Autumnal Hedges in Hadleyrow

Autumnal sunshine lit up brilliantly coloured hedgerows, defiant in the face of coming winter. Pale green bushy lichens on the branches of hawthorn and blackthorn gave the appearance of leafy buds bursting, in contrast to the autumnal foliage and fruit; as if spring and autumn were colliding.

Wild cherry did not draw attention in the summer with its shy drooping loose-stalked leaves, but dramatically revealed itself as they turned into masses of dangling scarlet; perhaps only matched in its splendour by the mass of reddish purple shoots of dogwood and the pale luminous-yellow leaves of the medlar bush, like a foundered harvest moon in the hedgerow, before turning a spectacular red like the setting sun. The hedge elms, yellowing fast, contrasted with the red leaves of Virginia creeper twining amongst its branches. The gold and orange leaves of the field maple, the yellow and pink of hornbeam and the rich brown of beech clung on alongside the softer leaves of the partial ever-greens, elder and brambles and the waxy dark green leaves of holly and ivy that would last the winter. The inconspicuous green flowers of the ivy hummed with worker honey bees frantically gathering the last nectar of the year.

The white flowers of the clematis known as Traveller’s Joy climbing up into overhanging branches gave rise to the fluffy grey fruit and seeds which changed its name to Old Man’s Beard. Their great grey drifts merged with the undulating mists coiling over the clogged ditches seemingly set on a vain attempt to extinguish the conflagration of the autumn hedgerows.

Where the leaves had thinned, the harvest of fruit revealed itself, the rich colours replacing the palette of the flowers that died to bring them forth, the fruit bearing no relation to the beauty or prominence of the flowers which engendered them. Dark purple-blue-bloomed sloe berries of blackthorn, which were used to flavour Lizzie’s gin. Woody nightshade or bittersweet straggled over the hedges with green, yellow and red berries ripening side by side. Heavily laden wild apple trees glowed in the sun, their fruits turning a warm deep orange. Damsons, plums, blackberries, along with the urn-shaped crimson haws or agars of the hawthorn, bright red rose hips, holly and rowan berries speckled the hedges.

Dulling the rest by contrast, the pink fruit and brilliant orange seeds of the spindle tree flared like fireworks. Lizzie used to dry and grind these to a powder to be used against fleas, ticks and lice; the leaves being used to treat scabies and its wood for charcoal writing-sticks; but only Lizzie had still used its wood to make spindles for spinning wool.

One spring, Lizzie and Allen had counted 34 pairs of nesting birds of 19 different species, most of them residents, in half a mile of such a hedge. Lizzie knew of 100 species of plants most strongly associated with ancient woodland communities, 36 of which were indicators of continuity over centuries. Of these Lizzie knew of four flowers and four ferns around The Pits that she had also found in the oldest local hedge.

A myriad of other species had since arrived naturally to enrich the composition of these ancient hedges. Allen had observed that the trunks of young oaks allowed to grow in the hedges increased in girth by about 3 inches every five years, and Allen had calculated that a tree with a girth of ten feet was about 200 years old. He then noted that there would be on average two hedge-forming species in a 30 pace length of that hedge; with a girth of twenty feet he found on average four hedge-forming species; confirming that each extra hedge-forming species represented about a century.

But when he found eight hedge-forming species, there were invariably woodland ‘ghosts’ growing at the base of the hedge: including bluebells, dog’s mercury, wood anemone, wood spurge, wood sanicle, wood speedwell and three fern species; relics of the ancient woodland of which the hedge had once been part, not planted.