We had some time after our appointment in Bury St. Edmunds this week to take a walk through the beautiful Abbey Gardens there, and back up along the pedestrian shopping area. For some reason, we usually gravitate to the bookstores, so browsed a bit at Waterstone. I was drawn to a book called, A Natural History of the Hedgerow: and ditches, dykes and dry stone walls, by John Wright.
The amazing hedgerows we encounter daily in our drives through the country are unique to Great Britain, and I think here in Norfolk and Suffolk are wonderful examples. I love how in summer they grow so full that many create a canopy over and across the road, neatly trimmed to form high walls and arches. Curious to know more about their history and purpose, I thumbed through the book, but then came home and did some internet snooping to discover more.
The hedgerows serve and served a multitude of purposes:
- Enclosures for livestock
- Boundary delineation
- Historic indicators
- Windbreaks for crops and herds
- Habitats for field mice and butterflies
- and my favorite, a food source for peasants! Yes, hedgerows are often made up of hazelnuts, blackberries and sloes (the fruit of the blackthorn bush).
A survey in 1988 recorded over 8000 km (5000 miles) of stone walls, together with 1000 km (620 miles) of hedgerow and 250 km (155 miles) of fence. (OutofOblivion.org)
These quintessentially British features have fallen in and out of favour through the centuries, from their earliest appearance as boundary markers and livestock enclosures, through removal when modern farm machinery found them a hinderance, to today when there are grants and laws protecting and preserving them.
The history of hedgerows and other enclosures is closely woven into the history of the country.
From the FarmCollector.com:
The Inclosure Acts [allowing landowners to build boundary walls] resulted in huge poverty and crippling restrictions for the poor and the working classes. These Acts of Parliament meant that traditional rights to graze livestock on common land were suddenly ended. That caused a massive de-population of the countryside, with the poor folk heading toward urban areas, desperate for employment. Some stayed to become tenant farmers, but they were often left without rights and suffered much hardship.
Today there are several avenues of funding available to preserve stone walls especially. There are wall-building competitions as well, an indicator of British pride in this aspect of their history and heritage.
It can be painstaking (not to mention back-breaking) work, but most wallers I know love the fact that they are working out in the open, and they particularly enjoy the thought that they are restoring a centuries-old landmark, which, if they do their job properly, may stand for a further few hundred years. Of course at one time wall building was “peasants’ work,” no matter how skilled a job it was, but with grant funding to pay for this kind of work, it is more lucrative than it has ever been. (FarmCollector.com)
So we come to reaves, which I know you are anxiously waiting to know about. This is the name specifically given to the stone walls covering miles of the moors of Dartmoor, and are arguably the oldest type of stone wall in the UK:
From a site called LegendaryDartmoor I learned…
“A reave is a stone wall, often of considerable length, built to divide an area of land. Most occur as part of extensive walled field systems. This is a regional term specific to Dartmoor and should not be used in other parts of the country.” English Heritage Monument Type Thesaurus
Firstly, why are they called reaves?
Simply because the word ræw is an old Saxon word which means ‘line’ or ‘row’ and this has mutated to reave which denotes a ‘line’ or ‘row’ of continuous banking, (Clark Hall, 2004, p.277).
When were they constructed?
The majority of the Dartmoor reaves were built during the Middle Bronze Age (approx. 1500 BC)
There you have it! I hope you have enjoyed this bit of British history, and now have a greater appreciation for these ubiquitous landmarks.