I find it difficult to resist when I see an interesting antique gardening book on an online auction site and my low bids seem to be winning. One lucky acquisition was this 1904 First Edition ‘Some English Gardens’ with beautiful prints of watercolours by George S. Elgood and commentary by Gertrude Jekyll.
One print that caught my eye was a watercolour titled ‘Yew Alley at Rockingham’ and painted about 1900. The yew has been clipped in a cloud pruned fashion with magnificent waves and undulations.
It didn’t take much research to discover this yew alley still exists. A quick search on Google revealed a hedge known as the ‘Elephant Hedge’ at Rockingham Castle. A helpful blog post on Hedge Britannia confirmed this is the same one.
The Elephant Hedge, so named because the undulations look like the backs of elephants, is 450 years old and has survived a Royalist siege in the English Civil War. Below is the image of the hedge now from the blog post, and shows how little has changed since 1900.
Seeing this Yew hedge raised the question of when the fashion for cutting hedges like this began. Although there is evidence this hedge is over 450 years old, I am not convinced it has always be trimmed in this ‘cloud pruned’ fashion.
There is a similar yew hedge at Walmer Castle. The hedge began life in the late 19th century as a formal, clipped yew hedge that acted as a backdrop for long, flower borders. This Italian style of walkway and vista was in keeping with the fashion at the time.
However, the hedge was neglected during the Second World War and as a result the straight, linear edges were lost as the yew continued to grow. A hard winter in 1947 with heavy snow added to the hedge becoming even more misshapen. The result was an undulating yew hedge that would have required major pruning to restore the straight, formal lines of before. So the decision was taken to follow the naturally formed contours, resulting in the cloud pruned style hedge seen below.
Another famous yew hedge is located at Powis Castle. The history of this hedge is similar to Walmer Castle. The yews were originally planted in the 18th century as small cones and pyramids, influenced by the formal Italian garden style. But by the end of the century English landscape gardening was becoming the fashion, inspired by famous designers such as Capability Brown and Humphry Repton. So the yews were left to grow into their natural, tree-like shapes.
By the time the desire for more formal gardening had returned in the Victorian period, the yews had grown to such an extent that the only option was to shape them into the famous hedges that we see today.
The common theme with these two famous yew hedges is they arrived at their current appearance more by accident than by choice, often after periods of neglect. I am not sure whether this is the same for the yew hedge at Rockingham Castle but George S. Elgood’s watercolour has inspired me to see ‘Elephant Hedge’ in person and find out more.