To me, there are few things more beautiful than a well-built dry stone wall.
A stone wall is a work of art, every stone placed there by someone who weighed its dimensions in their mind, hefted it in their hands, and put it where it needed to be and where it would remain for two hundred more years, without the benefit of mortar to hold it in place.
My grandfather, a Derbyshire farmer, built–or mostly rebuilt–a lot of stone walls. He told me that his job was to put the wall back as when it was first built, finding the right place for every stone.
Derbyshire abounds with dry stone walls; gritstone (sandstone) walls in the Dark Peak, limestone walls in the White Peak. (If you look at the photo at the very top, you’ll see the limestone dome of Crich with the tower (Crich Stand) on top, and the church of St Mary’s, made of gritstone.) Britain has 125,000 miles of stone walls, many of which are now falling down.
New England, in the US, is also a stony place, and you can occasionally find remnants of stone walls in the woods of Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut. Perhaps because it was so difficult to farm in New England, causing many of the early farmers to move on to Ohio and other more arable states, stone walls are nowhere as common in America as in England. But still, stone walls are part of the tradition of this part of the US. New England’s greatest poet, Robert Frost, has an iconic poem about stone walls, called “Mending Wall,” which ends with the famous line, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Wall-building is an ancient art, and one that takes years to learn in order to do a good job. “Master wallers” are in high demand, and can command up to 300 pounds per meter (roughly three feet) of completed wall.
Here’s an excellent video by master waller Richard Ingles who will explain about “cope stones,” “rubble and hearting,” and “through stones”:
Last weekend I went to the National Stone Centre in Middleton-by-Wirksworth, Derbyshire, and had a delightful morning looking at a series of walls that were typical of different parts of Britain. I would like to offer my deepest thanks to them for allowing me to include this material on my blog. For far more extensive information than I can provide here, please go to their website. I might also mention that they offer weekend courses in wall-building, which I hope to take next summer.
Here’s a sampling of some various types of walls found in Britain that were recreated at the National Stone Centre, Middleton, Derbyshire:
So many walls are falling down throughout Britain because farmers and others don’t have the time or expertise to rebuild them.
Thank goodness there are still some people, such as my uncle Frank and his son, and my cousin Gordon and his two sons, who are capable of mending their own walls. Without them, there would be far fewer walls, and much more barbed wire throughout the countryside.