Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Dry stone Walls



Dry stone walls are the most conspicuous, ubiquitous man-made structures in the north Pennines. There are thousands of miles of them and they've been used to enclose land for centuries, especially in areas where sheep are farmed. Building them is a highy skilled craft that was delightfully described in a booklet by Arthur Raistrick called  The Story of the Pennine Walls, published by Dalesman Publishing back in 1946 (see below).



Raistrick described a dry stone wall as being ".. a structure in a state of equilibrium", thanks to a method of construction that ensures that all the internal forces bear down through the wall faces that are assembled in a way that prevents the wall bulging outwards. The stretch of wall in this photograph, alongside the old railway line that ran from Tow Law to Consett in Co. Durham, is eight feet tall in places and as straight and robust as the day it was built.



This photograph of a wall in Teesdale shows some of the key features. After digging out the footings to a width of about four feet the wall was built on a foundation of large stones and is actually a double wall with infilling. In the best walls the infilling of small broken stone isn't simply tipped in; the stones are wedged in individually, to support the outer wall layers which are built with overlapping stones, of decreasing size from the ground upwards, on either side. In a typical wall there are two courses of 'throughs' near the middle and near the top. These thinner flat stones run right through the wall, often protruding on either side, and help to tie the two faces of the wall together. The top layer of throughs also provides the base from the capstones.



Walls built in this way stretch far across the landscape, snaking around boundaries and following the rise and fall of the land. As Raistrick said, "The extent of walling in the Pennines represents many lifetimes of patient skill spent in hard manual work. We benefit today by the work of these generations and it is incumbent upon us to maintain the walls in good repair". Fortunately, there still seem to be enough skilled craftsmen around to do just that in many parts of the dales. They have their own professional Dry Stone Walling Association, with an excellent web site here.


In addition to gateways, many walls incorporate these 'cripple holes', just big enough for sheep and a sheep dog to squeeze through, so that sheep could  be easily moved between pastures and separated, before the hole was stopped up with a flat slab




These hundreds of miles of stone walls are a wildlife habitat in their own right, representing as they do a vast expanse of inland cliff faces, with shaded or sunlit aspects, that plants can root in and animals can shelter in ......... but that, as they say, is another story..............


Arthur Raistrick's booklet on dry stone walls carried this very fine cover design by Edward Jeffrey. Well worth looking out for a copy if you can find one in a second hand bookshop. Jeffrey was the illustrator of the Toby Twirl children's adventure stories, which I remember vividly from my childhood.

10 comments:

  1. I found the post very interesting.
    My brother, once a shepherd in Cumbria, is involved on the committee of the Northumbria Dry Stone Walling Group. I know that the Association is involved in lots of training and I believe that the Northumbrian Group are about to begin building a dry stone wall for a community group in Shiremoor, North Tyneside, so it's surprising where the demand for such work comes from at times.
    Cheers.

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  2. Last summer, I was in Derbyshire, and then in Northumberland. In both places the walls were striking. In the part of Derbyshire where I stayed, they were tumbling down, merging with woodland and romantic. In Northumberland - in perfect repair, making the kinds of lines and squares you mention in your post.

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  3. Fascinating Phil, and you've cleared up a mystery for me also. I've often wondered why northern dry stone walls had those protrusions on the side (our midlands ones don't), and speculated that they were, maybe, to allow someone to hop over the wall in an emergency, rather than find a gateway. Now, with your explanation of the 'throughs', it all makes sense. Thank you!

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  4. A lovely post about an extremely skilled band of workers. It fascinates me to see the walls being built.

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  5. Great post! I find dry stone walls fascinating :)

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  6. Hi Brian, You do see quite a few new stretches of wall constructed around here - some were rebuilt after opencast mining. Good to see these skills kep alive. Cheers, Phil.

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  7. Hi Lucy, there are some great examples in Swaledale and Wensleydale too.

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  8. Hi Richard, those throughs make convenient ledges for lichens to grow on too ....

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  9. Me too toffeeapple, they often have demonstrations at dales agricultural shows...

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  10. Hi petoskystone, wish I had walls likt that around my garden..

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