I say it is all your father’s fault! He would not do his duty by you girls, and when he dies we shall all be turned out to starve in the hedgerows!
–said nobody in Pride and Prejudice, ever.
We all love this “quote” by Mrs. Bennet, even though she never actually says it in the book. (I know, I was shocked too!) But it’s something she definitely could have said. What were exactly were these hedgerow things, and why was Mrs. Bennet (supposedly) so afraid of ending up in one?
Hedgerows in England are completely different than the hedges we think of in the United States. In the U.S. we have hedges that are made up of one type of plant, usually some kind of shrub, and we often use them for decoration. But hedgerows in England are much more complex. They are usually made up of a mixture of shrubs, plants and possibly trees, and they are traditionally used to mark borders between fields and farms. Many of them are found along the borders of church parishes, and they are strong enough to keep farm animals in (or out). Far from a random assortment of plantings, they take skill to design and plan out, and they need years to grow tall enough to be effective. Some of the hedgerows in use today have been in place for centuries!
A hedgerow can be planted using almost any kind of plant, but the most common types used in England are the hawthorn, blackthorn and holly. There are simple reasons why these three species are favored: they grow easily, they’re commonly available, and they’re really prickly! Even blundering into one by accident would hurt. Nobody deliberately tries to remove a hedgerow made with one of these materials without a lot of care and effort.
Hedgerows have been used in England for thousands of years. The Romans used them to mark boundaries of properties, and the Anglo Saxons adopted the practice after they took over. Centuries later hedgerows really came into their own when wealthy landowners decided to enclose the land (make it unavailable for grazing by other farmers). They could have built fences, but fences were expensive to construct and install, plus they aged and had to be replaced. Hedgerows were practically free to plant on a piece of land, and they kept on growing! These living fences were popular with the wealthy but they became symbols of oppression to the poor, who could no longer easily feed their animals.
Once hedgerows reach a certain height they offer some unexpected benefits. For instance, thick hedgerows offer privacy and noise control between neighbors. Hedgerows often serve as windbreaks, preventing the loss of valuable topsoil from farm fields. If they’re planted right they can slow down or stop erosion from rainfall. But perhaps the greatest benefits of hedgerows are for animals. With the shade they create and the diversity of plant life they contain, they make a good home for insects and birds. They also make terrific corridors for larger wildlife to use for travel.
Have I sold you on hedgerows yet? I hope so, because there aren’t as many hedgerows in England as there used to be, and they never really caught on in the United States. We live in a world of convenience and speed. Since World War II it’s been easier to put up metal wiring or some other material as a fence and not have to worry about watering, trimming, or waiting for it to grow. But plain, cold, impersonal fencing can never offer as much variety and enjoyment to the countryside as a well-designed and maintained hedgerow. Hedgerows are being recognized and protected more in England these days, which makes me happy. They really are a thing of beauty!
With all due respect to Mrs. Bennet, being tossed into the hedgerows might not have been such a bad thing!
Fun Facts About Hedgerows:
- Different areas of England have their own particular styles of hedgerows, with characteristic foliage and unique shapes
- There is a mathematical formula used to loosely calculate the age of a hedgerow. The age of a hedge =(number of plant species in a 30 yard stretch) x 110 + 30 years
- What may be the oldest hedgerow in England is located in Bristol. Experts think it was planted in the early 13th century!
- Some English hedgerows are protected by law
- There are approximately 500,000 miles of hedgerows in England!
If you look closely, there’s a hedgerow behind them!