Building History

Discover the story behind the feat of gravity and friction that is the dry stone wall

Armed only with a sharp-edged hammer - seldom used - and a piece of string, there is a certain satisfaction in the work of a waller.

It’s a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle; a craft that, once learned, will become a lifelong hobby. We’ve doing our homework ahead of the Try your Hand at Dry stone Walling course at the Big Shakeout Festival on 22nd – 24th September to learn a little more about this ancient art.

They look like higgledy-piggledy lines of rocks zig-zagging across our landscapes - organised mess you might say. Dry stone walls are held together not by mortar or cement, but by careful thought, hard work, friction, and gravity. The work of a waller is to create something natural, beautiful, and strong out of the resources available; something that will outlive its maker. A waller leaves a legacy on our landscape.

125,000 miles of dry stone wall stretch throughout Britain. Some are ancient, the walls of Skara Bree in Orkney sheltered dwellers as far back as 3600 BCE, whilst others were built more recently. The medieval dry stone walls of the Yorkshire Dales kept the wolves out, the post-medieval walls kept the sheep in, and modern walls adorn landscape gardens, art-projects and country manors. The incredible thing about these walls is that even some of the most ancient are still standing - many of our enclosure walls date back to the 18th century - and without a drop of mortar in sight. It’s the lack of mortar that gives the dry stone wall its staying power, a dry stone wall adapts to its conditions.

I was shocked to learn about the durability of the dry stone wall. To some extent it strikes me as a feat of gravity and friction that the climber in me can only hope to accomplish, but I can’t help recalling all those collapsed walls that I’ve come across on my ramblings in and around the Peak District. When you build a dry stone wall it’ll probably outlive you, but if it falls putting it back together again is hard graft. A good craftsman can build around three metres a day, lifting three tonnes of stone, six tonnes if rebuilding. As a result, many walls fall into disrepair.

All this time and effort - why bother? Surely a barbed wire fence would be quicker and easier? Although dry stone walls require a huge investment of time and effort, the return on this investment is more than just durability. Aside from being natural, dry stone walls hold environmental value, serving as shelter and habitat for plant, wildlife, and birds.

There’s also an organic beauty in dry stone walls; often falling unnoticed when we gaze across the rolling hills and patchwork fields of our National Park, but what would the landscape look like without them? 

Try your hand at dry stone walling at the Big Shakeout Festival 2017, visit the tickets page for further information and for bookings.

02 06 2017

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