Hawthorn's Heritage

31st July 2015

The hawthorn is a small tree with a gigantic history, deeply
embedded into British culture. Jack Watkins finds out more...

When David Cameron embarked on his short-lived bid to rebrand the Conservative party and emphasise its green roots, an oak leaf was chosen as the advertising motif. Were it not for its association with prickliness, as a member of the rose family, he might as easily have opted for the foliage of a hawthorn, given that this has equal claim to represent the ancientness and solidly reassuring values of the traditional British countryside.

Each year, the tree’s sweet scented blossom confirms the full-scale arrival of spring, the white flowers like ‘the risen cream of all the milkiness of May-time’, as HE Bates wrote. Later, the scarlet berries, or haws, so loved by blackbirds and other thrushes, signal the approach of autumn. The gnarled, twisting trunks, exposed after leaf fall, speak of decades of unfussed endurance of hard winters. The hawthorn never grows into a large tree, but it lives for hundreds of years. The small but instantly recognisable deeply lobed leaves are seen on the foliate carvings of Green Men in medieval churches. And when Oliver Rackham – late, great historian of the countryside – conducted a study of Anglo-Saxon charters, he found that the hawthorn was the tree species most often mentioned. It also tops the list for most inclusions in English place names.

So it might be a little surprising to find that what is probably by far the most interesting single book ever to have been written about the tree is by an American who lives in the state of Montana. That’s because hawthorns are not unique to the UK, being listed in the Collins Field Guide as present throughout Europe and Afghanistan. When Bill Vaughn and his wife moved into the depths of ‘redneck’ country, buying a property called Dark Acres, he found a hawthorn in a pasture. He tried to remove it, but it clung to the soil so tenaciously when he tried to cut it down that he became obsessed by it. He took to the library to find out more about what he discovered was ‘the most famous tree in Britain and the dearest tree in Christianity.’ The result is a compact 200 page monologue, which claims to be ‘the first full appreciation of the hawthorn’s abundant connections with humanity.’

It helps that Vaughn, a writer and graphic artist by trade, has an attractive, literary prose style. Trees are something many feel strongly about, but books about them tend to be dry affairs, often written by ecologists, or fall into the picture book category. Vaughn’s book, however, can be approached with the simple pleasure of reading in mind. It stops off along the way to take in Irish social history, Stone Age farmers and those of the American plains, the quality of its wood –not valued as a hardwood, but useful for items requiring toughness and durability – and the use of its fruits in the first wines. The insights are remarkable, and the writing never strains for effect.

Vaughn’s forefathers were Irish-Catholic peasants, working the soggy earth of County Waterford where, to this day, sentimental famers are still prone to swerve their tractors round ‘a strange solitary old tree swaying in a field’ out of respect for its connection with their ancestors, rather than uproot it. The Potato Famine, which caused seven million to die from starvation, forced the author’s great grandfather to emigrate to the States. The Irish, though, venerated the hawthorn as part of a trinity of sacred trees, along with the oak and the ash. When Vaughn, retracing his ancestral origins, travelled to Ireland to wander among the headstones of the local church for signs of his relatives, he found none, but saw hedges full of the red and purple fruit of hawthorn and blackthorn. He stopped to ponder the dichotomy that many of us might feel when walking on a sunny day in the countryside – how could such a glorious place have witnessed such a degree of rural misery only three generations ago?

Yet if you associate a hawthorn today with freedom, and with the joys of throwing off the cares of the workplace for a ramble across the meadows, it can also be linked with repression. When the parliamentary Enclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries effectively privatised thousands of miles of common land that had once been a source of food and fuel for all social classes, it was the planting of rows of impregnable hawthorn hedges that kept the unlanded out, reflecting the rise of the capitalist ethos, which regarded land, whose ownership was concentrated in increasingly fewer hands, as a commodity to be bought and sold at will.

‘There is more violence in an English hedgerow than in the meanest streets of a city,’ wrote the crime writer PD James, but what about the role of the hedgerows that, in Vaughn’s words, formed ‘vast organic ramparts’ on the continental mainland? Hedges dominated by hawthorn, some dating back to the Gauls, characterised the flat terrain of the Normandy bocage and threated to thwart the American Sherman tanks after they landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day, 1944. Tanks trying to drive their way through the thorny thickets simply got caught up in the tangled mass, leaving them at the mercy of German guns. Some officers claimed the fighting in the bocage country was as bloody as any fought in the Pacific island jungles.

Why did D-Day strategists underestimate the obstacles represented by the hedgerows? Farmers as far back as prehistoric times have understood what formidable barriers they present, keeping livestock in, sheltering them from the winds, and shading them in the hotter months. Or, at least, they once did. Vaughn, who even includes a section on hedgelaying, introduces us to one hedgelayer, now in his early fifties, who says that after he’d learned his craft and then moved to Ireland in the 1992, he found that few people, even in the farming community, had any idea about the process. Sheer ignorance in Britain, Ireland and Normandy has allowed the post-war destruction of hedgerows that date as far back as the Bronze Age. There would be outrage if an ancient castle or stately home of such antiquity were torn down in such a way, but as Vaughn writes, the issue isn’t simply a matter for tree huggers.

Without hedges, our landscape would be as bare as the Great Plains, and where they have been removed, it has led to flooding and soil erosion, while having a massive impact on the chain of wildlife – with serious consequences, especially due to the loss of pollinating insects, on the crops we grow.

Still, this is a bright book, not a polemic; one chapter, for example, reflecting on the interaction of wildlife with the hawthorns at Dark Acres, when the thrushes hid in their dense thickets as they foraged for insects. Nature books are a growing market at present, but they can be fey, meandering affairs. I’d recommend Vaughn’s tome, however. The hawthorn story is as multi-layered as its appearance, and Vaughn’s narrative is tight, but never impenetrable.

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