Wednesday, 18 May 2011

'Our white hawthorn tree'

The title is from a poem by Siegfried Sassoon.

‘The hawthorn is the oldest of the English hedgerow trees, for it gets its name from the Old English word haga, ‘a hedge’ or ‘an enclosure‘, and it was used from Saxon times onwards to make impenetrable fences…. For a brief spell in early summer it is the most beautiful of all the Midland trees, with its continuous miles of white may-blossom glimmering as far as the eye can see….

'In the Midland fields on [May the eighteenth] these miles of snowy hedges reach perfection, so dense and far reaching that the entire atmosphere is saturated with the bitter-sweet smell whichever way the summer wind is blowing. From the hedgerow trees near and far come the calls of countless cuckoos, and the lesser sound of an infinite number of small birds.’

So wrote W. G. Hoskins in his seminal book, The Making of the English Landscape.

Hedgerows have always been part of the English countryside. Some are over a thousand years old, marking boundaries that were determined in the Anglo Saxon period. Today, some of those same hedgerows mark the limits of a parish or county, instead of the bounds of a thegn's estate.

Some hedgerows are recorded in charters of the eighth, ninth or tenth centuries. For others, there is no written evidence of their origin, but there are techniques that can be used to estimate their age.

Sometimes narrow strips of woodland between fields or alongside roads are all that is left of a much larger tract of woodland which was cleared at some time in the past to meet increasing demand for agricultural land.

In the Midlands, many hedgerows date from the eighteenth or early nineteenth century, planted when the landscape was redrawn as a result of Parliamentary Enclosure.

In the past century, many hedgerows were removed, in order to make fields larger and farming more efficient. Now, the importance of hedgerows is recognised and they are being recorded, protected and maintained.

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