After completing the four day hedgelaying course I was very pleased with myself. For years I have assisted on courses, cleared out undergrowth from the hedge, moved tools, set up shelters and made tea! But I did not get stuck in and actually pleach and lay the hedge. I was convinced it would be too physically hard and the thorns were off putting.
After my experience I would say hedgelaying is for everybody, whatever age or gender, we are all capable. There is something magical about the look of a laid hedge and even more magical when you have done it yourself. You do get an intimate knowledge of the hedge and how it works, the words woodland corridor come to life and have meaning. If we go slowly enough the ways come back to us as if it was embedded somewhere in our brains ready to be used once more, whether you are male or female!
While marketing the hedgelaying and coppicing courses, Rural Skills Trust aimed to encourage women in particular to learn hedgelaying, knowing that the men would arrive anyway. We borrowed an image from a great poster taken from the WWII campaign used to recruit for the land army. There was the land army girl holding her farm tool asking for help. We changed it to a hedge tool and rephrased it as ‘We Need More Hedgelayers!’
On Monday morning there were four of us, 3 men and one woman. After the preliminary talk and tour of the hedge line and the important risk assessment we all got stuck in clearing out the hedge. Clearing out a neglected hedge is hard and you have to be right in the bottom of the hedge cutting out bramble and dog rose. By lunchtime the next day I had cleared a good stretch of hedge. Bob the instructor suggested I start laying, so I did. I gathered a range of tools. I started cutting away. It was very satisfying to pleach the hawthorn; the wood is hard and if you don’t get the angle right it bounces off. But when you have sharp tools and persevere the tree breaks off down the length of its base. This is when you really have to drive your billhook down into that gap. A thin strip levers off and bends over, I then had to get in close and steer the tree down the hedge line. Wow it didn’t snap, time to stand back and admire it while I find the pruning saw to cut off and tidy the pleach. I found the small to medium hawthorn to be ok and controllable.
Finally I tackled some larger stems and found even the largest billhook called the ‘Yorkshire billhook’ unable to cut deep enough. Bob suggested I used an axe and I had to work really hard to get it to peel over, then the next danger was controlling the tree because it was heavy. After I was told that I should have taken more side branches off to lighten the stem. These tips are gold when learning such skills. I didn’t lose it completely but had ripped over half of the pleach off. It still had enough to live on for a while. I got tired slowed down had a chat with the other students. I walked around the field foraged some tasty apples in the hedge and looked from a distance at my work. I felt very pleased.
Nearing the end of the course after surveying everybody’s’ work we all had completed a good bit of hedge. The youngest who had a strong set of shoulders completed the most and planned to find hedgelaying work. The oldest was slower but precise in his work and had an interest in laying hedges for the conservation value. My progress was somewhere in between, I was tired but had no injuries just a few minor prods with the hawthorn.