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Hedging his bets

Peter Snelson is both a hedge layer and dry stone waller. William Gibson found out more.

Peter Snelson is a man who knows his boundaries, be they wood or stone. I met Peter and his wife Gill at their house and workshop near Sherborne, initially to find out about the art and craft of hedge-laying. After a brief introduction to the language of hedging (pleachers, stakes, steeps, crooks) it becomes obvious that this is a complex subject; different hedges in different areas are built for different reasons.


Peter Snelson cuts into the upright stem of a hedge with a billhook


Hedging has to be done before the spring growth begins, which means Peter is hard at work through the autumn and winter. Hazel and willow trees are coppiced (cut back hard to generate new growth), providing cut lengths to use as binding for the laid hedge. This is also the time when Peter collects most of the wood he uses later in the year to make walking sticks or to create small, hand-crafted objects which can be sold at summer shows.
Then, from the turn of the year, as the sap begins to rise, the period of intense activity begins. Upright stems (the slimline trunks of hedgerow shrubs or trees) are cut almost through, close to the ground, at an angle of about 45 degrees, with a billhook, then the upper section is bent into a horizontal position. ‘Cut too deep,’ says Peter, ‘and the limb will snap off. Not deep enough and the ‘hinge’ will splinter at the bend.’


A hedge after Peter has completed his work


These cut and laid stems are the pleachers. At intervals of about one metre along the strip of hedge being worked upright stakes are sunk into the ground, to the intended height of the hedge. The pleachers are then woven in and out of the base of alternate stakes until the next trunk is reached. The process is then repeated for the length of the hedge. For stability, the coppiced strips of hazel or willow are split down the middle and woven through the tops of the stakes.
What happens then depends upon the use to which the hedge is to be put. For purely decorative purposes all loose twigs and small branches (‘brush’) are removed on both sides of the hedge, which encourages vertical growth from the pleachers as the year progresses. If the hedge lines a field of livestock, the brush is usually left intact on the inner side, particularly with a thorn hedge, to discourage the animals from grazing the hedge. A sheep hedge has thick, additional weaving at the base of the hedge to stop the animals squeezing underneath, and a bullock hedge needs similar reinforcement, but at the top.
Every rural parish would once have had its resident hedger and ditcher, aware of any quirks or peculiarities in their area; the skills required for laying a hedge were passed down through generations of the same families. Numbers declined seriously after World War 2 as hedgerows were grubbed out to create bigger and bigger fields and also as families left the land. Fortunately the skills were never quite lost and recent, increasing interest from young people wanting rural work (and some not so young wanting to learn a new skill) has led to more training being made available.


The next stone is selected for addition to a new dry stone wall

Peter has been hedging since 1999, following a three-year course in rural crafts and woodland management at Cannington College. Self employed from the start, he soon added hedge-cutting, scrub clearing and weed control to his year round jobs. As the business grew so did his need for trained assistance and this led to his wife Gill joining the work force, learning as she worked. Peter now demonstrates the techniques at shows and colleges and runs training courses and workshops to pass on his skills.
As a competitive person by nature Peter enjoys taking part in hedge-laying competitions around the country, many run under the auspices of the National Hedgelaying Society, competitions in which the Prince of Wales takes a keen and knowledgeable interest.
To view Peter’s ‘summer work’ I tracked him down at Tyneham Village, near Lulworth. As Dorset Life readers will know, this is the village that was compulsorily purchased by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) during World War 2 as part of the preparations for D-Day. In spite of promises made at the time, the villagers were never allowed to return home; the MOD still uses a wide stretch of the coast as a firing range and most of the buildings have fallen into ruin. Since 2008, however, with practical assistance from the Army, and unstinting efforts by groups of volunteers, restoration work has been under way at Tyneham Farm.
The Dorset group of the Dry Stone Walling Association, including Peter, all under the watchful eye of local historian and project manager Lynda Price, have been working at weekends to reconstruct the farmyard walls to match pre-war photographs. The site also provides Peter, a qualified instructor, with a perfect location to act as an outdoor classroom for teaching students of all ages. Like the hedge-laying classes, walling appeals to a wide range of learners, some of whom will go on to develop their skills working with an established firm, before perhaps setting up on their own account.
Dry stone walling is the art of creating walls up to three or four feet high, using available stone, rough-cut and irregular in shape and size, using placement and balance to keep the construction in place without cement or mortar, and is a rural craft as old as farming itself. Surprisingly, perhaps, there is still quite a demand for dry stone walls in Dorset, as Peter reveals: ‘As well as doing repairs, renovation and restoration I am kept busy throughout the summer months building retaining walls around private properties and decorative raised flower beds. There are also country shows to attend, giving demonstrations of walling as well as selling our hand-crafted wood products. The show season runs until September or October, then it’s time to start thinking about hedging again.’ Meanwhile, at Tyneham there is a target for each year’s walling, at a rate of approximately 2.5 metres per day per person, and a white, polished date stone set into the walls marks the progress.
After years of Government neglect of the countryside the tide is clearly turning. The Cannington Centre for Land-based Studies is just one of a number of such establishments across the country and all report keen interest in their long and short courses. Grants for students are made available through DEFRA among others and Groundworks UK is a government-backed scheme aimed at providing local and affordable training opportunities for a whole range of rural crafts.
It seems likely that Peter Snelson and his fellow craftsmen are likely to be passing on their knowledge, skill and endless enthusiasm for many years to come.

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