Well, three days, about a dozen volunteers each day, a very knowledgeable master hedge-layer to show us what we were meant to be doing and several task-leaders who obviously enjoyed the idea of a day out of the office.
The South Downs hedge-laying course took place on one of the coldest days this year and we started out with snow on the ground. Absolutely nothing on the coast as I set off but a dusting over the Downs by the time I got to Stanmer. Two landrovers and one shredder. No bonfire this time as there just happened to be a mains gas pipeline running alongside the hedge which was known to have a few leaks, so a naked flame wasn't a good idea. Hence the shredder.
A short talk from Peter - our master hedgelayer, for us newbies who hadn't been there the previous few days or had any idea of what we were doing and we were let loose in groups of twos and threes on our own stretch of hedge to see what we could do.
The first task is to clear each of the uprights so that they can then be cut down without catching on their neighbours. Then comes the difficult part of chopping into the trunk with a sharp axe to about two-thirds of the way through so that it can be bent down to form the hedge. As this is done first and moving downhill along the hedge line, it starts to look a mess with all the branches (pleachers) laying down across the track. My greatest achievement - once I'd mastered the art of getting heavier with the axe and not just chipping away at it, was cutting a spindlewood and not having it splinter and snap on me.
The second task is to neaten up the hedge line by laying the main branches down the line and chopping off anything protruding outwards and above the finished height. All the off-cuts were taken off to be shredded as we went, once they'd managed to tow the land-rover with the shredder out of the mud at the top of the field!
Coffee and doughnuts during a chilly break - watching the sledging on the Downs by the Jack & Jill Windmills. Mark set off with his snowboard for a very optimistic attempt to ski down the hill in our field but the snow was rapidly melting, so he trudged back having got nowhere.
We managed most of the 'chopping' by lunch-time and huddled with our sandwiches and hot-drinks in the landrovers.
After lunch the snow had disappeared and it had warmed up with a weak sun trying to get through before it disappeared over the edge of the Downs. Our next task was to hammer in a line of stakes along the hedge, about 18 inches apart and to a height of about 4ft. These hold the branches and trunks in place that have been laid down and the hedge is trimmed further and starts to look neater. All measurements are taken based on the body - chest, chin, nose height, elbow to fist - obviously my hedge measurement might come out a little smaller than your average hedge-layer.
Finally the hedge is finished off with slender hazel 'binders' woven between the stakes. Most of the stakes and binders we'd cut last year, while clearing out coppiced woodland. Each new binder is locked in and alternately woven between the stakes to end up twisting along the line of the hedge. This was the less strenuous and most satisfying bit as it really gave shape to the hedge. The whole of the hedge is then neatened up, trimmed back and the stakes levelled off.
We finished off by tipping all the wood-chipping onto the muddy bridleway which we'd managed to turn into a quagmire of chalk and mud while working on the hedge.
There are several styles of hedges depending on the kind of animals to be kept in, the local hedge plants, altitude, etc. Each region has its own traditional style. Our finished product was in the South of England style - and very smart it looked too!
Job well done.