By Paul Brassley
‘Ah luuurrve the smell of napalm in the morning’ says one of the less attractive characters (are there any attractive ones?) in the film Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979). Every time I hear the line, or remember it, my mind substitutes ‘diesel’ for ‘napalm’, and I’m immediately transported back, more than fifty years, to cold early autumn mornings in East Anglia, perhaps with the mist clearing and a weak sun breaking through, as the tractors start up ready to begin ploughing the barley stubbles. Sometimes a sight can be as evocative as a smell. A neighbour planted a new hawthorn hedge several years ago, but since then it has not been properly laid, so there are gaps between the individual stems at the base, and it is not stockproof. Every time I see it I remember, ruefully, what a beautiful job the local hedge layer used to make of hawthorn hedges when I worked on a farm in Warwickshire. He used to enter, and several times won, national hedge laying competitions, and as well as being lovely to look at, his hedges would keep both sheep and cattle where they were intended to be without any assistance from netting or barbed wire.
At this point my thoughts can wander off in several different directions. One is to think about why traditional hedge laying is no longer as widely practised as it once was, although the answer is pretty obvious: cost. It’s only partly about skill. There are still hedge layers all over the country, training courses, national championships, and a National Hedgelaying Society, as a brief visit to any search engine will tell you. But most of the work with which the society is concerned is about maintaining existing hedges, the bulk of which were initially established when wire, the cheaper modern alternative, plain, barbed or made into netting, was unavailable. Not that making a hedge was ever cheap. At Middridge in Durham in 1636 the poorer inhabitants were uneasy about a planned enclosure because they thought that the cost of hedging ‘would beggar them’ (Brassley, 1984: 48). Once established, a hedge will last for a long time – I’m tempted to say ‘for ever’ if it is properly maintained – whereas even the best oak fence posts will eventually rot at ground level, and I’ve known cheap softwood fence posts to need replacing after ten years or so. But faced with the immediate problem of dividing one parcel of land from another, and limited resources, landowners cannot always take the long view. If there is a cheaper alternative to a hedge it will often prevail. When Europeans first began to clear the woods in New England for farming they had lots of timber to play with, and erected wooden fences round their fields; later, and much further west, timber was scarce, and the prairies remained largely undivided until Joseph Glidden invented a machine to make barbed wire in the 1870s. In the next twenty years ‘the devil’s rope’ spread across the prairies as rapidly as it spread across Flanders fields in the First World War. Post and wire fences are now the immediate first option when a new land division has to be made, perhaps for The Restraint of Beasts, as Magnus Mills’s 1998 novel (are there any others that put fencing contractors centre-stage?) ambiguously called it. Replacing some of the thousands of miles of hedges cleared (grant aided) in the post-war years is uneconomical without another grant.
Which takes my thoughts in another direction. Hedges and wire fences are not the only ways of dividing up land. In pre-enclosure open fields a simple furrow would suffice to divide one cultivated strip from another, although there could be complaints about one tenant ploughing the furrow to the disadvantage of a neighbour. Where workable stone was easily obtainable, as, for example, on the Cotswolds or in the Pennines, stone walls took the place of hedges. In the Somerset levels and the Fens, ditches do the job. For temporary sheep folding, hurdles, made of either woven hazel or cleft ash, could be used. The modern equivalent would be the electric fence.
Both of these ways of thinking eventually lead to the same point: that different ways of dividing up the land – different technologies if you like – make for different rural landscapes. We all know that the Parliamentary enclosures in the English Midlands produced different styles of hedge, initially based on single-species planting of hawthorn, from the landscapes of Devon or Kent. Vancouver’s General View of the agriculture of Devon (pp.132-3) tells us that it was common to plant three or four different species of shrub or tree on top of new Devon banks, which made for some difficulties when landscape historians tried to apply the Hoskins-Hooper Hedge Hypothesis (beginning from a single species, one additional species appears per 30 yards per century of existence) to dating Devon hedges. The traditional way that a Devon hedge, which is normally planted on top of a field bank, is laid is completely different from the way that the Warwickshire bullock fence, which initiated these ruminations, should be laid. The way that the hedge is maintained subsequently will also affect the way it looks and functions. When there was plenty of farm labour to be employed in the winter, and few tractors, farm workers could spend weeks on end wielding hedge knives and billhooks to trim hedges, and the result looked very different from that now produced by a tractor-mounted flail hedge-trimmer. Similarly, does a walled fieldscape always look more bare than a hedged one?
Whether you look from a distance at the overall pattern, or from within a field itself, the way in which the land is divided is one of the principal components of the individuality of a landscape. The idea of a patchwork of fields is a commonplace truism, but the form of the patchwork varies from one landscape to another, and depends to a significant degree on the technology used to divide one area of land from another.
P. Brassley, ‘Northumberland and Durham’, in J. Thirsk (ed.) The Agrarian History of England and Wales V.1, 1640-1750 (Cambridge U.P., 1984), pp.30-58.
M. Mills, The Restraint of Beasts (Flamingo, 1998).
C. Vancouver, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Devon (1808, repr. David and Charles, 1969).