In Bri­tain, main­tain­ing a com­pet­i­tive hedge

An ax-driven art with an­cient roots, hedge­lay­ing honors his­tory while shap­ing the fu­ture

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY WIL­LIAM BOOTH

Ladies and gen­tle­men, wel­come to the Na­tional Hedge­lay­ing Cham­pi­onship, where Bri­tain’s best com­pete for honor and glory in the an­cient art of trans­form­ing un­wieldy shrubs into man­aged rows.

All the rock stars of the hedge world are here at Lark Rise Farm out­side Cam­bridge on this ice­box of a late au­tumn morn­ing, as crowds wear­ing rub­ber­ized boots gather in the muddy fields to watch burly men with rough hands swing me­dieval-look­ing hand axes.

There’s Clive Matthew — a master layer of hedge, 76 years old, doesn’t look it — wrestling an es­pe­cially ob­streper­ous hawthorn.

And there’s Nigel Adams, 59, one of Eng­land’s “go-to hedge man­agers,” bend­ing a cheeky ash to his will.

Watch Tim Rad­ford — in dread­locks, just 36, the fu­ture of the sport — wield­ing his bill­hook blade and lay­ing into his sec­tion of brush like the queen’s own tree sur­geon.

From the start­ing gun at 9 a.m. un­til the ac­tion — a loose term, ad­mit­tedly — stops at 2 p.m., the hun­dred com­peti­tors have just five hours to trans­form lines of prickly shrubs and shabby trees into short sec­tions of neat hedgerow a few feet wide and chest high. The con­tes­tants nip, they cut, they bend, stake and weave.

Think: ex­treme bas­ket weav­ing. If the bas­kets were huge, alive, cov­ered in wicked thorns and crafted with chain saws.

The re­sult — in a dozen dif­fer­ent regional styles — has to both please the judge’s dis­cern­ing eye and be strong enough to keep a flock of pushy sheep on its side of the hedge.

There are hedgerows alive in Eng­land that are likely a thou­sand years old. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists have un­cov­ered ev­i­dence of hedges in their ex­ca­va­tions.

Hedges are “a link to our past . . . not just old but an­cient . . . as re­veal­ing as Stone­henge, the great cas­tles, cathe­drals and coun­try es­tates and cer­tainly as much a part of our na­tional her­itage,” wrote Jane Eas­toe, au­thor of a Na­tional Trust se­ries of books on ru­ral arts.

Julius Cae­sar re­marked upon hedges used as mil­i­tary for­ti­fi­ca­tions. Painters love them. So do po­ets: “’Twixt drip­ping ash-boughs, — hedgerows all alive/

With birds and gnats and large white but­ter­flies . . .”

With­out hedgerows, the English coun­try­side wouldn’t look at all like the post­cards of the English coun­try­side. Oh, there would still be cozy pubs, fat sheep, green fields, the odd cas­tle dat­ing to the Nor­man Con­quest. But in the ab­sence of hedges, the soft, fuzzy English coun­try­side would lack ge­om­e­try. It wouldn’t be tidy.

“Eng­land with­out hedges doesn’t make sense,” says Wil­liam Cross, a farmer, county coun­cilor and sec­re­tary of the Cottes­more Hunt Hedge-cut­ting So­ci­ety, who has come out to watch the cham­pi­onship.

Cross is swad­dled in tweed. A bit of driz­zle doesn’t dim his en­thu­si­asm. “No, I am pas­sion­ate about the hedge,” he says.

“The hedge is the fab­ric of Eng­land. It’s the pat­tern of the fields,” Cross says. “Hedges are beau­ti­ful, yes, but they are also use­ful. There’s a rea­son for the hedge.”

Hedge en­thu­si­asts re­fer to them as the “green veins” of Eng­land, the sin­gle great­est refuge for plants and an­i­mals that re­mains in much of the coun­try.

They see the hedgerows as lin­ear na­tional parks, just three feet wide but stretch­ing for tens of thou­sands of miles — which ful­fills the com­ing gov­ern­ment re­quire­ments of pro­vid­ing “en­vi­ron­men­tal ser­vices” and “nat­u­ral cap­i­tal” for Bri­tain.

But very bad things have hap­pened to the English hedgerow in the past cen­tury.

In the post­war years, hop­ing to in­crease food pro­duc­tion, the gov­ern­ment paid landown­ers to de­stroy their hedges to make way for the larger trac­tors needed to tend the larger fields of in­dus­trial-scale farms, ex­plains Robin Page, chairman of the Coun­try­side Restora­tion Trust, which owns the sus­tain­able demon­stra­tion farm where the hedge com­pe­ti­tion is tak­ing place.

Back then, the gov­ern­ment couldn’t be both­ered about bee­tles and but­ter­flies. It cared about bread.

Be­tween 1947 and 1985, 100,000 miles of hedge were lost — one-quar­ter of Eng­land’s stock, enough to gir­dle the planet four times.

The hedge apoc­a­lypse did far more than spoil the view cor­ri­dor. It cre­ated wildlife deserts.

But even as Bri­tain awoke to what it was los­ing, the clear­ing of hedges con­tin­ued.

Landown­ers have mostly stopped in­ten­tion­ally lay­ing waste to hedges. In­stead, the rows are with­er­ing away, lost to ne­glect (the hedges grow into a row of trees) or mal­treat­ment (they are overzeal­ously trimmed and an­nu­ally flailed by ma­chines, rob­bing them of species di­ver­sity, berries and wild­flow­ers).

“A ma­chine has no eye for what a hedge re­ally needs,” says Nigel Adams, a pro­fes­sional hedge­layer and save-the-hedges cam­paigner. “And so the hedgerows are dis­ap­pear­ing, im­per­cep­ti­bly. Lit­tle by lit­tle, day by day.” “Like ghosts,” he says. Which is why we are here at the cham­pi­onship — to cel­e­brate the men and women who are pre­serv­ing the art and sci­ence of proper hedge care.

“It’s all about sav­ing the coun­try,” Page says.

Brown hares, sky­larks, bee or­chids and gray par­tridges have all re­turned to Lark Rise Farm, in part be­cause of the cre­ation of five miles of new hedgerow.

Among those who ap­pre­ci­ate the en­dur­ing value of hedges is Prince Charles, pa­tron of the Na­tional Hedge­lay­ing So­ci­ety.

The BBC re­cently aired a doc­u­men­tary called “Prince, Son and Heir: Charles at 70.” In the show, Prince Charles’s two sons dis­cuss their fa­ther’s pas­sion.

“He loves his hedge­lay­ing,” Prince Wil­liam says.

“Which­ever po­lice­man is on duty at the time puts the sledge­ham­mer and ax in the boot of the car,” Prince Harry says. “Off they go. They spend two hours wrestling with bushes to try to lay a hedge be­cause he hates fences.”

Harry says, “Some come back cov­ered in blood be­cause at some point some­thing he has been cut­ting has flung up.”

John Sav­ings, 75, was at the an­nual com­pe­ti­tion. He taught Charles to lay hedge. The two men met at Shut­tle­worth Game Fair al­most 20 years ago. “The prince come around and ad­mired my work and said, ‘I’d like to do that.’ And I said, ‘Well, sir, if you wanted a go at it, I’d be happy to teach you.’ And I’ve spent many hours with Charles in his tatty jacket lay­ing hedge.”

Is the fu­ture king any good at it? Sav­ings steps back and eye­balls the ques­tioner. “He’s bloody bril­liant at it.” At the Na­tional Hedge­lay­ing Cham­pi­onship, at the end of a long day, the com­peti­tors and fans hud­dle in a large tent, while it pours buck­ets of rain out­side. There are tro­phies to award — and a bot­tle of good Scotch for the old­est com­peti­tor.

Rad­ford places first in the “South of Eng­land Open” di­vi­sion, a style that cre­ates a hedge with brush on both sides, but­tressed by a row of nat­u­ral stakes, with a pretty bit of coiled binders at the top. It is a pleas­ing, pop­u­lar style, with a fin­ished, tidy look. He is later named supreme cham­pion of the con­test.

“It was a good day to hedge,” Rad­ford says while quaffing a beer and cel­e­brat­ing his vic­tory.

Hedge­lay­ing is win­ter’s work, done while the fields are fal­low, but even in the chill, one sweats with the ef­fort of swing­ing axes and bill­hooks.

Rad­ford hopes the art form will be saved. He hopes that he will have clients will­ing to pay. It can cost $20 a me­ter to lay proper hedge. Rad­ford and a friend can lay 60 me­ters on a good day. Twelve years, he has been do­ing this.

How many miles of hedge has he cre­ated, does he think?

“Miles and miles,” he says. “Eng­land is still blessed with loads of hedge.”

TORI FERENC FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

At 15, Ai­dan Han­d­ley was the youngest com­peti­tor in the 2018 Na­tional Hedge­lay­ing Cham­pi­onship in Oc­to­ber.

PHO­TOS BY TORI FERENC FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Richard, left, is a re­tired hedge­layer but comes to the na­tional cham­pi­onship to sup­port his friends. A wooden fox, right, serves as one con­tes­tant’s lucky tal­is­man. En­thu­si­asts call hedges the “green veins” of Eng­land and con­sider them an im­por­tant refuge for plants and an­i­mals.

A hedge­layer, top, stands in front of the shrub, wield­ing a bill­hook, also above, one of many tools used to turn un­wieldy shrubs and trees into trim hedgerows at the 40th Na­tional Hedge­lay­ing Cham­pi­onship in Bar­ton, Eng­land. De­spite driz­zle and mud, the con­test drew a num­ber of hedge en­thu­si­asts, left, last fall to Lark Rise Farm.

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