• facebook
  • twitter
  • whatsapp
  • email
Richard Negus shows us the wondrous life of the hedge, but above all how hedges, and the philosophy of human-nature partnership they embody, can mend the countryside. Hedges are the way ahead. And in Richard Negus they have their one true champion.
John Lewis-Stempel
104% Funded | 502 Supporters

Words from the Hedge: A Hedgelayer’s View of the Countryside

Richard Negus
Status: Being funded
Publication date: TBC
  • Signed Hardback
    Signed Hardback£30.00392 Pledges

    The first edition hardback, signed by Richard and the name of your choice printed in the subscribers’ list at the back of the book.

    Name to be printed in the back of the book
    392 Pledges
    Name to be printed in the back of the book
  • Reading the Hedge
    Reading the Hedge£180.001 Pledges

    Join Richard, with Unbound’s publisher John Mitchinson and Patrick Galbraith, author of In Search of One Last Song and Richard’s editor, for a day out in Suffolk learning how to ‘read’ different hedgerows, plus try your hand at a spot of hands-on hedgelaying. Includes a packed lunch plus a drink in the pub afterwards. (Autumn 2024 - Date and location tbc. Travel not included) LIMITED TO 6. [Please note that the book is not included in the price - add it to your bag separately]

    1 Pledges
  • Launch Party
    Launch Party£60.004 Pledges

    Two tickets to the launch party – quaff English wine and toast the book at the award-winning Leaping Hare restaurant, part of Wyken Estate & Vineyard, Suffolk, IP31 2DW. (Date TBC, Travel not included). LIMITED TO 50. Please note the book is not included with this ticket so you will need to add it to your basket separately.

    4 Pledges
  • Hardback
    Hardback£20.00123 Pledges

    The first edition hardback and the name of your choice printed in the subscribers’ list at the back of the book.

    Name to be printed in the back of the book
    123 Pledges
    Name to be printed in the back of the book
  • A Day in the Hedge
    A Day in the Hedge£500.001 Pledges

    Two places for a morning learning to lay hedges at Wyken Estate, followed by lunch at the Leaping Hare with Richard and one of the practical conservationists from the book. Then a post-lunch guided walk a tour around Patrick and Brian Barker’s multi-award-winning Lodge Farm at Westhorpe. (Date TBC, Travel not included). LIMITED TO 12. Please note that the book is not included in the ticket price so you will need to add it to your basket separately.

    1 Pledges
  • Patron
    Patron£1000.000 Pledges

    Become one of the book’s biggest supporters and get your name in the book’s frontispiece plus five signed copies. LIMITED TO 2.

    Name to be printed in the back of the book
    0 Pledges
    Name to be printed in the back of the book
  • eBook
    eBook£10.009 Pledges

    The first edition ebook and the name of your choice printed in the subscribers’ list at the back of the book.

    Name to be printed in the back of the book
    9 Pledges
    Name to be printed in the back of the book
Richard Negus shows us the wondrous life of the hedge, but above all how hedges, and the philosophy of human-nature partnership they embody, can mend the countryside. Hedges are the way ahead. And in Richard Negus they have their one true champion.
John Lewis-Stempel

Words from the Hedge is a unique book: a passionate evocation of the history, beauty, and importance of our hedgerows by a craftsman with over twenty years’ experience – and the scars to prove it.

Hedges are as old as civilisation, as emblematic of the British countryside as chalk streams,  hay meadows or oak trees and with as  many regional variations as there are styles of traditional building. But whereas woods are protected and cherished as ‘the lungs of the land’, farmland hedges are too often taken for granted. 

Not any more. In Words From The Hedge, the professional hedgelayer and coppicer Richard Negus takes us deep inside in this ancient world. He shows how these ribbons of thorn and barb are more than mere decoration or boundary markers: they are the countryside’s vital arteries, sustaining an astonishing diversity of plant and animal species, linking farms and villages, wildlife and people together. No hedge is ‘wild’, he reminds us; they are the product of human effort and skill - often over many generations - and require hands-on human intervention to thrive.

Richard Negus wields his pen with as much dexterity as he does his billhook and chainsaw. Along with detailed descriptions of his work, he gives memorable portraits of the birds, animals, plants and insects that are his daily companions. Robins, linnets, wrens, turtle doves, hedgehogs, shrews, voles, deer, foxes, beetles, aphids, mites – all have a part to play in the inner life of the hedge. And through his work, Richard uncovers a lively band of fellow countrymen and women, who deal with the practical complexities of modern farming and land ownership, and the challenges faced by conservation and countryside stewardship.

Written with warmth and vigour, Words From The Hedge makes a powerful case for why ancient rural skills and knowledge are so vital.  It’s a book for anyone interested in the British countryside and its future.

With a foreword by John Lewis-Stempel, author of The Running Hare  and two-times winner of the Wainwright Prize.

Prologue

Too much hurry ruins the body
I’ll sit easy...fan the spark

My chainsaw requires an elaborate series of pumping, priming and lever twisting. Only then, followed by repeated pulls on its cord, can I coax the engine into spluttering life. It hates me stopping for a tea break. I smile at my anthropomorphising a chainsaw, but it does have moods and foibles, seemingly of its own. Cold weather makes it race, warm weather causes reluctance. A fifteen-minute rest leaves it like a dozing soldier, reluctant to perform its duties. I turn back to the hedge, glancing at the stems I cut and laid before I stopped to sip a cup of sweet black tea, scalding hot from my battered flask. They lay one over the next like a thorny row of toppled dominoes. Long scars stare out where I have chopped through the stems, or pleachers as they are called in our strange language of the hedge. So pale when first cut, they have now started to change colour. The maple turns a satsuma orange, the spindle ivory like, hazel and hawthorn a cookie brown. I make some upward cuts with my saw, taking away the side growth from a hawthorn pleacher. It is January and no leaves adorn this gnarled and curlicued limb; a handful of berries, unclaimed by blackbird or thrush, still gamely cling on. Wizened like currants, they tinkle at my touch, coloured like a supermarket Beaujolais. Cleared of encumbrances I bend to cut my now clean, straight pleacher. The little saw roars once more and I make a diagonal cut downwards from right to left. I watch with an attentive eye through the mesh of my visor, looking for the base of the thorn to slightly give. This indicates I have made my cut sufficiently deep and reduced the rigidity of the growing plant. The top of my wrist flips the saw’s safety bar forward and my thumb depresses the stop button. The thunderclap shift from anarchic roar to silence is dizzying, yet there is never real silence here. Rooks caw raucously and the chittering and squabbling of the long-tailed tits is both endless and amusing. One of the cock pheasants crows a challenge over at the wood some four score yards away. He quits his row and I hear him ruffle his mantle when he hears no rival’s reply. Placing my saw down to my right, with gloved hands I bend the thorny pleacher gently over. Using my bill hook to make a final cut, I lay the clean limb to nestle and intertwine with its neighbour. The hinge does its job. Thick enough to support the pleacher in its new position of 40 degrees or so, but sufficiently flexible to allow me to alter nature. I flick the chainsaw back into life. Warmed up now, it is speedily responsive. I trim off the heel of the stool and take a sideways step to my right to repeat the process with the next branch, then the next, then the next. I will stake and bind my hedge before I go home when the sun sets; this will guard my work from the pestiferous wind that loves to pluck at a hedge and undo hours of work. When I drive away, I survey my work in the gleam of my truck’s headlights. It is a sight I never grow tired of; it also pays my bills.

The stylised image of a hedgelayer is that of a leather-jerkined rustic, pipe smoke curling about his tattered cap, cutting away in a towering line of thorn and branch with a viciously sharp and curiously shaped bill hook. The bill hook is an ancient tool, first found trimming Mesopotamian vines or Israelite briars. Bronze examples, thought to be over 1,000 years old, have been found in Egypt. At various points in history the humble bill lost its role as a tool for making good. It was instead called upon to become a thing of hate and destruction. This ergonomic tool of regeneration was downgraded to cut through muscle, bone and sinew, serving as the makeshift weapon for serfs and bondsmen, dragooned into leaving their land-based toil to become soldiers in some war or other for some lord, king or other. I own three billhooks. The youngest, a Yorkshire style hook, was made in 1941 and is stamped with a military crow’s foot. My oldest, and favourite - a Midland style bill - was crafted by a long-forgotten Leicestershire smith in the 1920s. As the decades have rolled by, its handle has been replaced numerous times but the cutting blade is as sharp as a razor and takes an edge as only old hand-forged steel can. Purists sneer at my using a chainsaw to lay hedges, claiming that an axe should be used if a pleacher is too thick to be cut with a billhook. Many of these purists are amateurs, extremely talented amateurs it must be said, competing in hedgelaying competitions throughout the land. But I have a job to do and the niceties and purities of craft are as relevant to me as a traction engine is to the tractor driver discing a field in his behemoth John Deere. I have a mile of hedge to lay and I don’t have time to dwell upon tradition for the sake of tradition. 

Hedges, unlike woodland, are and always will be a construct of man. Romano Britons cut and laid small trees to form livestock retaining enclosures. Gaps were filled by transplanting thorny shrubs; these saplings were protected with cut brash. The traces of these early hedges can still be seen today. After harvest, when the summer sun bakes the stubbles dusty yellow, the land reveals her ancient secrets to the questing camera of the drone. Dark lines, the memories of hedgerows long gone, spread out like the veins on the back of my father’s hand. As crop production increased, so hedges proliferated; they kept browsing wildlife out and gifted tender plants protection from the elements. Hedges acted as near permanent boundaries, their permanency led to the fields being given names. What would Sheffield, Huddersfield or Enfield be without the hedge? Hedges became walls, delineating the ownership of land. When hedges grew too large and shaded out growing crops they were cut. If gaps appeared, enabling cattle or sheep to escape, they were filled by laid lengths. When the hedge got in the way they were coppiced and hacked. But these hedgerow battlements were too massive by now to be removed by mere hand tools. Trees were left behind and grew from sapling into towering elm or curlicued oak. The blackthorn suckers merely waited for a back to be turned to spring up and become a bank of scrub. These ancients had no thought that their hedge planting and management was providing habitat for wildlife. The idea that our forebears were somehow more at one with nature is a nonsense. It is the fantasy of earnest middle class, middle Englanders; those who carve their own wooden spoons which they use to sup soya mush imported from halfway round the globe. The hedge is merely another example of man harnessing and mastering nature for his own ends. Plants such as hawthorn, blackthorn, field maple, hazel, dogwood and rose all happily grow in fruitbowl jumbled profusion, jostling with one another for dominance. They are also precocious, sufficiently forgiving to allow man to cut and trim them to his whim, growing and regrowing with a speed, density and thickness that suits our needs. It was mere happenstance that man’s creation of the hedge suited wildlife, not due to any Anglo Saxon proto-conservationists. A mixed hedge plays nursery to tree and house sparrows, yellowhammers, linnets, robins, blackbirds, thrushes, wrens and tits both blue and great. Finches – be they green, chaf, gold or bull – also rear their young in the crosswork of limbs. The grey partridge and pheasant escape from raptors in its thorny understory and weave their ground nest in the hedgerow’s lee. Shrews, mice and voles scurry and feed here. The hedgehog’s very name screams its preferred habitat. Rabbits and rats tunnel amongst the roots, the stoats and weasels follow them to dance then feast on the squealing subterranean inhabitants. Deer shelter from the elements here and badgers build their cavernous setts, foxes take up residence when brock decides to evacuate. Invertebrates – beetles, aphids, bees, flies, wasps and mites – call the hedge home. All-comers may feast upon the fruits borne by the hedge in autumn. This man-made haven, created to keep cows and sheep in and wind and rain out is so much more than a barrier. If the woods are the lungs of the land, the hedgerows are the arteries. I love hedges.

 

About the author

Your Bag