Eileen Howard and Monica Maloney

Hedge dating forms a fascinating bridge between natural science and history. However, it is not as straightforward as would first appear. The limits of a hedge have to be clearly defined, and the original hedge structure, as well as other factors, have to be considered when applying Hooper’s method of hedge dating (1). Nevertherless it is generally recognised that older hedges contain more woody species than modern ones (2).

Ringmer is known to have been a centre for medieval potters (3). Although many of the original fields have now been built on there are still some, with hedgerows, along the north side of Bishops Lane known to have medieval kilns and other evidences of potters’ activity. The botanical nature of these hedges was investigated to see how their structure related to historical records, including old maps.

The fields selected included Bishop’s, 484; Potters, 494; Little Wish, 483; Kiln, 485; Barn, 486; and Barnett’s Mead, 707. The field names and numbers are taken from the schedule of the Ringmer Tithe Map of 1840. Some of the names appear to be related to pottery activity. Most of these fields are around 5 acres, and are characterised by the frequency of footpaths and little ponds (Fig. 1).

The hedges were broken down into a number of units according to criteria by Willmot (2).  These included the abutment of adjacent hedgerows, and abrupt changes in alignment, species composition or shape of bank.  Max Hooper (1) devised a method of hedge dating from his observations on the frequency of woody species in hedgerows and their relationship to documentary evidence.  He suggested that the presence of each different woody species in a 30 yard hedge length (ignoring first and last 10 yards of any hedge because of atypical conditions at hedge corners) would indicate approximately 100 years in age.  Thus the presence of ten woody species in 30 yards could indicate an age approximating to 1000 years.  So far no reasonable explanation has been put forward to account for this phenomenon.  Certain species such as Field Maple, usually appearing with four, and Spindle with six, other species, are also considered important in hedge dating (4).  As the difference between a yard and a metre is relatively short, and the whole concept is only an approximation, 30 metres has been substituted for 30 yards, following the example of Brodie and Westall (5) in their work on Elms in hedgerows.

Fig. 1. The Potters' Fields North of Bishops Lane

It was found to be more profitable to modify Hooper’s method by noting the presence of each woody species at metre intervals along the hedge.  In addition herbs indicative of ancient woodland, e.g. Bluebells, Dogs Mercury, Primroses and Wood Anemones, were recorded.  Five samples of 30 metre stretches, not necessarily consecutive, could be selected and an average number of woody species determined.  Distribution of species along the hedge was recorded and the relative frequency of species indicated.

Types of Hedgerows

Documentary evidence suggests that the hedges associated with the potters’ fields could be placed into three categories relating to age. Probably the oldest would be the hedge along the southern edge of the Open Field system of Norlington, together with remnants in the hedges along Norlington Lane and Bishops Lane. Perhaps slightly later would be the hedges separating the fields shown on the 1704 map of the Delves House estate and the 1840 Tithe Map. Lastly there are modern hedges only shown on maps more recent than the 1840 Tithe Map, as along part of Bishops Lane in the region of Kiln Field and Barnett’s Mead, Nos. 22 and 23, and also part of Barnett’s Mead, Nos. 24, 25 and 26, associated with a building plot (since removed).

The fields along Bishops Lane have clay soil with varying amounts of sand, derived from the underlying Gault Clay and Lower Greensand. Their reaction is mildly acid, but nearer neutral under trees and along roadsides. The area is near enough to the chalk downs for the presence of chalk lovers such as Dogwood and Privet.

Most of the hedges bordering arable fields and roadsides are currently cut to about 1½ metres, but a number of hedges towards Norlington Lane alongside grazing land, Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, 19, 6, 7 and 8, have not recently been managed, and contain trees of considerable height.  However it is considered, that type of management may have little influence on species composition (2, 4).

A hedge is essentially man-made.  Many of the earliest hedges were probably derived from woodland by assarting, i.e. leaving strips of woodland round newly cleared fields, or at least using a mixture of woodland species for this purpose.  Relics of old woodland often contain Hazel, Spindle, Dogwood, Field Maple and Oak and have woodland herbs in the ground flora (6).  The most popular shrub planted to form our hedgerows has been Hawthorn (7), but other species have been used including Blackthorn, Holly, Apple (4), Gorse near heathland, Wild Plum and Privet near cottages, as well as Oak, Ash, Elm and Maple (8).  Blackthorn, Rose, Ash and Elder are the most frequent colonisers of hedgerows (6).

Fig. 2. Distribution of Species Along Hedges

Structure of Hedgerows of Potters’ Fields

It is not easy to distinguish between a hedge of many species derived from old woodland and an old hedgerow colonised by numerous species (6). It is possible that part of the Norlington Open Field boundary hedge, running eastwards from Norlington Lane, could have been derived from old woodland. It is the only hedge containing a section, No. 17, with as many as eight species per 30 metre stretch, including Hazel, Dogwood, Field Maple and Oak, together with a ground flora including Primroses and Bluebells (Fig.2 table 1). Rather surprisingly Spindle was not observed there, but in this area it was seen only in one hedge, No. 30, bordering Barnett’s Mead and near habitation.

A hedge running northwards from Bishop’s Field, No .7, may also form part of the Norlington Open Field system.  However, it is in a degenerate condition with many unidentified tree stumps, and cannot easily be assessed (Table I).  Rather surprisingly it terminates with an ornamental Cherry with root suckers from another variety.  The hedgerows between Bishop’s and Potter’s fields, Nos. 2, 3, 5 and 6, show few signs of recent management and are somewhat degenerate.  The presence of a variety of mature trees, together with Hazel in two sections, Nos. 4 and 5 (Table II), nearest the Norlington Open Field boundary, could possibly indicate a woodland origin.

Although Hawthorn is the predominant woody species of the roadside hedges (Table III) and two of the modern ones (Table II) this does not apply to parts of the Norlington Open Field boundary nor to the hedges between the potters’ fields (Tables I, II). These hedges appear to have been built of thorn, Hawthorn and Blackthorn being used without particular pattern.

A number of hedges between fields shown on the 1840 Tithe Map have been removed, but sometimes trees, particularly Oaks, have been left marking their original position. Nearly all the remaining hedges between the fields and much of the Norlington Open Field boundary had around six woody species per 30 metre stretch, including Field Maple (Tables I, II). Assuming the hedge to have been planted with thorn this would give an age of about 500 years. Thus they would have been planted in the fifteenth century, at a time when the potters were still active.

Lower figures occur where the hedge was too short for an accurate estimation, and also along the north side of Kiln, No.21, Barn, No. 33 and Barnett’s Mead, No. 31 (Tables I, II).  These could have been replacement hedges, as they show some features in common in having relatively high counts of Hawthorn, Blackthorn and Dogwood, with similar amounts of Rose and a little Elder.  The higher number of species in No. 21 might be attributable to its greater length.  The two hedges with higher counts, Nos. 30 and 13, (Table II) included domestic fruit trees and were both associated with buildings and concrete paths.

Table 1. Boundary Hedge, Norlington Open Field System
Table 2. Hedges Between Fields Hedges Between Fields (continued)
Hedges Between Fields (continued)
Table 3. Roadside Hedges
Notes to the Tables

Roadside hedges elsewhere have been found to have more woody species than would have been expected (2, 6).  Splash and road-making materials tend to increase the alkalinity of the adjoining soil.  Many hedges may follow ancient pathways, but subsequent repair, re-alignment and associated damage may provide increased opportunities for colonisation.  In addition passing vehicles may introduce species, e.g. the prevalence of Apple trees along roadsides.

Bishops Lane was part of a pathway from Saxon Wellingham to the Broyle forest, but the present hedge composition is variable. The hedge along Bishop’s Field, No., 1 appears to be a mixed one (typical of old hedges) with similar amounts of Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Dogwood and hybrid Hawthorn (Table III). The presence of Bluebells here could also indicate an ancient hedgerow. However the remaining hedges of adequate size, Nos. 11, 20 and 22, along Bishops Lane, were dominated by Hawthorn.

There appears to have been some re-alignment between the 1840 and 1873 maps of this road between South Norlington House and the site of the houses built near the forge in 1981. Hedge No. II contains a high proportion of Privet (Table III) and may have been planted at the time of the construction of Lionville Cottages. Only hedge No. 20 is still in the same position as that shown on the 1840 Tithe Map, and it is the only section along this part of Bishops Lane to contain Field Maple, indicating an age of approximately 400 years (4). The sections less than 200 years old had a high number of species (Table III) but they included Blackthorn, Rose and Ash, which are early colonisers (6), also Privet, and Elm suckered from nearby trees or stumps.

The section along Norlington Lane cannot be assessed as it also forms a garden hedge.

Concluding Comments

Part of the Norlington Open Field boundary is the oldest hedge. It is not very straight, the species distribution is intermittent, and there is one section with the highest species count per 30 metres, containing Hazel, Dogwood, Field Maple and Oak with Bluebells and Primroses. The sections along Barn Field with lower counts could be replacement hedges.

The hedges separating the fields with approximately six species per 30 metres, and containing Field Maple, could have been planted by potters in about the fifteenth century, perhaps to fence in stock. Most of the modern hedges from the 19th century appear to have been planted with Hawthorn.

Roadside hedges had a high species count even when definitely less than 150 years old, but they contained early colonisers as found by Pollard (6) and Willmot (2).

The estimation of hedge age according to Hooper’s method appears to bear some relationship to documentary evidence. However there are some anomalies, including the high number of species in a recent hedge along Bishops Lane, No.22 (Table III), but our more detailed method of counting has provided further information with which to estimate a hedge date with greater accuracy.

The presence of Elm in hedge No. 22 along Bishops Lane is associated with a nearby tree. The patchy distribution of species along the Norlington Open Field boundary, No. 17 (Table I, Figure 2) endorses its ancient origin. In addition it appears that many of the hedges other than roadside ones were planted with two species of thorn (Tables I, II), thus decreasing the estimated age by 100 years.

The study of the hedges of the pottery fields at Ringmer has indeed been an interesting and rewarding project.


1. Pollard, E., Hooper, M.D. and Moore, N.W. 1974. “Hedges” New Naturalist Series, Collins

2. Willmot, A. 1980. “The woody species of hedges with special reference to age in Church Broughton Parish, Derbyshire”. Journal of Ecology. Vol. 68, p.269 - 285.

3. Hadfield, J. 1980. “The excavation of a medieval kiln at Barnett’s Mead, Ringmer, East Sussex”.  Sussex Archaeological Collections. Vol. 119. p.89-106.

4. Hooper, M.D. 1971 “Hedges and Local History”, p.6 -13. Bedford Square Press.

5. Brodie, I and Westall, P. 1981. “Elms in hedgerows” British Ecological Society. Southampton.

6. Pollard, E. 1973.  “Woodland relic hedges in Huntingdon and Peterborough”. Journal of Ecology. Vol. 61. p.343-352

7. Bradshaw, A.D. 1971. “The significance of Hawthorns” in Hedges and Local History”, p.20 - 29. Bedford Square Press.

8. 6th Earl of Haddington. c.1733. (re-issued 1953).  “Forest Trees” (Ed. M.L. Anderson). Nelson, Edinburgh.