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My grandad with his three sons, Tom, Frank, and my father, Joe.

My grandad with his three sons, Tom, Frank, and my father, Joe.

Today I went in search of a hedge that my grandfather, Henry Victor Smith, pleached as a young man over 70 years ago.

I’d been meaning to do this for quite a while, but this morning I’d asked my cousin Gordon, with whom I share paternal great-grandparents, what he’d been doing on the farm this week, and he’d said “pleaching and wall-building,” which put me in mind of finding my grandfather’s hedge.

In the Peak District, stone walls made of gritstone (sandstone) or limestone predominate as the primary means of delineating fields, for the simple reason that the ground is very stony, and the stones must go somewhere, so why not build a wall with them?  Stone walls require their own particular maintenance and wall-building skills, as do the much more rare hedges in this small part of Derbyshire.

Sometime in the 1930s or 40s, when my grandfather was farming nearby at Barn Close Farm, he bought two houses “down the Dimple” in Crich, one we call Red Roofs, the other “the Pye house,” named after the man to whom Grandad rented the house.

The Pye house had several fields attached to it, one of which had a hedge.

My grandad regularly made trips to his property to do upkeep, and on one of these trips he and I went to a very narrow field across the lane from the Pye house, and he showed me the hedge he’d pleached many years ago.

In pleaching, the person doing the work cuts the branches of the hedge at ground level, slicing almost through them, and bending the branches so that they are horizontal.  Since future branches will grow vertically, it makes for a very strong hedge, particularly when it is later pleached further up.

A hedge pleached by my grandfather 70 years ago.  While he gave it an excellent start, this hedge was not well maintained by the later owner.  The two horizontal white lines are wire used to fill the gaps.  A properly pleached hedge would not need the use of wire. See how my grandfather cut and laid the branches horizontally, and how they have then grown vertically, creating a natural barrier as strong as anything you could make from stone or wood or wire.

Hedgerows are much more common in the part of Derbyshire near Brailsford, and other parts of England such as Cornwall, Devon, and other counties.  Here is a photograph of Judith’s Hedge in Cambridgeshire, thought to be the oldest surviving hedgerow in England.


Photo by Chris Gardiner.

The website with this photograph has the following caption:  “Ancient hedgerow near Monks Wood Judith’s Hedge runs next to the B1090 near Monks Wood and marks the boundary of the Parish of Sawtry Judith, Cambridgeshire (formerly in Huntingdonshire). Judith was the niece of William the Conqueror and owned Monks Wood (then known as Ewingswode) in 1086. The hedge itself is thought to be over 900 years old.”

Bill Bryson also loves the English hedgerows.  In Notes from a Small Island, he writes,”A least half the hedgerows in Britain predate the enclosure movement and perhaps as many as a fifth date back to Anglo-Saxon times.  Anyway, the reason for saving them isn’t because they have been there for ever and ever, but because they clearly and unequivocally enhance the landscape.  They are a central part of what makes England England.  Without them, it would just be Indiana with steeples.”

Bryson continues:  “It gets me a little wild sometimes.  You have in this country the most comely, the most parklike, the most flawlessly composed countryside the world has ever known, a product of centuries of tireless, instinctive improvement, and you are half a generation from destroying most of it for ever.”

When my grandfather, then my grandmother, died, the Pye house, with its fields and pleached hedge, passed down to my father.  At my request, he kept the cottage and land, renting it to a tenant who turned out to be worse than useless (he came to us via my aunt Nora, whose nickname for him was “Roger the dodger the codger the lodger,” so we should have known better.)

Over the next year, the cottage needed more maintenance than my father could take on from his home in Chicago, a distance of 4,000 miles, and he sold it, to my lasting dismay.  My uncle Tom, living in Ontario, Canada, was willed Red Roofs and he, too, sold it.  Just last week, my cousin Julie and I talked about how lovely it would have been for me to have had the Pye house, and for her to have had Red Roofs, and she could have used the fields of the Pye house for her plant business (she grows plants from seed and sells them at car boot sales).

If my family still owned this cottage and the fields, I would have brought my cousin Gordon over for a few lessons in pleaching, and I would have finished off the work my grandfather had begun.