In praise of a good hedge.

Hawthorn Hedge

Cycle touring BelgiumWhen I am beating my head against a headwind on the open fields of Wallonia what I really want is a good hedge. A nice embankment and a proper bank of thick bushes to break up the monotony. A couple of weeks ago I rode nearly 50km into head winds and it was a pretty painful experience, I would have been happy to hide behind a single tree towards the end.

Belgian farmers seem to have adopted the trend that British farmers got into from the 1970s onwards when every hedge had to be removed to allow the plough to get as close to the edge of the field as possible, regardless on the impact on landscape or wildlife, partly encouraged by EU subsidies that used to pay subsidies to farmers by the productive metre.Belgium cycle touring

Later we learned just what that was doing to biodiversity and erosion and some farmers started restoring them but here the message doesn’t seem to have got through.

And of course when they need the hedge to keep in animals the cheap response is to put up a wire fence with an electric charge round it which isn’t a lot of fun for any human or animal that happens to bump into them. Poor Murphy found that out in the last two weeks since livestock got introduced to the field next door. He spent two days in the house refusing to come out after the fence bit him.

Royal Academy Press Release. The Big Hawthorne, 2008. Courtesy of the Artist. © David Hockney. Photo: Richard Schmidt

And the loss of those hedges is just such a shame right now when the blossom is out and there are wildflowers everywhere. Last year the highlight of my visit to the David Hockney exhibition “A bigger picture” was his series of paintings of hawthorn hedges in East Yorkshire throughout the spring. There is a man who really understands the power of the hedge in the English landscape.

One of the best talks I went to when I was a member of the Chilterns Conservation Board was a great presentation by our farming officer who explained “what makes a first class hedge.” Sounds like something for gardening geeks but it turned into a fascinating presentation about the role of hedges as “wildlife freeways” allowing certain plant species, wild birds and small mammals to survive and to move about between communities in shelter and protected from predators.

They make a wonderful feature of some areas of traditional English countryside and help create that patchwork quilt effect so beloved of artists and painters but photography of the landscape during the 20th Century shows just how much they have disappeared.

A good hedge for a cyclist also has many other uses:


Tour of Flanders

The perfect hedge is just right.

Thick enough to provide a windbreak and a shelter.

John Morley, Dumfries 2006

And exactly shoulder height for a cyclist, which means it is far too high for a motorist to see over, but low enough that we can enjoy secret views everywhere we go.

When we come back from a ride we can wax lyrical about something they have never seen and will never see. That’s a perfect hedge and Belgium needs a lot more of them.

I do not despair – there is cycling life in Wokingham!

Absolulutely over the moon today.

I heard from the UK that two funding bids I worked on before I left CTC won the money, both of them submitted by the local Council in Wokingham. One was for the borough itself but the other was for my pet project the Chilterns Cycleway.

Cheering at my desk, not something I often get to do!

Wokingham would have been pretty high on a list of “cycling useless” as opposed to cycling friendly local authorities in past years, but their local bid to improve a main transport corridor features a lot of cycling where they will work with CTC so that is great. And they got me out of a hole last year when another authority (who shall remain nameless – “CB”) messed me about on the Chilterns Cycleway bid. So thanks again team, from cabinet member Keith down to Dave and Matt who supported the bid going in, it was a long shot that came up.

Hambleden Mill - Chilterns

Hambleden Mill – Chilterns

The Chilterns Cycleway is quite a personal project. When I was a board member on the Chilterns Conservation Board I suggested it as a way of boosting tourism. Then we got it mapped, then a bit of funding for signs and guide books, a launch and all that good stuff working with some great local partners. I guess we all kind of thought it would go quiet there but I just thought it might fit the Local Sustainable Transport Fund after the Lake District National Park got some money in round 1. I did a load of work to submit the bid in February and now it came through. Wow – I feel a bit sad that I will be in Brussels when all this happens in Wokingham and the Chilterns, I have had to live with the place for 10 years when nothing cycling happened – now its all go.

Go and ride it – just 30 or 40 miles from London there is this stunning range of hills with a 200 mile signposted touring route. You won’t regret it.