Dry stone walls: Maintaining this wonderful feature of our historical landscape
One of the most recognizable features of the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors is the dry stone wall, which is as synonymous with the landscape as the sheep it was built for.
It’s amazing to think that some of these walls have been around for hundreds of years and are built so sturdy that they still do the job they did when they were first built, despite only having gravity, friction, and the ability of the Builders to hold them up. Part of their longevity comes from the fact that they move and give way when hit by the elements, allowing rain, wind, and snow to pass both through and around them.
There is evidence that the British were building dry stone walls even before Roman times, often to keep predators away from settlements. Some early examples in the Yorkshire Dales have distinct overhanging capstones that are believed to be used to prevent wolves from jumping over them, as the design became extinct at the same time that wolves became extinct in the late 15th century.
During the Middle Ages, when people moved to a higher level, they became very popular. The higher up you lived, the fewer trees grew there and therefore less wood was available to build a structure for your livestock. But stones were plentiful, although it was a laborious and groundbreaking process to dig the stone out of the ground and then use a cart or sledge to move it to where it was needed.
Medieval monks also preferred the technique in building their churches and abbeys, and fine examples can be seen at Fountains Abbey near Ripon.
When the feudal system died out in England, the common land was divided up during the inclusion period in the 18th and 19th centuries, and private owners became responsible for their own property, which was characterized by dry stone walls in highland areas.
As my father mentions in his February 28, 1981 column, the strength of the wall depends on it having good foundations and correctly placed “passage stones”. A continuous stone is a larger piece that extends the full width of the wall and is moved up and down the wall at regular intervals. It holds smaller stones underneath and increases the stability above.
The shape of the wall is like the letter A, wider at the bottom and gradually narrower towards the top. Stones are sorted by size, with those suitable by stones being set aside. A canal slightly wider than the wall is first dug up to a foot deep in the ground, and the largest stones are laid into it as a foundation, with small stones filling in the gaps. A skilled craftsman will know which shaped stones to go where, where to place them with curved edges, and where to place those with more angular shapes. Once built, it is often finished off with a tightly packed row of stones placed vertically with curved edges up.
The whole lot will then stand for many, many years with no cement or mortar, simply gravity and the weight of the stones themselves holding everything in place. They become a rich habitat for a wide variety of flora and fauna. Creatures such as field mice, shrews, hedgehogs and insects use them as shelter, while birds nest inside them and hunters sit on top to look for prey.
They also support different types of moss, lichens, and wildflowers, each of which thrive in their own mini-ecosystem that develops on the part of the wall that suits them. Some are on the cooler, windy, wet north face of a wall, while others enjoy a warmer, drier, south-facing side.
In North Yorkshire we have 13,000 miles of dry stone wall while nationally there are nearly 120,000 miles. Unfortunately, only a relatively small percentage, 13 percent, is in good condition; 17 percent are in a state of progressive deterioration. A whopping 70 percent are considered to have expired.
Fortunately, there are still skilled artisans who pass on their art and teach others how to build with courses, video tutorials and workshops to preserve and preserve this wonderful feature of our historic landscape.
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