Lifelines: planting hedgerows with reverence and connection

Julia Chalkley reports on a wet and wonderful weekend in Suffolk.

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A group of us connected to St James’s spent a wonderfully wet and muddy December weekend planting the beginnings of a new hedgerow at Slough Hall Farm, Suffolk as part of the Lifelines project begun this time last year in Dorset. Our fellow planters and companions were friends of the Camden Baha’i Community and two staff members from St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace.  We stayed in The Old Brooder, a warm and comfortable bunkhouse at nearby Milden Hall so called because it had recently been (beautifully) converted from a building used for breeding chickens!  Its owner, Juliet, also explained to us that hedgerows in Suffolk are a tradition of the ‘ancient country’ which defines the areas of Britain that did not become shires including Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk but that many have been lost to allow for large scale, intensive farming, more information here. These days many landowners take a wider perspective, and planting of new hedges, or rewilding of old ones, is underway again and it felt creative to be participating in this.

There is nothing like a night-walk for bonding with your fellow planters and on our first evening we set out with no torches and moonlight so scarce that the faint outline of the person ahead was our only guide.  Plunging into deep ruts full of water was testing, a stream gurgling alongside intermittently and occasional rustles in the undergrowth unnerving, but emerging onto a hillside beneath shining, silent stars was ultimately uplifting.

During the following two days many more joyful moments were shared beginning with a morning of solid rain in which many holes were dug and the first of 360 slender saplings planted.  Tarot, one of our project leaders from St Ethelburga’s had driven them a long way to be with us and handed them over tenderly, remarking on their almost human-like vulnerability, their fine roots dangling in her hands: rowan, dog-rose, spindle, field-maple, hazel, elder, and hawthorn.

Our team could not have been more diverse: we hailed from many countries, all calling Britain our home yet no one complained about the weather. The youngest member was eight and worked as hard as any of us; his thirteen-year-old brother commented on his evaluation form ‘I met lovely new people, really connected with people of different backgrounds and ethnicities and loved working my butt off for nature.’

Once in the earth (clay!) the saplings were gently heeled in, each then surrounded by a protective sleeve which will remain in place for five years.  Finally, they were mulched with a great quantity of woodchips produced on the farm from its own woodland. This involved the use of an electric mini-truck for many journeys back and forth, much to the joy of the children bouncing on the back.

Shelter from the rain was offered at lunch times by Zain, our generous host farmer, who invited us muddy boots and all into his house for much needed warmth and nourishment.  In the evenings in our bunk house, we shared not just food (and wine from the farm’s own grapes) but stories, prayers and song forming that unique bond that comes from a shared love of the creation.

On our last morning a glorious pink and gold sunrise drew us outside to bend and stretch any stiffness from our limbs and in Hildegard of Bingen’s inimitable words to ‘breathe together the one breath of the universe.’

The weekend in numbers:

Age range of participants: 8 to 70s

Continents of origin: 5

Faith traditions represented: 5

‘Whips’ planted: 360

Hours of rain while planting: 6

Metres of hedgerow established: 150