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.

Keeping these hedges in good repair and properly clipped and trimmed is one of the minor difficulties of the country. In large gardens there are always one or two professional gardeners who understand the topiary art. But it often happens that a quite modest garden possesses a splendid hedge of yew or box, the pride of the place, which needs attention once or twice every year. These hedges have frequently been clipped by the same man, some old resident in the village, for thirty or forty years. Clipping that hedge is part of his regular extra earnings to which he looks forward, and a source of credit and renown to him in his circle. He knows every weak place, what parts need humouring, what stems are crowding others between the furry screen of leaves, and where the wind got in and did mischief in the last January gale. When in the course of Nature the old hedge-trimmer dies, there is no one to take his place. The men do not learn these outside accomplishments as they once did, and the art is likely to be lost, just as ornamental thatching and the making of the more decorative kinds of oak paling are in danger of disappearing.

Mending, or still worse remaking, field-hedges is a difficult, expensive, and withal a very highly skilled form of labour. The workers have for generations been very humble men, who have scarcely been honoured for their excellent handiwork as they deserved. They appear in art only in John Leech's pictures of hunting in Leicestershire, in his endless jokes on "mending the gaps" towards the close of the hunting season. In February and March the scenes shown in Leech's pictures are reproduced on most of the Thames valley farms in Berkshire and Oxfordshire. The men wear in front an apron of sacking, torn and plucked by thorns. The hands are gloved in leather mits with no fingers; in them the hedger holds his light, sharp billhook, shaped much like the knife of the forest tribes of Southern India. When a whole fence has to be relaid the art of "hedge carpentry" is exhibited in its perfection. Few people not brought up to the business, which is only one minor branch of the many-sided handiness of a good field labourer, the kind of man whom every one now wants and whom few can find, would have the courage to attempt it. A ditch full of brambles, often with water at the bottom, has to be cleared. Then the man descends into the ditch, and strips the bank of brambles and briars. That is only the preliminary. When he has piled all the brambles in heaps at regular intervals along the brow of the ditch, he walks thoughtfully from end to end of the fence, and considers the main problem, or lets the idea sink into his mind, for he never talks, and probably never frames for himself any form of words or conscious plan. In front, with the bases of the stems bare where the bank is trimmed and slashed, stands the overgrown hedge which he is to cut, bend over, relay, and transform, to make another ten or twelve years of growth till it reaches the unmanageable size of that which stands before him. Most of it is great bushes of blackthorn, hard as oak, with thorns like two-inch nails, and sharper. These bushes, grow up in thick rods and stocks, spiny and intractable, from the bank to a height of perhaps twelve feet. The rest of the fence-stuff is whitethorn, nearly as ill to deal with as the blackthorn, and perhaps a few clumps of ash and wild rose. Slashing, hewing, tearing down, and bending in, he works steadily down the hedge day by day. All the time he is using his judgment at every stroke. Some he hews out at the base and flings behind him on the field. Much he cuts off at what will be the level of the hedge. But all the most vigorous stems of blackthorn and whitethorn he half cuts through and then bends over, twisting the heads to the next stocks or uprights, or, where there are no stocks, driving in stout stakes cut from the discarded blackthorns. When finished the newly mended hedge consists of uprights, mostly rooted in their native bank, and fascine-like bundles - the heads of these uprights, which are bent and bound horizontally to the other uprights or stakes. This is the universal "stake and bond" hedge of the shires, impenetrable to cattle, unbreakable, and imperishable, because the half-cut bonds, the stakes, and the small stuff all shoot again, and in a few years make the famous "bullfinch" with stake and bond below, and a tall mass of interlacing thorns and small stuff above.

During the last era of prosperous farming there was a mania for destroying hedges and cutting down the timber. If ever prosperity returns it will smile on a better-informed class of occupier and owner. It is now seen that the hedges were of the greatest value to shelter cattle, sheep, and horses, and benefited to some extent even the sown crops, especially at the blossoming time. As cattle are now the farmer's main reliance, it will be long before he grubs up or destroys the welcome shelter given by the hedges from sun, rain, and storm.