Cornish Hedges | 451life

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Cornish Hedges

Bi-weekly blog by guest writer Lia Leendertz

I have been in Cornwall for the past week and have found myself furiously photographing walls, as I often do, trailing behind my family on every walk as they roll their eyes. I am keen on walls generally. I have always thought that in a parallel, fantasy life - one in which I have been given a dose of artistic talent - I would have been a fabric or wallpaper designer, that if I were ever an artist I would have been one that works on a flat plane. Because I love a spread of pebbles on a beach, a daisy-studded lawn, ripples on sand, a good lichen-covered wall. Flatness and pattern. But alas I was not blessed with the relevant artistic skills, and so I find myself endlessly photographing walls. And Cornwall gives good wall. There is nothing quite like a Cornish wall anywhere else, or rather I must refer to them by their proper name: Cornish hedges. A Cornish hedge is part wall, part earth sculpture, part planter, and a thing of great beauty. My phone’s memory overfloweth.

Passing through Cornwall they are easy to take for granted, being hedges, their job essentially being to tell us where we may or may not go. But in fact they are rather special. The structure is a bank of earth, held in place by a stone wall on either side. The top is turfed and sometimes planted with hedging plants or trees, and colonised by wild flowers. This design is thought to have grown out of the surrounding conditions: windy, exposed fields, thin soils in which windbreak plants struggle to grow, rock and stone in abundance. And the Cornish have been building them for around 6000 years, with some of the most ancient ones still essential to keep livestock in and prevent soils from eroding away into the sea. They are, to quote one Cornish hedge expert ‘...a rare instance of major prehistoric remains still in everyday use for their original purpose.’ Not only that, but they are being built anew all the time too, with no great fuss or ceremony. They are simply the right thing.

Here’s why a Cornish hedge works so well. The central core of subsoil is kept cool and moist by the surrounding rocks, while rain trickles down through the cracks but excess is thrown off by the outward slope of the walls. So the inside is moist but not too wet, providing perfect growing conditions for any seed that alights, often seeds that wouldn’t stand a chance in the surrounding thin soils. Early in the year they can be covered in woodland plants such as primroses and violas, but these are protected from drought and too much sun by the later growth of summer flowering campion, bluebells, foxgloves and scabious. Later there are berrying plants. On shadier, damper hedges ferns multiply. In hot, dry spots aeoniums sometimes alight. There is barely a moment in the year or a place in the county where Cornish hedges don’t look fabulous. In winter, when growth dies back it falls between the cracks and so the soil within becomes enriched over time with decaying plant matter, becoming ever more welcoming to plants as the years go on. So perfect are the conditions and so very lengthy has been the Cornish hedge’s reign that many of the plants that live on them are refugees from the landscapes of pre-cultivation Cornwall: plants from long-lost ancient woodlands and heathlands.

I have returned from past visits to Cornwall with energetic thoughts of creating my own Cornish hedge here in my garden in Bristol. Why not? They are such brilliant horticultural features, so adaptable to conditions, so welcoming to the plants that grow upon them. But it wouldn’t seem quite right to plonk one wholesale into north Bristol. Even within Cornwall there are subtle regional variations: the ‘herringbone’ patterns of north Cornwall where thin pieces of slate are the predominant material, the stacked style that makes best use of the round granite boulders of Cape Cornwall, the carefully jigsawed-together style borne from the shale around St Austell. Part of their beauty is that they just look so right where they are, braced against the stone-strewn moorland landscape, topped with thrift next to the glittering blue sea, or all mossy and ferny in the valleys. Landscape, history, stone, style and plants are all one. They are a horticultural phenomenon and are best enjoyed as part of the place that produced them, even when your husband and children are getting really, really bored.

Lia Leendertz