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 over-zealously 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.”
About this story
Design and development by Andrew Braford. Photo editing by Chloe Coleman. Editing by Marisa Bellack and Nora Simon.