Dry Stone Walls: A Guide

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A while ago I wrote a blog about Hedges and Hedgelaying. Being from the UK, I can't think about hedges as boundary features without also thinking of their twin structures; dry stone walls. They are obviously made of very different materials and appearance, but I hope you will come to agree they share more in common than they have apart. Necessity, it is said, is the mother of invention, and when we are talking about boundary features there is no better example of this than hedges, which because of the availability of trees, are mostly features of low lying landscape. Dry stone walls, on the other hand, are commonly seen above the treeline, where rocks and boulders are strewn about. The aims are the same; to keep livestock in.

Lakeland Dry Stone Wall. Source: Time Travel Britain.

 

It is thought, by dry stone walling experts, that the practice of building walls without mortar, or other bonding material such as clay, might go back as far as 5000 BCE. There is certainly evidence of dry stone walls buried under soil from County Mayo in Ireland, which dates back to 3800 BCE. Of course, a major advantage to being able to utilise a natural boundary in the uplands for livestock (particularly sheep) is that they are too exposed and inhospitable for anything else, such as arable farming. So sheep farming on upland moors is a win-win for agriculture, being semi-wild. It's a good way of deriving high qualilty biomass (meat) from not very much input. And stone walls are integral to such a farming economy.

Collapsed Stone Wall. Source: Gerry Jones via Merchants and Makers

There are fine examples of dry stone walls all over the world, from the USA, to New Zealand, to Bohemia, and even Zimbabwe. But in the UK, I think better than anywhere else we can use the construction of stone walls to study the unique regional differences and history of use of the landscape. This might seem rather too obscure a topic, a bit like train spotting, but the whole subject comes to life when you have spent some back breaking time building a dry stone wall from scratch. Conforming to the local rules of design, and usng only the materials around you, a stone wall becomes like a giant 3D jigsaw which really challenges your spatial awareness and hand- eye coordination. After a few hours of it, you get into a good rhythm and end up looking like a pro. It can become quite addictive. As with hedge laying, there is a Master Guild which teaches from novice to professional level. Courses are often run over weekends.

Basic Anatomy of a Dry Stone Wall. Source: The Stone Trust.org

 

 

Layer of Wall

Description

Foundation Course (base)

Usually larger stones or boulders known as footings, with two wall faces of large stones.

Wall cavity

In between the faces is filled with smaller stones or hearting.

Throughstones

Strengthening stones which pass through the whole wall from face to face. Throughstones can project out the side of the wall and make a handy step for crossing the wall.

Coping Stones, or Topping

The two wall faces taper slightly towards the top of the wall. The wall is capped by a layer of larger stones, often laid partly on edge.

 

Cornish Herringbone Design. Public Source Image.

 

Like hedges, dry stone walls have huge nature conservation value, and are currently under threat. Dry stone walls are wildlife gardens. Lichens, feather and cushion mosses, algae and liverworts clothe the stones, creating tilth and compost for stonecrop, cranesbill, ivy and ferns to gain a foothold. In lowland Britain, the wall is often the surrogate natural scree or cliff. The toad and slow-worm share shelter with the vole, fieldmice, shrew and hedgehogs among the leaf-filled footings and fillings; and some birds may lay their clutches of eggs in stone walls if a gap at low level allowing entry is provided. Because of their conservation and historic importance, there are grants on offer to restore dry stone walls. Courses at ADL can kick start your career in conservation, permacutlure or alternative agriculture!

 

References

 

Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain

http://www.dswa.org.uk/

 

The Dry Stone Walling Association. Dry Stone Walling, Techniques and Traditions. 2004

 

Brooks, Alan and Adcock, Sean. Dry Stone Walling, a Practical Handbook. British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV). 1999

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