The Guild of Cornish Hedgers
THE GUILD OF CORNISH HEDGERS was established in 2002 in response to critical decline in the ancient craft of Cornish hedging. Most of the remaining traditional hedgers were coming towards the end of their active life and were deeply concerned about the poor standard of workmanship in hedging today. The frequent collapse of recently-built hedges, sometimes within weeks of completion, was giving Cornish hedges a bad name and leading to hedge removal and lack of demand for new hedges.
The Guild's Founder was Robin Menneer, the son of a Cornish farming family whose professional career with MAFF had included setting up the West Penwith Environmentally Sensitive Area. He devoted his retirement years to raising public awareness of the value of good Cornish hedges, and promoting the Guild's work in training a new generation of skilled craftsman hedgers. He gathered a consensus of information from the few remaining master hedgers and set the Guild's standard Code of Good Practice for Cornish Hedging. A good craftsman who builds to the Code can guarantee that his hedge will stand for 100 years before it may need repair.
Robin also devised the innovative Hedge & Wall Importance Test, a method of surveying any type of hedge, hedgerow or wall for its historical, landscape and wildlife value. Unlike other lengthy and invasive survey methods, the HIT can be completed in a short time by simply walking along a few feet away from the hedge, without fear of disturbance to wildlife or injury to the surveyor.
Entered online, the HIT produces a printed description accurately giving the importance of the hedge or wall. The HIT is hosted by the Environmental Records Centre for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, in collaboration with the Guild.
In 2007 the Guild became the first winner of the Duke of Cornwall's Award of Honour under the aegis of the Royal Cornwall Agricultural Association, for promoting knowledge of the traditional craft of hedge-building in Cornwall.
The Guild is a self-sustaining, non-profit-making organisation run by the Craftsmen, with two Stewards elected by them to carry out the day-to-day administration. The Friends of the Guild are members of the public or corporate bodies who enjoy Cornwall's hedges and are keen to see them looked after. The Friends' modest entry fee helps towards the overheads of maintaining the Guild.
The Guild has been fortunate in receiving grant aid from Rural Progress, the AONB and the Heritage Lottery Fund, all of which has been used to full effect in training new hedgers and promoting education about the history, landscape and wildlife value of Cornwall's unique hedges. The Heritage Lottery funded apprentice training scheme has been running successfully since 2007. Currently in 2019 there are still a number of places available.
In 2013 Robin was made a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd in recognition of his work for Cornwall's heritage of historic hedges. He died in 2018 aged 85. His legacy is the work the Guild of Cornish Hedgers carries forward in continuing to promote knowledge and train competent new hedgers.
To apply for a place on the Guild's Apprentice Training Scheme, or to become a supporting Friend of the Guild, please go to www.cornishhedgers.org, or call the Guild's Stewards on 01736 788 816.
The main attraction of the Cornish landscape is the pattern of small fields enclosed by hedgebanks, usually made of or faced with stone gathered locally. These hedges are our largest semi-natural wildlife habitat, providing a variety of conditions which elsewhere occur only in a wide range of different habitats.
There are about 30,000 miles of hedges in Cornwall today, and their development over the centuries is preserved in their structure. The first Cornish hedges enclosed land for cereal crops during the Neolithic Age (4,000 - 6,000 years ago). Prehistoric farms were of about 5 - 10 hectares, with fields about 0.1 ha for hand cultivation.
Some hedges date from the Bronze and Iron Ages, 2000 - 4000 years ago, when Cornwall's traditional pattern of landscape became established. Others were built during Mediæval field rationalisations; more originated in the tin-and-copper industrial boom of the 18th and 19th centuries, when heaths and uplands were enclosed. This history and the county's geological form make Cornwall's hedges different.
In other parts of Britain early hedges were destroyed to make way for the manorial open-field system. Many were replaced after the Enclosure Acts, removed again in today's quest for cheap food, and now some are being replanted for wildlife. Cornwall is richer in historic hedges, with over three-quarters of the hedges remaining today being anciently established.
These hedges need looking after. Even well-built hedges suffer effects of tree roots, burrowing rabbits, rain, wind, farm animals and people. Eventually, the hedge sides lose their batter, bulge outwards and stones fall. How often repairs are needed depends on how well the hedge was built, its stone and what has happened to it since it was last repaired. Typically a hedge needs a cycle of repair every 150 years or so, or less often if it is fenced.
There is demand for new Cornish hedges. Building new, and repairing existing hedges is a skilled craft. There are skilled professional hedgers in Cornwall who are relied on to do a proper job, but there are others who lack correct training and who are pressured to do sub-standard work. Good training needs to be available for serious young hedgers. Also many people enjoy the therapeutic value of working on Cornish hedges and want to do a proper job, but need expert supervision. For anyone wishing to look after their own hedges the Guild runs a two-day course in repairing gaps in the stonework.
By supporting the Guild of Cornish Hedgers, we trust that this ancient Cornish craft will continue into the future, with new craftsmen coming forward to look after Cornwall's heritage of hedges.
Thanks largely to the work of the Guild coming when the time was right, there is now a growing demand for new Cornish hedges. The Guild's apprentice scheme presents an opportunity for anyone with the physical and mental ability to handle stone, the motivation to work often alone out of doors, an interest in the historical and environmental aspects of Cornish hedges, and a real intention to learn and practice this traditional craftsman's skill as a professional Cornish hedger.
The scheme comprises a ten-day course of hands-on training under the instruction of a qualified Guild hedger, followed by the Preliminary Hedging Test. If this is passed to the standard required by the Guild at this stage, it is followed by 40 working days of work experience and improvement on the trainee's own initiative, under visiting supervision. When the 40 days are successfully accomplished, the trainee is eligible to take the final Practical Hedging Test. This carries the Guild's Craftsman certificate, and is the only qualification in Cornish hedging that is approved and certificated by Lantra. The Heritage Lottery Fund bursary of £1500 in total is payable to the trainee in instalments subject to satisfactory progress.
In time the qualified Craftsman may work towards attaining Master Craftsman status by satisfying the Guild's highest standards.
A good Cornish hedge will stand for over a hundred years before it begins to need repair, but most of Cornwall's hedges being at least many hundreds of years old may be in need of care. They are likely to have been neglected in the past fifty years as hedging skills declined, and may be showing bulges, holes and gaps in the stonework. The modern flail type of hedge trimmer has done untold damage to the hedge structure and its wildlife.
Newly built hedges, especially on contract jobs, are likely to have been built to a poor standard and often begin to collapse quite soon after completion.
If you have inherited or bought a house with an old garden or some acres of redundant farmland you may find that the hedges are in a poor state of repair. Or perhaps the garden hedge of your newly-built house or barn conversion is already giving trouble. You may feel you cannot afford the services of a craftsman hedger, or you may be attracted to the idea of maintaining your hedges yourself, and feel you will enjoy the work. Maybe you are a young farmer with no older family member able to pass on the knowledge. Or you might be a volunteer who would like to be part of a community project to adopt and restore a dilapidated hedge in need of loving care to bring back its flowers and wildlife diversity. For all of these requirements, this Guild of Cornish Hedgers 2-day course is for you.
Just be aware that hedging involves lifting stones from roughly the weight of a bag of sugar to considerably more, and a good deal of bending. If you have arthritic hands or a bad back you may find the work too difficult.
Cornish hedging is a skilled craft and cannot be learnt in two days. On this short course you will learn the basic handling of stone and use of the necessary tools, the hedging hammer and the long-handled Cornish shovel. You will be shown how to clear the gap in the hedge ready for repair, and how to choose your stone. You will understand how to use your eye to select the right shape of stone to fit into the row, and how to place the stones in accordance with the existing hedge and consolidate the fill. Finally you will top off your mended hedge with earth and turf for a neat, secure and wildlife-friendly finish. Having completed the course you will be able to practice and improve your skill in your own time.
Before attending the course you are recommended to go to The Cornish Hedges Library and read the paper entitled Repairing Cornish Hedges and Stone Hedges, also The Code of Good Practice for Cornish Hedges, and the Health and Safety Risk Assessment Guidance.
Cornish hedging is normally safe and injury-free as long as sensible care is taken in lifting and handling the stones. Before attending the course please equip yourself with steel-toed boots and safety goggles to protect your eyes as you may need to chip stones with the hammer to make them sit comfortably in their place. Wind-and-shower-proof clothing is recommended. Be prepared to bring your lunch and something to drink, as you will spend the day working outdoors.
Tools are not provided. You will need to bring with you a long-handled Cornish shovel and a heavy hammer such as a club hammer.
The Guild's courses are acclaimed as being always both instructive and enjoyable, but if you should have any problem, worry or complaint please take this immediately to the Stewards. They are there to help you.
For more information and to apply to attend a 2-day repair course, please call the Guild's Stewards on 01736 788 816 or go to the Guild's website at www.cornishhedgers.org.uk.