In the first of an occasional series about Cornish crafts and heritage we take a look at traditional Cornish Hedge Building.
Penwith has a distinctive and uniquely Cornish landscape with small fields and winding lanes edged with Cornish hedges. These hedges are so characteristic of Cornwall, it made us curious to find out more about this Cornish tradition. We met up with Patrick Semmens, a local hedge builder who’s built many miles of Cornish hedges over the past four decades and is a founder member of the Guild of Cornish Hedgers.
Patrick explained that a true Cornish hedge is made up of local stone, packed with earth or subsoil, there’s no other material required, other than practical skill. “The shape is distinctive with the hedge being as wide at its base as its eventual height. It should taper in from the base with an inward curve and the top is domed with consolidated soil and thick turf – this acts like a roof to the hedge, shedding rainfall and protecting it from water damage.”
There are over thirty thousand miles of hedges in Cornwall and some date back to the Bronze and Iron Ages. A well-built hedge can last for well over a century and usually reflects its environment using local stone. In Penwith this is granite and a hedge here has a completely different look to one in north Cornwall where the local stone is killas (Cornish for slate) which, unlike granite, has flattish sides.
Hedges that border fields are often gradually covered by grass and wild flowers, sometimes so much so that the stone is completely hidden and they become a real haven for wildlife. Around houses and villages hedges are usually maintained so that the characteristic stone pattern can be seen.