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|Ch.10: Off the beaten track.
Written by Rachel G
(10/14/2011 8:47 p.m.)
in consequence of the missive, Hedgegrows in the south and rock fences in the north..., penned by jeffrey
"...Captain Wentworth and Louisa in the hedge-row behind her, as if making their way back along the rough, wild sort of channel, down the centre."
That hedge-row with a rough, wild channel down the centre is intriguing.
Hedges are shrubs planted in a line to form a barrier, right? They mark property boundaries, and keep animals in enclosed pastures and out of arable fields. A good stout hedge might comprise two lines of shrubs side by side, but those two lines can't be too far apart because the point is for the whole thing to knit together to make an effective barrier.
So how come the hedge near Winthrop has a gap down the middle wide enough for two people, one of whom is wearing ankle-length skirts, to walk? They are not struggling through - we do not hear any crashing and thrashing, and Wentworth is not clearing their way with a billhook. Nor do any ungenteel expressions of frustration disturb the rural peace - they are having a civilised conversation about powers of mind and happy hazelnuts.
What's going on with this double hedge? Was JA making it up? JA wrote about what she knew, and I'm pretty sure she was describing the overgrown remnant of a disused path or track with a hedge on either side, a feature found quite widely in southern England. If not regularly trimmed, the branches will meet overhead so it appears to be a single hedge from outside.
The hedges might have been deliberately planted, but they can also form naturally along a linear feature such as a track, an earth bank, a row of stakes or fence; seedlings of species from nearby woodland will soon spring up on a strip of land undisturbed by plough or scythe.
The centre of the hedge is described as a "channel", suggesting it is somewhat lower than the surrounding land. This could be because one or both of the hedges is growing on top of an earth bank, but it is very likely a holloway, a sunken lane which forms when the surface of an unpaved track is eroded by the action of feet , hooves and weather. Holloways form readily where the underlying bedrock is relatively soft, especially on slopes, (and we know it is hilly around Winthrop). The channel is "rough" and "wild" - think of soil slipping down from the sides, and plants encroaching over the old path. It is November, so there's a carpet of dead leaves underfoot.
That hedgerow near Winthrop was already ancient when Louisa and Wentworth walked along it. It certainly did not originate in the 18th century, when many thousands of miles of perfectly straight hedges were planted when open fields and common land was enclosed. Those hedges were typically planted with just one or two species, most commonly hawthorn; millions of young plants were supplied by nurserymen for the purpose. As a hedge ages the diversity of species growing in it increases. The hedge at Winthrop includes holly, which is readily spread by birds. Most tellingly, it includes hazel, one of the best indicators of a very old hedgerow, and characteristic of hedges which originated in pre-Tudor times, so it's origin is probably Medieval or even older.
The English landscape has evolved over thousands of years and is rich with clues to it's history. Despite the tragic destruction of so many hedgerows in the last fifty years, ancient tracks and hedges like the one at Winthrop can still be found today. Some have been taken over by people who take pleasure in churning up the ground with their off-road vehicles, some have been rescued and turned into delightful paths for walkers to enjoy, others are completely overgrown and impassable. But here and there, off the beaten track, these ancient tracks hidden with in a hedgerow can still be found, undisturbed by passers by. Places where all you can hear is the rustle of leaves, the sound of birdsong, and the whispers of the past.
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