Caught by the River

Hedgerows and Back Roads

22nd January 2016

7 Jeb Loy Nichols‘ thoughts on a series of photos by Richard Booth.

I’m not an organised walker. I drift. My natural state is one of flux. I shuffle into an odd assortment of clothes, torn jackets and ripped trousers; shirts splattered with paint. Boots that have long ago stopped being water tight. A hat of some unlikely design. A scarf perhaps in winter. I drift out and up, vaguely to the west, slowly, in the direction of Bwylch Y Garreg, away from the more peopled places, into the uplands, along water rutted gravel roads. I walk until I stop walking. I have no destination, no plan. I amble.
My two constant companions on these walks are Hedgerows and Back Roads. One beneath me, one to my side.

When I’m slipping I see interesting things. When I’m falling it’s really interesting. That’s where I get the best glimpses. I guess I’m a slipping glimpser. It’s when I’m standing up I know I’m in trouble.
So said Willem De Kooning.

From the hedge rows, in the summer, comes birdsong. A constant trill, a high, broken warble. The ceaseless flitting of tiny animals. Finches and robins, bees too, mice and beetles, rabbits and rooks. An unnamed, unhuman rush. Both unspeakable and various. Outside our narrowness. The hedgerow is a tumult of things living.

At dusk I walk alongside a gorse hedge. Ahead of me a small furred thing, perhaps a rabbit, disappears into the lower branches. I’m thinking of Richard Booth’s hedgerow portraits and how hedgerows and art and this corner of mid-Wales are all places of escape, places of retreat. And how Richard Booth’s pictures capture a glimpsed stillness, a fleeting harbour.

The hedgerow stands on the sidelines, outside the heavy traffic. Knowing nothing of the middle of the road. The petroled rumblings of cars and trucks. The hedgerow stands trembling, concerned only with its own doings.

orange and yellow marigolds
magenta echinacea
wind in the trees

after the chill grey
of another day

a glimpse
of another way
So wrote Loraine Morley.

From the hedgerow, in late October and early November, I harvest bowls of blackberries. I walk slowly down the hill, on my way to see my neighbour. I fill the bowl on the way down, full of good intentions. The pies I’ll make, the jam, the syrup. I eat most of what I’ve collected on the walk back up the hill. I arrive home with blue stained fingers and a nearly empty bucket.

My father, visiting from the flat open spaces of Texas, complained. As we drove the backroads he looked to his left and right saying, “you can’t see a damn thing”. As if the hedgerows were nothing to look at. A barrier to the real view. Something to be looked over. My neighbour often tells me how, in the winter of 47, they walked to school on top of frozen hedgerows, the snow four foot deep all around them. Implying that, for once, the hedgerows served a real purpose.


Made of elder, alder, brambles, ash, hawthorne, hazel, nettles, primrose; a leafed corridor, an escape route. Away from one crop fields. Away from asphalt and cement. Away from quad bikes and tractors. Away from us. They pursue an uneven course through the valley. At times towering over me, at other places rising only to my waist. Sometimes dense and impenetrable, other times a loose weave of weeds and branches; always teeming with life.

The gravelled road on which I’m now walking, this September morning, is an ancient drovers’ route. A place of unhurried, unmechanised roaming. Often hard work, often cold, often wet, always lonely; it picks its way between hills and gullies, between stream and cairn. The hedgerow to my left is older than most houses in these parts. It’s survived wars, floods, high winds, neglect, abuse, disease; it stands still. It serves as the primary habitat for a variety of threatened wildlife; dormice, horseshoe bats, great crested newts. Moths too and bees, woodland birds and hedgehogs. I know this about hedgerows: when the hedgerow goes, so goes an entire world.

To stand, to watch, to see that which isn’t meant to be seen. The camera is a third eye that sees what the other two miss.
So wrote Eugene LaPlaint.

The hard frosts are upon us. Upon the leaves and brittled grass. Creeping into every holesome spot. The hedgerows and roads are white dusted. The bird feeder is draped with tough little customers, I want to knit them each little coats. I imagine a posse of puffed up dandies, each in a hand knitted cape and matching waistcoat. Later a light snow hurls the hills. Rippling the brittle air. Then stops. Collecting on tree tops, on fence lines, on slated roofs. Melting into creviced rock. What it is is everywhere. All day at uneven intervals. I watch pheasants leave behind three pronged prints, pulling themselves into the hedgerows.

I walk up, always uphill. Slowly. From my front door up past my car. Then up to the gate where rabbits and pheasants wait. Then scatter. I’m wrapped up in two coats and a wool hat, double socks, gloves and a fleece scarf. Proceeded by tiny bursts of breathy cloud. I then go left, up the gravelled path, and up further still, to the empty places where something is always dead. Last week a sheep; today a crow. Once, last spring, a fox. I walk until I stop walking and then I stand for a while or sit on a rock and watch the rabbits and mice and beetles and stoats and those things that keep their distance. The puddles on the road are solid.

At home by the fire, I pass a few hours thinking of John Clare, an early lover of hedgerows and backroads, who wrote:

The fields grow old and common things –
the grass, the sky, the winds a-blowing,
and spots where still a beauty clings –
are sighing Going, all a-going.

I look again at Richard Booth’s photographs; I recognise the roads, the hedgerows, the touch and smell and weight of them. I’ve sat beside them, rested in their shade. I’ve shared some of the same slipping glimpses. These hedgerows that border not just fields and backroads but my life.

Jeb Loy Nichols on Caught by the River