The Saturday session was pretty standard on a nice, double row thorn hedge that has evidently been used as a training hedge several times in the recent past. What was particularly interesting, though, was a tool that Martijn’s son Luke was using for taking the heels off – a tool that was designed for cutting willow osiers and tree pruning. Nice and sharp and being wielded to great effect by Luke, who we hope will be entering our novice competition next year.
There were six trainees and we laid three cants, joining onto a length that had been laid in the local style. The weather was OK for most of the day but, naturally, turned wet towards the end.
The Maasheggen in Holland received approval in 2018 as a UNESCO biosphere reserve – an area in which humans and nature coexist. It claims to represent the oldest cultivated landscape in the Netherlands and is a mosaic of hedgerows, meadows and ponds on the bank of the river Maas. Not unlike some areas of England … but flat. Within this area there are 275 kilometres of hedge.
Every year they hold a “hedge-braiding” competition, this was the fourteenth. Usually they expect to get 5,000 or more visitors to the event. No, that’s not a misprint, 5,000. However as we were in the teeth of a gale with occasional driving rain numbers were greatly reduced and there were only about 1,000. At most of our competitions in the UK you could knock two zeroes off those numbers and still have spare fingers. Many of the spectators come by bicycle either because they are local or they park remotely and cycle in. Many of the competitors also turned up on bikes with polesaws, long-handled pruners and long hooking sticks strapped to their crossbars and sticking out about 3 feet each end. Bicycles are a really big deal in Holland.
Their hedging style is possibly unique in that it is designed to allow the free flow of water to and fro through the hedge and (not good news for coppice workers) uses no stakes or binders at all. The “weavers” use only live stakes and lay the rest of the hedge in 3 layers, one from ground level as in the British styles, a middle level and then a top level that is intertwined to form the top of the hedge. This style is centuries old, as are most of the hedging styles around Europe. It tends to look rather untidy to many British eyes and the high pleaching is a definite no-no on this side of the North Sea. However, it is only meant to be effective against cattle and the live stakes mean that the whole thing is actually very robust even though it doesn’t look very substantial. A blackbird should be able to fly through it apparently. The argument against the more robust style of British hedging is that the river floods but when it recedes it brings with it all the detritus, natural and man-made, and whereas the Maasheggen style allows all this water and debris to pass through the substantial gaps without any significant problem the fuller, denser style of British hedges allegedly causes all the accumulated rubbish to build up against the hedge, creating a dam which eventually gives way under the accumulated weight of water. This argument is not universally accepted though and there are, I understand, something like 80 kilometres of South of England style hedge.
The British hedge usually attracts quite a lot of interest and apparently gets a high approval rating from the viewing public.
Some brave souls were attempting to defy the weather and generate a bit of enthusiasm and party atmosphere with a pantomime horse and lots of bubbles. I fear they were not very successful.
The Dutch were extremely hospitable and the event was well organised; there were 37 cants I think. The small group of them who come over every February to enter our South of England hedgelaying competition enable a bit of cultural cross-pollination. Some of them were using an unusual type of billhook that looks very like a butcher’s cleaver and some of them appear to do a great deal of the pleaching using a saw rather than an axe or billhook. Most of them lay in teams compared to the British competitions, which are nearly all individual contests. There were no chainsaws used, except by us. We acknowledged the local sensitivities by using only a battery saw.
General impressions of Holland: it’s very neat and tidy with tiny little roads in the towns and villages. There is a lot of infrastructure for bikes – cycle lanes and paths, dedicated crossings and lots of traffic calming in town to keep speeds down. Nearly every house with a patch of garden has espaliered trees either up against the house wall or on the boundary. There are a huge number of willow trees lining roads, fields and ditches, which they keep closely pollarded (That was the job of one of our hosts, a willow-pollarder.)
The bicycle is king.
Roger Taylor (pictures) and Frank Wright (words)