Kate Gatacre looks at the history and traditions of dry stone walling, a craft that dates back to our earliest ancestry.
It’s a mistake to believe that we in the British Isles have a monopoly on the traditional art of dry stone walling, the method of building a wall without mortar, though it is a forgivable one; certainly we are one of the few nations that continues to maintain this art. The scale of our dry stone walls is dwarfed by those at Mycenae, built in 1350BC, or the extraordinary ‘crazy paving’ used by Mayans in the 8th and 9th centuries AD, where entire cities stood, constructed of hewn stone, but using no mortar.
Today dry stone walls are still being built and maintained, and the earliest examples date back to the Neolithic age. The type of wall is determined by the type of stone, which is of course dictated by the area in which the wall is built. Thus in the Cotswolds, the golden hues of Jurassic limestone are characteristic. Quarried from below the soil, the stone would traditionally be allowed to weather a winter, the frosts breaking it up naturally – more regularly jointed building stone would be taken from the layer below this walling stone.
The style of walls varies tremendously from district to district. So, in Cornwall, ‘slate hedges’ are built in a herringbone pattern, known as ‘jack and jill’ or ‘darby and joan’. Not only was this a way to use up small pieces left over from building, it also provided a good rooting bed for the turf capping seen in the area. Single dykes or walls are more common in Scotland thanks to the coarse large stones such as granite which are less likely to slip, making a double wall unnecessary.
Not only were these quick to build, they were easy to maintain, and of course cheaper. Maintaining walls always was an expensive business, and there are still tell-tale signs of whose responsibility it was on boundary walls: local custom dictates, for example, whether overhanging topstones indicate ownership or not, or two heads (pillars or similar) built immediately adjacent to each other may announce a change in ownership. Traditionally, walls were measured in roods, but to confuse things, a Scottish rood is six yards in granite areas, while in a limestone area a rood is seven yards – not to be confused with the rod or rood used to describe a quarter of an acre!
1. Set the length of the stone into the wall – in other words, the narrow part of the stone should form the face of the wall, rather than the wider part.
2. The wall should be built with a tight ‘heart’ – gaps between the two outer walls should be crammed tightly with small stones – the tighter this part is, the stronger the wall.
3. Joints should be crossed, so that there are no joints in line from course to course.
4. Keep the stones level – this is easier to see when using flat stones, but all stones laid at an angle will cause stress to the wall.
5. The wall should have an even plane – so the face of the wall should be flat, and the outer most part of each stone should line up with the guide string.