Despite the bad weather, the volunteers have been learning the ancient seasonal art of hedge-laying. This is part of the N T policy of encouraging volunteers to take on skilled work normally carried out by paid operatives, like gate building, fencing or flint walling.
Skilled hard labour like hedge laying usually gives a single-minded tranquillity to workers in a job well done – a trade which has Royal patronage!
The hedge fronting the privately owned Old Dairy farm on the Ringshall to Northchurch road is a rare artefact on the Ashridge estate probably dating back some five hundred years and hardly touched by the wood-mans tool over the centuries.
In 1556 Elizabeth I when still a princess, leased the Old Dairy farm for twenty one years to a Richard Combe of Hemel Hempstead so the hedge no doubt dates from that time, planted on the customary raised bank. Like today the adjacent deer park was unfenced, so the hedge was an important barrier to keep the deer from grazing the pasture and arable crops.
When the Ashridge estate was put up for sale in 1925 the family of the present farm owner purchased the property, apart from the large meadow which they could not afford at the time – it passed into the hands of the Trust.
The “open” field system of farming dating from the Norman Conquest largely dispensed with hedges, walls and boundaries. Situated in the parish of Aldbury which was an “open” village never enclosed by hedging, although parliamentary enclosure was common place in adjacent parishes, the Old Dairy farm is a rare throwback to the Middle Ages. The hedge has never been laid merely trimmed during the years of plentiful cheap labour, while today farmers instead rely on the mechanical flail to control the hawthorn bushes with the addition of a wire fence to keep the boundary stock-proof. A laid hedge will remain stock-proof for decades and is the hallmark of a well-ordered farm.
The dead hedges which have been created by the volunteers around the Estate are a reminder of times past when they were commonplace. William Ellis the farmer from Church Farm in Little Gaddesden writing in volume 1 of his The Modern Husbandman of 1744:
For the better securing the Safety of new-made Hedges against Cattle, there is generally a Covenant inserted , in almost all Chiltern Leases, for defending them with a Dead-hedge, or Rails, &c. The Dead-Hedge is made by driving down Stakes of four Feet and a Half long, about four or six Inches into the Earth, at two Feet asunder, and then by weaving in long Thorn, Bush, Hasle, Sallow, Ash, Maple or other Hedge-wood, it will last two Years, and then may be made into Faggots, for Burning.
Hedges have a massive visual and aesthetic effect on the landscape compared with fences, and provide an invaluable “corridor” for birds and small mammals – healthy hedges are a great conservation feature and the work at the Old Dairy farm will showcase the efforts of the volunteers at Ashridge.
All you ever wanted to know about hedge laying;- The National Trust in Buttermere