In most standard dictionaries, “hedge” will be defined as a row of shrubs to separate lawns, fields or pastures. In Devon, they can also separate your sense of self-confidence and driving skill from your very soul. If you drive seven miles along a “two-lane” road with these hedges, the fear you will feel is not unlike what you would feel if you stood before the very Gates of Hell and cursed Satan at his own doorway. You enter the seven mile stretch, easy of mind, free at the wheel, confident, joyously celebrating the astonishing landscape and geography of this fabled west country county. They you emerge at the far end, a mere seven miles of driving–you emerge gaunt, pale, perspiring, white fingers gripping the wheel like a death choke, unable to speak or formulate a coherent sentence. You are breathing fast. Your pulse rate is up around 375 beats per minute. Your eyes are glazed over. You try to speak. The only sounds from your larynx is something that resembles the gibberish of a Neanderthal. Your lips and tongue cannot form the simplest syllable or even articulate a vowel. You attempt to say: “There, that wasn’t so bad”, but what comes out sounds like “Nnneeeyayayabaaa”. Your brain functions are fried like a bad sausage at a county fair that has been cited for Botulism. In rapid succession, you have calculated the cost of two side-view mirrors, the door handles, the paint job, tires, windshield and radiator. And the car isn’t even yours.
The road, or more accurately, the lane, is wide enough for 1 1/3 car widths. You don’t have to be a German mathematician to see that the numbers don’t work. So, the road builders have put in “lay-bys”. In theory, it works like this: You drive until you see an oncoming vehicle. There should be a pull-over (lay-by) for you to edge over or the other car to edge over. Sometimes, you have to back up a bit. But, somehow, it works (most of the time). And, God help you if you meet an oncoming milk truck… At some point, your mind, your soul begins to separate from your body and you are floating–high above the hedges. You’re looking down at two cars passing each other within the width of a spider’s thread. You cease to care about the cars because you’re nearer to God now and the trip to Paradise is going to be shorter.
Don’t forget to recall that the steering wheel is on the right, you’re driving on the left and you are shirting gears with your left hand. You are so close to the opposing driver that you can estimate what time he shaved this morning. If it’s a woman, you can count the curls of her ebony hair tucked behind her right ear.
But you do emerge. Your faith in God is enhanced. But, the promises you made to the Almighty for a safe seven mile passage is going to cost you. You have to build an orphanage in Bolivia and a leper colony in Patagonia. Somewhere, way back in your brain, you hope there are no lepers in Patagonia.
No wonder my father hated trimming the two hedges that bordered our lawn.
But enough about my twelve ‘out-of-body’ experiences. Let’s take a closer look at the hedges of the most hedged county in all of England.
If you find yourself walking along a lane with hedges, they are, without question, astounding in many ways. The use of hedges to enclose small fields has been found to date back to the Neolithic Age (4,000 – 6,000 years ago). Many, if not most of the counties in the British Isles, have hedges as part of their characteristic landscape. In the Lake District, to the north, the hedges are mostly stone. But in Devon, that are whole plant communities. I was astounded to learn that Devon has over 33,000 miles of hedges! The reason for this is that county has held onto its traditional agriculture practices the longest. In other parts of Britain, the hedges have been torn down to make way for larger field systems. Many of these hedges are being replanted.
The typical Devon hedge is made of an earth or stone bank that is topped with the shrubs. A full 25% of this counties hedges have been dated to 800 years or more in age.
A typical hedge is made of up 600 species of flowering plants, 1,500 species of insects, 65 species of birds and 20 species of mammals (perhaps the most famous being the “hedgehog”).
How can one estimate the age of a hedge, you may ask? Well, a fellow named Hooper has come up with a formula. If you count the number of woody species in 30 yards and multiply that by 110, you will get the age of the hedge (within a range, of course).
In the end, I offer two bits of advice: If you travel to Devonshire, either let a bus take you around and let the tour company worry about the damages, or, get a Hummer and become the Mad Max of southwest England.
Be a hedgehog.
[For more information: http://www.hedgelaying.org.uk]