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Dry Stone Walls: History and Heritage
Dry Stone Walls: History and Heritage
Angus J. L. Winchester
Dry stone walls create much of the character of upland landscapes across Britain. How do we go about dating dry stone walls? Why were they built and by whom? This book seeks answers to these questions and also suggests how walls themselves may be 'read' as historical evidence, shedding light on past farming practice and the history of local communities.
The first part of the book traces the history of dry stone walls from medieval times to the present. The standard form of most dry stone walls probably dates from Tudor times but the great era of wall-building in the uplands took place comparatively recently, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There are numerous regional variations: 'Galloway dykes' in south-west Scotland; stone slab fences, found from Orkney to mid-Wales; 'consumption' walls, built to absorb vast quantities of stone from the fields. The second part of the book looks at dry stone walls as part of Britain's cultural heritage. The walls themselves contain evidence of why they were built and how they functioned as part of the hill farming system. They sometimes preserve information about their builders and owners or evidence of lost features in the landscape.
Paperback; 232 x 165mm
Colour photographs throughout
Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Dry Stone Walls: History and Heritage by Angus J.L.Winchester. Amberley. £14.99
That characteristic Yorkshire-man, J.B. Priestley, wrote of dry stone walls that: "They run from the edges of the towns to the highest and wildest parts of the moors, firmly binding the landscape." They bind the landscape of the high country throughout the north of England and in much of Scotland. They feel and look almost as a natural outgrowth of the fields, as though they had always been there.
Their history is far more complex. The landscape may have been cultivated for millennia. The Nent Valley above Alston has relics of Iron-Age and Romano-British field systems. These have been overwritten by the ridge and furrow of the medieval field system and over-written again in their turn by the stone-walled enclosures of the modern fields.
The earliest land to be enclosed by the walls would be the valuable plough and meadowland in the valley. It would be separated from the rough hill pasture, which was often grazed in common, by the head-dyke or ring-garth.
On the ground it is possible to track the development of the walls, later walls making a T-junction with earlier constructions. At Thwaites, Kinniside in Cumbria, the sixteenth century primary wall runs from north to south and later walls abut onto it at right angles.
In other places, such as Gategarthside above Buttermere, the nineteenth century stone wall parallels the earlier earth mound which probably formed the boundary of the medieval park of Gatesgarth. Sometimes the structure of the wall might indicate an earlier origin. A wall near Peel promontory by Crummock Water has a base of field boulders which suggests that it might be the wall which enclosed the medieval manor.
The Park wall in Ravenstonedale is much higher than the height of a man. This massive structure was built for Thomas Lord Wharton between the autumn of 1560 and the November of 1561.
The following centuries saw the building of many more walls as agriculture developed. The great period of wall building came with the Parliamentary Enclosure Acts from the middle of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth. At Troutbeck, in 1842, a wide occupation road leading through the newly enclosed fields was walled and the common known as The Hundreds was enclosed by neat rectilinear walls.
The walls themselves have stories to tell. They reveal the geology of the landscape. At Tarn Hows the field boulders are held in a matrix of slate. Over in the Eden Valley at Lazonby the walls are constructed of neatly cut blocks of Permo-Triassic sandstone. At Ingleton, the coursing of the stones is far more rough and ready with irregular stones of carboniferous limestone piled upon each other. At Hawkshead a wall is composed of carefully interlocking slabs of Silurian mudstone.
The walls were functional constructions. The capstones were known as 'cams' in Cumbria and as 'capes' and 'combers' elsewhere. They might be so positioned as to project over one side of the wall, as on a wall above Ullswater, as an additional protection against sheep. Sheep needed higher walls than cattle to retain them as they could clamber over the stones.
Other walls, like the one alongside the road which leads to Boot in Eskdale, were consumption walls, built to take the stones that were cleared from the fields in order to cultivate them.
Angus Winchester, a great expert in the history of the Cumbrian landscape, has written a succinct but authoritative guide to something so familiar we barely notice it. But like so much else, when we see the familiar with an expert eye - and this book is very helpfully illustrated - even the humble dry stone wall has a rich and interesting story to tell.
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