I have only a dim memory of Auntie Audrey who died when I was a young child and was not truly my aunt but my grandmother’s cousin. She sometimes visited us at my grandparents’ farm on the edge of Exmoor and I remember a tall, angular woman with curly ginger-grey hair accompanied by a Pekinese terrier called Bugs. I knew little about her but that she was a teacher at Kingsbridge and played the piano.
Amongst the traces of life Audrey left behind was her wartime ‘Study of a Devon Hedge’, recording repeated visits to just one hedge between 1944 and 1946. There are three loose-leaf volumes in manilla covers with rounded corners, softened and thickened through years of fingering, the fragile papers secured with faded green cords, fastenings rusted tight. The enclosed pages are filled with neat handwriting in old fashioned ink, with pressed flowers, drawings, paintings and photographs describing the hedge along a country lane near Kingsbridge and all that grew and lived there. It is a delightful transportation to a small corner of the 1940’s countryside; a rural ramble rich with butterflies, birdsong and wildflowers. Her detailed descriptions and illustrations brought a sense of familiarity with a hedge I had never seen and led me to wondering where it might have been, whether it might still be there and whether I could find it.
In less than a century we have lost almost half the hedges in Devon. The years following the Second World War, just after Audrey wrote her study, saw the peak of hedgerow loss as government policy pressurised farmers to intensify production. Nevertheless, Devon still has more hedges than any other county in England stretching to some thirty-three thousand miles.
I wondered about the chances of being able to find one particular hedge and whether any of Audrey’s landmarks would be recognisable after so many years. I had only her hand-drawn sketch maps and a few small black and white photographs to guide me. The first photograph in her study is captioned ‘Commencement of lane showing railway bridge.’
Many of the roads around Kingsbridge had changed and the railway long gone, the town had grown, as all towns do, so at first Audrey’s map was a little disorienting. Eventually, I managed to make sense of the roads and correlate the modern Ordnance Survey map to Audrey’s sketch map, overlaying the present across the past in layers of mystery, finding some of her clues underlying the modern urbanisation. But driving slowly along the main road where it seemed the lane should start, my spirits sank as, instead, there was a 1970s housing estate.
Turning off the main road in dismay, certain everything earlier had been obliterated by this development, I began to follow the drive dispiritedly as it curved around to my right. Then I looked to the left and saw an Unmetalled Road sign pointing a way between garden hedges. Could it be?
I swerved in to the kerb, dragged on coat and boots, anxious to see what might be there, dreading, yet needing to know, whether hedge and lane had been destroyed. Leaving my battered, muddy four-wheel-drive looking rather incongruous amongst clean cars outside tidy gardens, I strode off up the path.
Within a few yards I found the stone parapets of the railway bridge, the Victorian industrial architecture a little overgrown with ivy but recognisably the same. There was no railway line; gardens lay across the tracks on either side. In Audrey’s photograph there is neat post and rail fencing but that had since been replaced with wire and now brambles almost obscured the sagging fence line in their barbed tangle.
The lane ascended a hill, emerging from the housing estate to wend its way between the fields virtually unscathed. I was elated to find, except for the first hundred yards or so, it appeared barely altered since Audrey described it during the 1940s.
Trees reached across the lane like cathedral vaulting, their branches wind-sculpted into asymmetrical canopies, leaning inland, cowering from the seaborne gales. The hedges were bare and brown, their banks barren with dead grasses, dead leaves and leafless twigs. Close shorn by a flail trimmer, the banks had been left naked and exposed to the cold grey sky.
Yet already the blank canvas of empty hedgebanks was peppered with the earliest spring flowers. There were primroses and celandines, a generous patch of white violets and scattered purple ones, a few barren strawberry flowers and a campion. There’s always a campion – at almost any time of year if the weather is fine for a few days a pink campion will appear, cheerful and brave, defying the greyness with valiant colour.
I visited the hedge again and again, through every season of the year, walking alongside it, sitting under it, peering deep into its tangled growth; and I came to know it. I did not, at first, know the names of everything I found there, but I listened to the voices of its bushes in the wind and to the scurry of tiny paws darting between dry stems; tasted the sharpness of sorrel, the sweetness of blackberry; smelled earth and sap and moss. And I came to know its ways and developed an intimacy with the hedge, a friendship.
In April the banks were clotted with swathes of primroses, their powder-soft scent lacing the breeze. There were glossy celandines the colour of sunshine, violets, white starry stitchwort and the first bluebells ringing out in deep cerulean blue. All along the lane, the colours of the banks and scent of the warm air between them was of flowers.
Bumblebees as plump as cherries bumbled about, probing delicate petals, stems bowing but never breaking beneath their gentle weight. Bee-flies hovered and orange-tip butterflies danced in pairs along the hedgebanks. Everywhere was birdsong; a chorus of voices busy in the trees and at the top of the hill skylarks rose over fields of young corn, springing spirit-like from earth to sky, singing their sparkling insistence of joy.
At midsummer the narrow lane suffocated in heat, smothered between almost meeting hedges, and a sweet, heady complexity of hogweed, bedstraws, meadowsweet hung in the heavy air. Insects loved it and the hedge hummed with bees, hoverflies, clouds of brown butterflies and yellow and black dragonflies hunting on taffeta-rustling wings. Tough red bartsia and the yellow spikes of agrimony flowered in the grassy centre of the lane with tufted vetch, St John’s wort and toadflax on the banks. Wild strawberries ripened into intensely flavoured, fresh sweetness like tiny shots of distilled sunshine.
In September the sheltered space between thick hedges still held warmth. Dark bramble leaves were chalked with white scribbles where larvae of the tiny golden pygmy moth mined their way through the interiors, leaving fine bleached lines steadily thickening as they grew. A green shield bug warmed itself on a sunny sycamore leaf, perfectly camouflaged even to the browned patch on its rump imitating leaf blemishes. Hips, haws, sloes and blackberries ripened in abundance, tight clusters of scarlet honeysuckle berries stood up on twigs like lollipops and still-green beads of black bryony hung in chains.
On the sunny hedgebank lizards basked in early autumn sunshine, elegant arabesques in lined and stippled metal, running like liquid as I approached. Quick molten bronze slipping between leaves, trickling along stems, gone in a rustle.
Winter gales stripped branches bare, leaving the ground crunchy deep in leaves and the lane profoundly lightened below an open canopy. Mud carried signatures of paws and hooves of passing animals and, in the mild south-coast climate, new spring growth began even before the old had completely died away. Then, in the bird-sung days of spring, fresh sunlight glowed through tender leaves with the luminosity of vibrant young life, turning again the ancient wheel of the year.
As I rambled along the hedge and lingered in the lane I searched for all the things Audrey found, to see how much was still there, how much had changed, what had been lost in the intervening years.
Some forms of life were conspicuously absent such as lapwings, cuckoos and glow-worms. All damp loving plants such as horse mint and meadow buttercup had gone, as the one wet area of the lane had been lost to development and the stream imprisoned underground. A few species, such as cinnabar moths and elephant hawk moths, I was unable to find but can only say that they were probably not present. Yet, to my surprise and delight, most things could still be found. Hedges, and especially parallel hedges enclosing green lanes like this one, are a precious last stronghold for many species.
What Audrey did not record, and indeed is not easy to quantify, was any measure of the abundance of life. We can say with certainty if something is present but to quantify how much or how many is difficult. One thing Audrey did count, or at least recorded individually, was birds’ nests and I was astonished by the number she found. It was impossible to make an exact comparison because I was unsure how far along the lane her search extended, but the number of nests in this hedge today would be a dismally poor percentage of the number in the 1940s.
I know how much the birds have been silenced because I remember the sound of the dawn chorus when I was a child; its glorious clamour far exceeded the pale imitation we hear today, and I wonder how it sounded to Audrey? Perhaps in those days it was even greater.
Walking along this lane, I was aware the mud I trampled through held the memory of Audrey’s footprints. She may have been just the other side of the hedge, the gap in time between us insignificant against its vast age, yet this only emphasised the unparalleled speed of change to the natural world the hedge had witnessed.
We have lost so much in, and of, our countryside since the 1940s yet, walking along this hedge, I was encouraged to think that perhaps it may not be too late. Though numbers of lives had drastically diminished, representatives of so many species remained, holding on, lying low amid the bushes and grasses waiting for better times. It is up to us to bring about those better times with all the speed of desperation.
Hedges were built to divide the land, yet they form links – between habitats, through generations and between people and nature. Joining woods and copses, rivers and ponds, moorland, heath and grassland, hedges create routes through less hospitable land offering a means of travel and dispersal, of shelter and food, of homes for innumerable secret lives. Hedges form links through time, an unbroken chain through the ages, made hundreds, sometimes thousands of years ago and maintained by generations of farmers and hedge-layers ever since. Hedges were constructed to impose order, yet here they are, running through the human-controlled land, letting in the wild. In a perfect symbiosis, hedges were created by people, are dependent upon people but are inhabited by nature, forming a link from the wild world to us; and hedges are so common, so readily accessible, that to accept this connection, this innocent offer of friendship, we need only hold out a hand.
Modern photography by Michelle, 1940s photograph by Audrey. All sketches by Audrey.