There is no walk in the Chilterns that doesn’t involve going through, along or around hawthorn and blackthorn hedgerows.
The field patterns of the area are ancient, having changed little in centuries. Whilst we have our share of twentieth century barbed wire and heavy wooden fencing associated with horticulture, there are also countless miles of beautiful hedgerows providing boundaries, windbreaks, stock proof barriers and shelter for wildlife.
As in coppiced woodland, very often farmers will have left big standards to grow on in the hedgerows. These large standard trees such as oak, ash, field maple or beech would be left to mature and supply cut timber or firewood as required. But for the most part hedges in the Chilterns, as elsewhere, are made up largely of hawthorn or blackthorn or some combination of the two.
Hawthorn and blackthorn make a thick dense thorny barrier that stock are reluctant to pass through, more so when mature hedges are laid. On heavier clay soils blackthorn is said to do better than hawthorn.
Of more interest to the walker in the Spring months is the blossom these two typical hedgerow trees display. When deciding which blossom you are admiring, a rule of thumb is that the blackthorn trees flower first when there are no leaves on it, usually from early March until April.
Hawthorn, on the other hand, produces green leaves first and then blossoms later on around May time, hence it is commonly referred to as the may flower.
Later on in Autumn, the hawthorn gives haws, small bitter reddish fruits which the birds love, whereas the blackthorn provides sloe berries which in times gone by was commonly gathered and used as a base for distilling gin, an ideal winter warmer.
Both these small trees are relatively slow growing. Blackthorn is very tough and its wood is famously used to make shillelaghs, the durable walking sticks loved by the Irish.
The hawthorn is also, legend has it, the original thorn tree brought from the Holy Land by Joseph of Arimathea along with the Holy Grail and planted near Glastonbury where some claim its descendants still flower today.
So next time you are out walking and all you see is a ‘boring’ hedgerow, maybe think again.