Recently, Mr Rixon and I moved a step closer to our dream of country life: We had an offer accepted on a house in Devon. I’m trying not to get too excited; there is plenty of time for things to fall through and plenty of things to sort out before we move, not least selling our London house, and masterminding the logistics of travelling across the country with all our belongings, two small children and two cats…
With the risk of sounding like an episode of Escape to the Country, what we are seeking is an outdoor lifestyle, with hill walks from our doorstep, cleaner air for our children to breathe and a safer, greener, wilder environment for them to grow up in. A certain little village in Mid Devon feels like the right spot. Surrounded by rolling hills and woodlands and with a river running through it, the setting is certainly rural. Yet, it is also within easy reach of good transport links, which should prevent us feeling cut off from friends and family in other parts of the country. Plus, the village school, shop and pub are each just a short stroll away. (Comforting facts to someone who has only ever known city life!)
When we tell people about our planned relocation to Devon, they usually mention its moors or beaches. Both undoubtedly have their charms but it is another, far humbler, but just as iconic, feature of the Devonian landscape that really appeals to me – the hedges. Devon has more miles of hedge than anywhere else in the country, probably the world. And with their earthen banks, rich blend of tree and shrub species, mature hedge trees, and thick wildflower margins, these hedges are among the best in the world. Devon hedges are also ancient, with two thirds dating back at least six hundred years.
Often described as ‘linear woods’ or ‘wildlife corridors’, Devon hedges provide shelter and safe passage to thousands of different species, including horseshoe bats, grass snakes, dormice, hedgehogs, cirl buntings and hairstreak butterflies. And they provide all the ecosystem services of trees and woods, such as cleaning the air, storing carbon, preventing floods, promoting wellbeing and stabilising the soil.
Lately, I have been walking along these linear woods from the comfort of my armchair some 180 miles away: I have been writing a feature on Devon hedges for Devon Life magazine. I’ve learnt that, like woods, hedges need to be properly managed if they are to stay up to scratch. Hedges trimmed too harshly year on year or neglected altogether become full of gaps, through which soil and nutrients slip, but wildlife fear to cross. I’ve also learnt that in keeping with local parlance, I’m to call them ‘hedges’ and never ‘hedgerows’.
The countryside surrounding the village I hope to soon call home is mainly farmland. Now I know that a bright green field of crops or cows is no more of a wild, natural landscape than an urban street. But perhaps, the ancient, dense, tangled wildlife super highways running along its borders will provide a touch of the wild we’re seeking…
Photo credit: Rob Wolton, Devon Hedge Group