By David Gendle – DHYC student. Pictures by Jeremy Weiss and Adam Leonard-Williams
16th and 17th of July 2022
The second session of the Devon hedge year course was stone facing, taught by Magnus Mckay on the hottest weekend of the year! For this session we were at Luscombe as the hedge bank at the South Devon Steiner School is not stone faced.
After a brief introduction to the site from William Watson whose family has been farming there for several generations, we walked up to the top of the orchard to the hedge bank we were to restore.
Magnus talked us through some of the basics of the stone faced bank that was there and showed us some sections that were in fairly good shape that we wouldn’t need to work on. We had a discussion about the advantages of stone facing a bank both practically and ecologically. A stone faced bank protects the face of the bank whilst also providing nooks and crannies for insects and other small animals.
Then it was down to work, trying to make a good start before it got too hot. The first task was to clear the area in front of the bank where we would be working. First of all we carefully pulled up all the nettles. We removed the leaves and put the stalks to one side which we would use in a project later that day. We then cleared any other vegetation and moved all the stone and soil that had fallen out of the bank already.
After the area was clear we took down the stones and soil from the front of the bank and graded them in to sizes to build back up later, larger stones stayed near the wall so they didn’t have to be moved as far and smaller stones in piles further away. The stone in the bank was slate laid vertically so we had to be careful not to break the stones as we took them out. Stumps of hazel that were overhanging where the top of the bank also had to be removed to give us the space needed to work. We had to take down everything that was loose until we got to a stable course of stone or down in to the earth to lay new footing.
Thankfully there was a large oak tree to provide some shade in the afternoon but it was still a very hot and dusty day of work. We took breaks throughout the afternoon. During one of the breaks we learned how to make simple cordage from the nettles we had harvested earlier.
The take down took all of the first day and the first few hours of the second. Once we had got down to a stable base we could start building it back up. First the coping stones were picked out by Magnus as very unusually for a vertically constructed bank face there is a row of coping stones across laid horizonatlly the top of it. There is also a small section of horizontally placed stones in the area we worked on. It was decided that, as the footing for this section was nice and stable, we wouldn’t dig that part out and it would give us all a bit of experience of laying horizontally as well.
Once we got the hang of it the building seemed to go quite quickly. We worked in small teams each on a section and quickly got the hang of fitting the stones together in to a stable face for the bank. We carefully ensured the bank was level with either side and the batter (angle away from vertical) was set correctly then ramming the earth down behind the stones as we built it up.
Jeremy took half of us at a time to look at another section of stone-faced hedge banks that ran either side of a wide track that used to run from the farmhouse up to Pennywell farm. The level of the track had been eroded down to much lower than where it had originally been as evidenced by the stone faced section of the bank starting a metre or more above “ground level”. We had a short discussion about the degradation of hedges through lack of maintenance over years and how much more work it is to restore a hedge bank than to keep it maintained. Thankfully in less than a year’s time there will be another 8 people in Devon that know at least the basics of maintaining them. It was great to be surrounded again by people who are passionate about nature and finding our place within it.