June 24, 2012

Hedge Britannia

I'm reading Hugh Barker's brilliant Hedge Britannia and marvelling at how something so ubiquitous can be so important – not just historically, but emotionally and anthropologically, too. It's a great book, written with humour, and wears its considerable scholarship lightly.

In the countryside hedges are one of Britain's most defining features, creating the lovely chessboard pattern you can see from a plane. Ecologically they are vital; thousands of species depend on them, and when they are grubbed up entire ecosystems are lost.

Traditionally laid hedges are rarer than they once were, but can still be seen all over the country – as can ghost hedges: lines of trees with strange angles in their trunks where they were once pleached. We found a ghost hedge in Hampshire last weekend; they're a lovely way to 'read' a landscape:

In towns and cities hedges allow us to mark out our territory; disputes over them can become shockingly heated. In the streets around me, with their 70s-style hydrangeas and dahlias, there's even the odd topiary throwback, like this wonderful house number:

Hugh Barker mentions a topiary whale just up the road from me in Brixton; sadly, an over-officious council ensured that it no longer exists. I would have loved to have seen it.

For more on Britain's hedges, click here.