The earliest records of the now almost extinct sport of Hedge Dwelling can be dated as far back as 1540. It is widely believed the sport coincided with the sport of fox hunting that had been growing in popularity in Norfolk since 1534. Traditionally hunting on horseback mainly focused on tracking deer but due to the decrease in deer populations open land was subsequently enclosed for protection purposes. This proved something of a hindrance to the hunters that ideally needed vast areas of open land to track deer successfully. Subsequently hunters began focusing their attention on hunting fox and hare. However this sport relied on flushing out small prey from hedge-rows which unfortunately hindered the hounds that had difficulty penetrating the dense foliage, due to the thorny and abrasive nature of the plants.
Records show around this time the sport of Hedge Dwelling rapidly grew in popularity as people were needed to flush out the prey that would go to ground in almost impenetrable undergrowth. Traditional attire of the Hedge Dweller consisted of a hat made of a hard substance which researchers theorise could have been made of whale bone, a thick tightly woven woollen jacket which was both water-proof and could protect a person from thorns, knee high leather boots and leather gloves. A stick with a deer antler handle was often carried to knock away thicker branches.
As said previously this sport is almost extinct, but I myself had the privilege of partaking in this ancient past time very recently. It is an early start for most people that hunt as there is much to do, which ultimately culminates in both horse and person attending the meet with the strictest punctuality and with a good standard of presentation. With this in mind the responsible hunter would expect to retire to bed at 9 pm in order to be at the stables at 6 a.m. For reasons that escape me, although I have a vague recollection that whiskey may have been involved, I ‘retired’ to bed at 3 a.m. Therefore I was feeling somewhat bewildered that I was being prodded just 2 hours later by someone insisting one should adorn a pair of jodhpurs and to stick ‘that mess’ under a hair net.
My trusted steed was on true form as usual and is at best a handful even for someone that is compos mentis. However a thoroughbred intoxicated by whiskey fumes is a thing of nightmares for the rider that is non-compos mentis. As the previous night’s mascara was migrating down my cheeks and the hair-net struggling to do its job it appeared my reputation with this particular hunt was also about to unravel. Fortunately I was somewhat relieved to notice the hedge-rows consisted of a particularly dense and thorny variety of plant. Remembering the ancient sport of Hedge Dweller I was quick to grab the opportunity to redeem myself and volunteered to take my sturdy stick with the antler handle and be Chief Hedge Dweller for the day. I had planned to ask the Master permission but unfortunately he was not to be seen, nor the hounds or indeed, anyone else. I had unwittingly galloped off in another direction entirely away from the rest of the field during a lapse of consciousness. I put this partial black-out down to a dodgy prawn from last night’s malaba curry.
My horse took her semi-conscious rider back to the lorry to which she quite happily loaded herself, and enjoyed the full hay net that had been tied up there. Fortunately there was a troublesome hedge-row quite close by that was crying out for the services of a Hedge Dweller and I was keen to carry out my duty post haste. By happy chance the traditional attire of this ancient sport was almost exactly the same attire worn by hunts in modern times, so I was well protected.
After a length of time being Chief Hedge Dweller I realised I was been prodded for the second time in just a few short hours. My friendly lorry driver had returned from following the hunt on foot, and felt a little baffled to find a horse on his lorry but no client in sight. According to him the sound of gentle snores were emanating from a nearby hedge and on investigating…found me. I vehemently dispute his recollection that I was asleep! No, I stand by the fact that I was an asset to the hunt this day by volunteering to flush out prey from the under-growth and felt proud to be upholding the ancient tradition of Hedge Dwelling.
Deborah Jane Nicholas has been around horses for nearly 40 years and has worked within the horse industry in a number of roles. Deborah’s other passions are her 2 dogs, countryside walks and writing, which she does here.