When most of us think of a dry stone wall, it is invariably in the context of scenic country walks, dramatic vistas, lowering skies, and beautiful landscapes. There is, however, far more to these icons of our cultural heritage than their aesthetically pleasing effect. They are a microcosm of nature; mega cities encapsulated in miniature.
Criss-crossing the countryside, in their various regional guises from Cornwall to Orkney, dry stone walls are all constructed without mortar, held together through gravity alone. As we follow their meandering path, we rarely consider their ancient history and take for granted their simple beauty. How many of us ramble along beside them as they hug the contours of the land, without pause to wonder how long they have been there without support, existing in spite of the onslaught of nature's wrath. Often ignored in the outpourings of the great British poets and authors in favour of more dramatic features in the landscape, dry stone walls are the untold story in the narrative of our collective past.
"What a joy it is to feel the soft, springy earth under my feet once more, to follow grassy roads that lead to ferny brooks where I can bathe my fingers in a cataract of rippling notes, or to clamber over a stone wall into green fields that tumble and roll and climb in riotous gladness!" - Helen Keller (1860-1968 American author who lost her vision and hearing at age 2)
Dry stone walls in Britain are known to date from more than 3,500 years ago. Built since the Bronze Age, they mark the transition from our lives as hunter gatherers to farmers, and are testament to the skills of our forefathers, withstanding the ravages of time and, if they are lucky, of 'progress.' The biggest enemy of these familiar landmarks has been human intervention of a more destructive kind which has seen the large scale removal, destruction, or dereliction of this iconic part of our heritage. Our dry stone walls are not just artefacts of the past and bygone farming practices; they are ecosystems, as important to our wildlife as trees and hedges. Within their many cracks and crevices live a mind-boggling variety of species including insects and spiders; lizards and toads; birds and mammals. They are hunting grounds, havens, hideaways and habitat. They are also hosts to a wide variety of mosses, lichens, plants and flowers; an abundance of botanical life that we would feel privileged to have in our own newly biodiversity-aware gardens. They provide shelter and protection to livestock and tired, hungry walkers. They are as rooted in nature as they are in the ground. It is estimated that there are approximately 200,000 km of dry stone walls in the United Kingdom but only a small percentage of these are in good condition, with many in an advanced stage of decay or dereliction. Organisations such as the Dry Stone Walling Association, Landmark Walling and the Yorkshire Dry Stone Walling Guild run courses to ensure that the skills and craftsmanship necessary to maintain the walls are not lost. The Heritage Crafts Association lists dry stone walling as 'currently viable' but, as with many of our ancient crafts, it relies on the skills being passed on from generation to generation. As we are beginning to recognise the damage that large scale food production has wrought on our landscape, and the importance of reinstating, creating and maintaining wildlife habitats, our need to preserve these havens within nature is becoming more and more apparent. Hopefully, dry stone walling is a craft that we will never see on the Heritage Craft Association's Red List of Endangered Crafts. Our dry stone walls are an integral part of our culture and worth preserving. Let's hope we can continue to see them more clearly and appreciate them more fully.
“It sometimes occurs to me that the British have more heritage than is good for them. In a country where there is so astonishingly much of everything, it is easy to look on it as a kind of inexhaustible resource.” - Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island
If you want to lend a hand and help to preserve the craft of dry stone walling, explore the courses on offer and learn this ancient craft.