A Right Royal Skill
Hedgelaying is an ancient craft, but far from dying out, it is enjoying a resurgence. ohn Wright finds out more.
I all started one Christmas. “I heard my wife and daughter laughing in the next room and the typewriter going,” ohn Savings told me. “They make up rhymes to go with presents and my envelope on the tree said, Hands off until Christmas Day ’”
The mysterious gift Gillian Savings gave her landscaper husband those thirty-odd years ago was a voucher to attend a hedgelaying course.
I first saw ohn in March 2011 when he was laying one of the northern hedges of the 2,000-plus-acre Blenheim Palace estate Winston Churchill’s birthplace, eight miles north of Oxford. After stopping to talk, I noticed he was laying steadily enough for me to waste no time getting back with a camera.
Hedgelaying is an old rural skill for keeping sheep and cows in fields. In 197 Fred Whitefoot, Clive Matthew and Valerie Greaves saw that it was facing an alarming post-war decline when hedges became a motley collection of leggy shrubs with big gaps at the base, and the trio started a national society to revive traditional management skills.
“If sheep can see through it, they will get through it,” ohn told me.
When I first made contact in 2011 with the thriving National Hedgelaying Society (NHLS) a charity that relies on donations and subscriptions its then secretary, ohn Vickery, told me they had over 500 members (still the case today) and 10 local hedgelaying groups Lancashire Westmorland, Rutland (covering Cottesmore Hunt country), Berkshire, South of England (East Sussex), orkshire, County Durham, Surrey, Cornwall and two in Somerset.
Today’s treasurer, Allan Portas, recently told me that this number has grown to at least 25 (including non-a liated groups), many of whom are volunteers working in wildlife conservation areas.
According to ohn Vickery, there are always lively discussions among members about what constitutes a good hedge, and controversy when an awful one is laid by someone purporting to be a hedgelaying “trainer”.
Certainly, annual demonstrations at venues like the CLA Game Fair and agricultural shows help show how it should be done, although a lot more effort is needed to bring it to the attention of the public and schools.
After his beginners’ course, ohn Savings attended another four-day course (advanced) after which a Warwickshire judge gave nine of them a national proficiency test and told them they knew the basics and to find a hedgelayer to work with.
“First I entered a competition at Brill and went for three and a half years with Ivan Burley, a cowman in his seventies, who made me what I am,” ohn said.
In a peculiar way ohn’s success is due to the Great Train Robbery. Brill is a village not far from Leatherslade Farm near the Buckinghamshire oxfordshire border, and it was a cowman working in a nearby field in August 1963 who tipped off police that he had seen the robbers holed up there.
“After receiving a reward from the police for his information, he packed up being a cowman and Ivan took his job ” ohn explained.
Ivan told ohn he was ready for competitions. At his first he won in the Novice section and he has never looked back. Since then he has been winner at least five times (“South of England” style) at the annual National Hedgelaying Championship on the fourth Saturday of October, Allan Portas confirming that the next one will be held on October 27, 201 , at the Countryside Restoration
Trust Farm at Barton, Cambridgeshire (details on the NHLS website www.hedgelaying.org.uk).
“A few years ago I had five students competing,” ohn told me in 2011. “People were saying, Where did these people come from ’”
I have a mental picture of ohn, who also won in the Open class that year, whistling innocently by his pick-up Needless to say they found out.
Hedgelaying is as old as the hills. The NHLS’S nicely titled leaflet “ eeping hedgerows alive” points out that ulius Caesar is on record as saying, “They cut into slender trees and bent them over so that many branches came out along the length”. Caesar would have liked ohn.
“I use anything,” he said. “Hawthorn, blackthorn, ha el, field maple, wild plum, elm, guilder rose but not elderberry. When you have elder in a hedge you tend to get gaps.” He also takes out ivy and briars.
The national scene is extraordinary for there being so many styles of hedgelaying, each region tailoring to suit tradition or local conditions.
“There are thirty-two different types,” ohn told me, adding somewhat nostalgically, “Thirty-three counting the Netherlands style.”
His original teacher was a Dutchman, a farmer with a knack for it. The Midland style is strong enough to keep bullocks in the Berkeley style uses no stakes so horses aren’t harmed if they fall while jumping, and the Welsh Border style uses dead wood and all living stems are cut off except one every yard.
When I asked ohn Savings what time of the year hedgelaying is done he replied, “Any month with an R’ in it.”
From September to April he is flat out and then everyone stops in spring so as not to disturb birds.
“This month I start laying a hedge a mile long that will last until anuary,” he told me last time I spoke to him.
Anyone wondering how it looks now may find it along the main road near Gardens, Milton Hill, just west of Didcot in Oxfordshire.
ohn also spends a lot of his time at shows with his bonsai display of laid hedges complete with miniature stiles demonstrating eight different types. He also teaches hedgelaying on weekends from November to March, supplying all tools, stakes and binders and doing it with groups of about 10.
“I put them into pairs to lay about seven or eight yards in one day. Once I had six people who laid sixty yards between them.”
He has since devised a new approach to avoid novices feeling disheartened after returning to their own hedges and not being sure how to continue. Now he teaches people on their own land so that if they get stuck they can always see the bit they did together.
The hedges should be about ten feet high, five to ten years old with stems two to three inches in diameter so they can be cut easily with bowsaws or billhooks or, if bigger, with chainsaws.
There have been surprising offshoots of ohn’s work. One of his students, Matthew Lewis, liked the weaving involved so much he became a professional basket-maker.
In 2005 another would-be student asked ohn to teach him and his staff to lay hedges at his Home Farm in Gloucestershire. It was Prince Charles, who hosted a hedgelaying competition between some of the best in Britain.
He showed that he had uite a knack for it, too.
“He would not be far behind many of the winners,” ohn said.
Prince Charles remains a supportive patron of the NHLS and has laid over 1,000 metres of hedges himself.
For people wanting a hedgelayer the NHLS website has an online county-bycounty contractor list with Google map showing locations.
“If people ask me at shows for names I write down some reputable ones,” ohn Savings said. “But you’ve got to safeguard yourself as there are always bad eggs. If someone calling themselves a hedgelayer offers you their services, ask them to name a few jobs they have done, and visit them.”
If ohn Savings is keen on hedgelaying he is even more passionate about the ever-supportive Gillian.
“She’s that blooming good, my wife. She’s perfect,” he confided recently. I got the feeling that he would happily grab the organiser’s megaphone and tell everybody else, too.
Part of John’s bonsai display of laid hedges.