In the upper Thames valley, both in May and autumn, one of the prettiest sights is the great hedges which divide the meadows. In spring, those above Oxford look as though covered with snow, and in early October they are loaded with hips and haws, just turned red, with blackberries, elderberries (though the starlings have eaten most of these), with crab apples, with hazel nuts, scarlet wild guelder-rose berries, dog-wood berries, and sloes. Except the fields themselves, our hedges are almost the oldest feature with which Englishmen adorned rural England. They have gone on making them until the last parish "enclosures," some of which were made as late as thirty years ago, and when made they have always been regarded as property of a valuable kind. When Christ's Hospital was founded in Ipswich in Tudor days, partly as a reformatory for bad characters, "hedge-breakers" were more particularly specified as eligible for temporary domicile and discipline. "Hedges even pleached" were always a symbol of prosperity, care, and order. "Her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined," a token that something was amiss in our country economy.
One untidy habit, which the writer remembers as very common, has been discontinued in this connection. Twenty years ago the linen drying on the hedge, which Shakespeare evidently regarded as a "common object of the country," was constantly seen. It was always laid on well-trimmed hedges, or otherwise it would have been torn. Now it is always hung on lines, possibly because the hedges are not so well trimmed and kept. Bad times in farming have greatly helped the beauty of hedges. They are mostly overgrown, hung with masses of dog-rose, trailed over by clematis, grown up at bottom with flowers, ferns, and fox-gloves, festooned with belladonna, padded with bracken. The Surrey hedges are mostly on banks, a sign that the soil is light, and that a bank is needed because the hedge will not thicken into a barrier. But these, like most others, are set with the charming hedgerow timber that makes half England look like a forest at a distance of a mile or so. It is difficult to reconstruct our landscape as it was before the hedges were made. But any one curious as to the comparative antiquity of the fields can perhaps detect the nucleus or centre where enclosure started. Those having the ditch on the outer side are always the earlier, the ditch being the defence against the cattle that strayed on the unenclosed common or grazings outside.
The finest garden hedges in England are at Hall Barn, in Buckinghamshire. They must be thirty feet high, are immensely thick, and are clipped so as to present the smooth, velvety appearance peculiar to the finest yew and box hedges. The colour and texture of these walls of ancient vegetation, contrasting with the vivid green lawns at their feet, are astonishingly beautiful. One of the peculiar charms of such hedges is that where yew of a different kind or age, or a bush of box, forms part of the mass, it shows like an inlay of a different material, and the same effect is given merely by the trick that some yews have of growing their leaves or shoots at a different angle from that favoured by others. These surfaces give the variety of tint which is shown in such fabrics as "shot" or "watered" silk. Here there is a splash of blue from the box, or of invisible dull green, or of golden sheen, from different classes of yew. Box hedges of great size are less common than those of yew, and less durable, for the box is easily rent from the stem when old. But these two, the yew and the box, are the "precious" hedges, the silver and gold, of the garden-maker. Next, representing the copper and brass, are the hedges of beech and holly. Both are commonly planted and carefully tended as borders and shelters to the less important parts of gardens; as screens also to block out the humdrum but necessary portions of the curtilage, such as the forcing-pits for early plants, minor offices, timber yards, and the like; and to shelter vegetable gardens (for which the Dutch use screens of dried reeds). Holly makes the best and most impenetrable of all hedges when clipped, but it is not beautiful for that reason. Clipped holly grows no berries; it accumulates dust and dirt, and has a dull, lifeless look. Beech, on the other hand, should be in greater esteem than it is. If clipped when the sap is rising it puts on leaves which last all the winter. From top to bottom the wall of russet shines warm and bright. Its leaves are harmless in decay, for they contain an antiseptic oil, and no leaves of spring are more tenderly green or in more ceaseless motion at the lightest breeze. Privet makes the last and least esteemed of these "one-tree" hedges. Yet it is the most tractable of all hedge material, and was almost invariably used to form the intricate "mazes," once a favourite toy of the layers-out of stately gardens.