A Right Royal Skill

Hedge­lay­ing is an an­cient craft, but far from dy­ing out, it is en­joy­ing a resur­gence. ohn Wright finds out more.

This England - - A Right Royal Skill -

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.

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