cases the ‘ditch’ between two banks also served as a lane. There are several examples of these locally, some of which have been subsumed into the modern road network but others such as Hawridge Lane still retain an almost original identity today.

The variety of species provides clues to a hedge’s origin. Hazel, hornbeam, spindle and field maple indicate a woodland origin and were used for fuel. Trees and shrubs planted for a purpose include holly (near to farmsteads) for its magical powers(!), oak for building and ash for waggons, apples and cherries for food. Herbs finding a refuge in the hedge were harvested for medicinal purposes.

A useful tip for spotting a hedge derived from a woodland edge is to see if it has a healthy population of bluebell, wood anemone and yellow archangel. Dog’s mercury is indicative of older hedges which may also zig-zag and incorporate established trees. Hawthorn hedges from the time of the parliamentary enclosures in the 18th century and later were straighter, often ‘plashed’ i.e. laid, and contain few if any trees and rarely any herbaceous plants indicative of woodland flora.

Hooper’s Formula

Whilst out walking you can, with some surprising accuracy, estimate how old a hedge is by applying ‘Hooper’s formula’. This involves finding the average number of tree and shrub varieties per 30 yards of hedge, multiplying this by 99 and deducting 16. Surprising numbers of hedges around here can be dated to between the 13th and 15th centuries.

I hope this brief insight into the history of Chiltern hedges provides an interesting diversion on your next walk. If anyone is interested in learning more about our hedgerow heritage and flora I will be pleased to pass on what I have learnt from my research.

Chris Brown
October 2000