Hedging with Hamlet and Horatio
How much did Shakespeare know about hedge laying? A considerable amount, according to Trevor Nunn who suggests a reference to hedging may be found in Hamlet’s speech to Horatio in Act 5. How much does Trevor Nunn know about hedge laying? I’m not sure it’s a great deal, judging by that theory. How much do I know about hedge laying? Somewhere between Shakespeare’s knowledge and Sir Trevor’s (but probably nearer the latter).
In 1945 Britain had 500,000 miles of hedgerow. Following changes in agriculture, this fell to around 250,000 miles in the early 1990s. The word ‘hedge’ derives from the Old English ‘hagga’ meaning ‘an enclosure’ and some of our hedges are very ancient, a few dating back to the Bronze Age. Most were planted in the 18th and 19th centuries following a rapid succession of Enclosure Acts.
The enclosure of open land had begun hundreds of years before and was frequently resisted by the peasantry dispossessed in the process. Much early enclosure was to turn arable land into pasture for sheep, the wool trade being highly lucrative. Tending sheep, however, was much less labour intensive than growing crops, forcing many people into vagrancy. In 1607 the Midland Revolt spread into Shakespeare’s home county of Warwickshire when John Reynolds from Northamptonshire led a protest against the enclosure of common land. A tinker, known as ‘Captain Pouch’, he promised his followers the contents of his pouch would protect them from harm – though after he was captured it was found to contain nothing but a piece of green cheese.
Shakespeare himself became caught up in a later dispute regarding enclosures round Stratford in 1615. This was because in 1605 he had bought a half share in 100 acres of arable land for £440, an enormous sum of money (equivalent to what a school teacher might earn in twenty years). A decade later, wealthy landowners wished to enclose the land and were resisted by women and children who marched from the town and attempted to fill in the ditches that were being dug, preparatory to the planting of hedges. We have no idea where Shakespeare’s sympathies lay in the matter, but it is recorded that the landowners assured him he would not suffer financially through their actions and this appears to have bought his acquiescence.
Enclosures were hated by the peasants because it denied them access to the open land on which they traditionally had the right to graze their sheep and cattle. The old strip field method of farming had given them a degree of independence, despite their feudal obligations. Enclosed land turned them into dependent labourers. John Clare railed against the system and in The Mores wrote,
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labours rights and left the poor a slave
Enclosures largely produced the pattern of fields we see in today’s countryside. Enclosing was also a key part of the agricultural revolution that saw vastly improved yields that fed Britain’s growing cities following decades of intense industrialisation – the factories of the north, especially, filled by tens of thousands of workers who had been effectively forced from the land.
The transition from traditional farming patterns to a more scientific form of agriculture was immensely painful, but one beneficial consequence is our extraordinary network of hedges. These are an enormously important wildlife habitat, providing vital resources for mammals, birds and insects as well as acting as ‘wildlife corridors’, allowing creatures to travel significant distances with continuous protective cover.
Hedges have been in my thoughts of late because apart from spending more than a week hacking at brambles with a sickle, I also spent a few days planting a new hedge. The original plan had been to lay the one that bordered our new field, but it was so full of gaps in places and so overgrown with ivy in others that it was decided to coppice what was there, and re-plant.
Tom Adams (who’s given great advice from the outset and who felled most of the ash trees that had to come down) tackled the long, north facing boundary that runs beside the lane, while Charlotte Price took the shorter eastern stretch that borders a track. I cleared the brash as they worked and planted just over 100m of new hedge when they’d finished. Some of the saplings were beech and hornbeam that I bought from a tree nursery. Hawthorn, hazel, holly and field maple were transplanted from the old orchard, along with some damson saplings growing just beyond it. The job was unfinished; new hedges need to be in by March 31. Running out of time, the rest will be planted next spring.
The hedging work also turned my thoughts to an anecdote related by Trevor Nunn of the RSC in the Guardian, last year. It’s worth quoting the piece in full.
TN: You know when Hamlet says, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will”? An actor friend of mine many years ago was in Warwickshire walking down a country lane and he passed two men working at hedging, one of them 20ft from the other one. And he stopped and said, what are you two doing? And one of them said it’s quite simple, I rough-hew them and he shapes the ends. Every page has the country boy’s imprimatur.
Hamlet’s lines are taken from his speech to Horatio in Act 5 Scene 2. In them, he seems to accept a providential destiny, in contrast to his uncertainty and prevarication earlier in the play. Like the explication of the ‘golden lads’ and ‘chimney sweepers’ mentioned in the David Hockney blog, the notion that the lines were inspired by countryside craftsmen sounded clever and elegant; but the more I thought about it, the less plausible it seemed.
Although skilled work, hedge-laying is relatively straight forward. First of all the light brushwood (brash) is cut from the hedge, along with dead wood and other debris, leaving relatively straight and evenly spaced stems. These are then ‘pleached’ by cutting almost right through them at an angle, at their base, with a bill hook. The pleachers are then laid diagonally between upright stakes which have been hammered into the hedge at 45cm intervals.
In the account told to Trevor Nunn’s friend, two men were working twenty feet apart on the hedge. There isn’t anything particularly strange about that. Hedgers mostly work alone, but it’s not unknown to work in pairs. What I find perplexing is the ‘rough-hewing’ and ‘shaping’ aspect. The only element in the hedging process that needs shaping is the point at the end of each stake, but this isn’t specialist or time-consuming work. I can’t see that it would take one man to rough-hew the end before another shapes it. Most stakes would be 4-6cm diameter hazel poles, and a couple of swift strokes from an axe or bill-hook would be quite sufficient to produce a sharp point.
I asked both Tom and Charlotte (pictured) about this, and they agreed it wouldn’t require two people. Now both are country born and bred, but neither is old and grizzled, with wind-reddened face, whiskery chops, bent back and hands like leather. I know such people, but decided not to them ask about Hamlet and the rough-hewing and shaping, mostly on the grounds that they would think I was mad. So there might be some ancient lore that I’ve missed.
It’s also true that there are about thirty regional styles of hedge-laying, so there might be a different approach somewhere, but as far as I can gather the principles are much the same. We had our garden hedge laid a couple of years ago by Stewart Whitehead, in what seems is ‘Midland’ style with hazel binders woven between the uprights (see pic). This method is generally used in fields with heavier livestock, such as bullocks, to give the new-laid hedge extra strength. In our case it was because there were a few bare patches (since re-planted) and Stewart thought the binding would make the structure more resilient.
Although it doesn’t seem likely it would take two men to rough-hew and shape hedging stakes, there are crafts where different people perform separate functions. Bodgers, for example, used to work in beech woods turning chair legs, stretchers and spindles on pole lathes. These finished items would then be taken in bundles to other craftsmen who would add the seat (typically of elm) and other elements.
The modern usage of a ‘bodge job’ to mean something unsatisfactory or incompetent is thought to derive from the fact that bodgers never actually finished a whole piece of furniture, their work always being taken on by someone else (although it’s also claimed that ‘bodge’ has become confused with ‘botch’ a word said to be medieval in origin, meaning a ‘bruise’ or ‘carbuncle’).
Whatever the truth of that, I’m not sure the anecdote related by Trevor Nunn bears scrutiny. It sounds to me like a neat, academic theory that doesn’t have much to do with the reality of hedge-laying, or anything else. I would also question it being used as evidence that Shakespeare was a ‘country boy’. If it’s unsafe to claim he was a courtier because he seemed conversant with court life, or had been a soldier because he shows knowledge of soldiering, I’m not sure one could say he was a country boy because of his wide range of reference to the natural world (he could have spent his entire boyhood indoors reading books about courtly life, warfare and nature, for all we know). Actually, I’m inclined to agree with Trevor Nunn on that point. Almost every page does have the ‘imprimatur’ of the country boy – I’m just doubtful about the hedgers and their rough-hewing and shaping of ends. A great couple of lines, though.