Magdalen Road at night

Magdalen Road at night
December 2010

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Have you ever looked at the hedges in St Leonard’s?

If the Tardis carried you back to St Leonard’s in the eighteenth century or earlier, the roads of our neighbourhood would be lined with hedges, to protect the local farmers’ livestock from travellers, and vice versa.  So our oldest roads, Wonford Road, Heavitree Road, Magdalen Road, Topsham Road and Matford Lane would have been muddy tracks with a hedgerow and stone walls on each side, interspersed with gates and farm buildings.  Those hedges would have been like many in rural Devon, a dense barrier of native trees and shrubs, tended by regular cutting and periodic hedge-laying, with hand-tools, of course.  There is a modern example of hedge-laying at the further end of Bromhams Farm football field.
At the junction of Matford Lane and Wonford Road the hedge is a survivor from the old hedgebank, hidden behind the scrub.
The nineteenth century saw parts of these roads being developed for houses, with the loss of most of the ancient hedges, though boundaries followed the old lines.  But the houses that were built needed to mark their boundaries, and new hedges were planted.  Unfortunately, it is hard to date when local hedges were planted, but some have been with us for a century or more.  (In rural areas, there are rules of thumb for estimating the age of a hedgerow, based on the number of species of tree in a given length, but those rules don’t work in towns and cities.)

The process has continued to the present day, with many more recent household boundaries marked by hedges on their own, or with walls or fences.  It seems strange, since a hedge demands more maintenance than a fence or wall does, but hedges give us a link back to the rural past, and have many other benefits as well. 
A section of wall with hedge on top (Wonford Road)
So let’s look at some of the hedges that can be seen around St Leonard’s.  We have a few examples of a countryside hedgebank in an urban setting, that is, an earth bank planted with trees like hawthorn, with their trunks laid to be almost horizontal.  Much more common in the city are hedges on top of stone or brick walls, so that the boundary is marked in a permanent way, but it looks as if the boundary is a part of the garden, a living backdrop for all the flowers and shrubs.  And we have hedges which grow alongside fences and railings, serving the same aesthetic purpose.  If you are playing I-Spy, give yourself 10 points for a hedge with a wall, fence or railings, 25 points for a hedge with two other barriers, and 100 points for four or more.

Now look more closely, and you will see how every hedge displays some individuality.  First, what kind of tree has been planted?  Is there one species, or two, or more?  Are they mixed in a systematic way?  When I was researching this, I came across a hedge that is being repaired where the side facing the road has been planted with a row of one species of tree, and the side facing the garden with a second.  A mixture may also be the result of new species colonising the hedge, as happens on farms, and provides the basis for estimating the age of the hedge.  Privet is a popular choice of tree, with laurel and holly as alternative evergreens.  There are several beech hedges, liked because the leaves turn brown in the autumn and are only shed in the spring.  There’s a fine example at County Hall.  One or two gardens have more exotic hedges, using flowering shrubs such as roses (10 points for one of these).  And, yes, we have some hedges of the fast-growing, notorious, and very thirsty, Leyland Cypress.  
Beech hedge at County Hall
Second, how is the hedge tended?  Is it cared for?  After two or three years of neglect, the hedgerow trees start to look less like a hedge and more like a wilderness.  If it is cared for, then has it been trimmed with geometrical precision to look like a wall?  Or does it have some curving shape or irregularity?  Does the hedge match the hedges on either side?  Or have different owners imposed individual styles on theirs?  You’ll find high hedges and low hedges along local streets, creating an interesting urban landscape.  Maybe that is what inspired an estate agent to advertise with the line: "Set amidst the grand avenues of Exeter's premier residential district".

Then, is it really a hedge, or a hedge-like boundary?  In suburban gardens many of us prefer variety to monotony, so mark the boundary with several shrubs or small trees, cut to the rough shape of a hedge, but really forming a harmonious backdrop to the planting of the garden.  Look out for front gardens which are marked by a row of trimmed shrubs of assorted species.  When I came to live in this area, an older resident apologised to me for the shape of one of his front garden shrubs, which he had trimmed into the shape of a cube.  But instead of having edges which were horizontal and vertical, it leaned at a marked angle.  He said that, twenty years on, it was still recovering from the effects of the 1962-63 winter, when the weight of snow had bowed the main trunk. 

Hedges can divide gardens into rooms, as happens in many country houses.  On a smaller scale, car parks are often hidden behind hedges, as happens on the St Luke’s campus.  Not only do the trees screen the vehicles, but they help reduce pollution.   
A low hedge to mark the boundary of a car park, County Hall

There are hedges on the hospital site for the same reason.  The offices next to the Crown Court have a low hedge for another reason; it protects the wall from careless parking.  An extension to the concept of hedges marking rooms is to create windows and doors (25 points for finding one).  One example of the latter is at County Hall, and there are others on private houses in St Leonard’s; look out for them.
A doorway or arch through a hedge (County Hall/Matford Avenue)
Besides their aesthetic interest, hedges are havens for wildlife.  Birds nest in our hedges, so if you have a hedge, please don’t cut it when there are likely to be nesting birds hidden in the greenery.  They provide corridors around the neighbourhood for a variety of animals, hedgehogs, squirrels, foxes and rodents.  Frogs, toads and newts can be found in them, along with the occasional snake or slowworm.  Butterflies feed on the hedges, and lay their eggs on some species.

Last, but not least, when we are looking for trimmed hedges and bushes, there are a few examples of topiary in the front gardens of the neighbourhood.  One is in Magdalen Road.  Go and find it!