Of hedgerows and drovers trails

Published 12:09 pm Saturday, November 21, 2015

There’s barely enough room for our vehicle, and no room for passing. If vehicles approach one another, one has to move over to a lay-by and wait for the other to pass. Sometimes it necessitates one vehicle backing up to the wider space. People are very considerate here, and it poses no real problem. Speeds are not posted on these narrow lanes; I have not observed anyone “speeding.” We’re going to Kingsbridge from Salcombe and our host is taking us via a drovers trail.

These trails, mostly paved, wind throughout the English countryside. The earliest people here became village builders and farmers; fields were cleared and the displaced rocks were piled at the field margin. Over time, needs changed and farmers used young trees, bent over and connected together, to form live fences. Limbs could be intertwined and made to form a very dense hedge that would keep livestock within the field. Some hedges have many trees that have been permitted to grow to their normal size; some have sporadic trees only.

Wind blew dust and dirt against this living wall; soil attached itself to the brush and became a densely packed barrier of rock, tree and hedge roots, and live bramble. Farmers trimmed the hedges/hedgerows by hand. Modern farming methods, using tractors and specialty equipment keep the hedging trimmed to a manageable state.

Most hedgerows in this area are over six feet high, and have gates for stock and equipment. Some hedgerows have stones embedded into the side as steps to permit foot access over the top. England is covered by public footpaths that cannot, by law, be closed for people access. Virtually the entire country has a footpath around its edges; trail maps are a staple for tourist trekking.

Major forests disappeared from the English countryside, used up by shipbuilding, housing, fuel for cooking and heating and agriculture. Today, the hedgerows are a treasured nesting area for birds and animals, and trimming is forbidden during nesting season in different areas. I suppose it’s about the same as hunting and fishing laws at home. Conservation is very important here.

Lanes between fields are narrow, restricting livestock movement, facilitating easy transfer between fields or to market. The Devon countryside, as well as most of England, is a patchwork of hills and dales sectioned by hundreds of miles of stone fences and hedgerows.

These fields never experienced war machines, like tanks. It was a different matter on continental Europe during World War II. Trucks, tanks and other mobile equipment could not easily mount an offensive across miles of hedgerows.

After the Normandy invasion, the idea of welding large “teeth” or prongs to the front of tanks developed. Field welding units were established, and tanks were modified, first using scrap metal from coastal fortifications, then tanks were modified in England before being shipped to the front. These fast field adaptations moved the armies across Normandy, all the way to Berlin.

Today the roar of tanks is a distant memory and these embankments and trails are used for their original purpose, to contain livestock and mark field boundaries. For me, they lend a wonderful, bucolic touch to the gentle hills of the English countryside. They ground me to my farming heritage.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at archiepix@kingwoodcable.com.