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Since Neolithic times, herders of sheep and cattle have sought to construct sheep folds and cattle pens to defend their livestock against predators. They also wished to define the limits of their own fields. Planting thorn hedges and interweaving them worked to an extent - the Celtic Nervi tribe during the Roman period in what is now Belgium were experts at this - but in harsh weather a dry-stone wall is best.

The modern dry-stone wall still has its place in agriculture and in garden design and architecture, too. You can find walls like these all over the UK and in many countries including France, Germany and Sweden. Here you see multiple dry-stone walls in the Derbyshire Peak District, in this case acting as field boundaries for cattle.  This is a very distinctive Derbyshire landscape.

The walls are constructed to a well-proven pattern. In the Derbyshire style of wall-building, a foundation is laid across what will become the base of the wall. Parallel walls are constructed on either side of the foundation, and these are wider at the base than at the top. At certain points, there are flat stones which  stretch across the whole width of the wall, and sometimes the top few courses have three stones which form a horizontal ‘key’ and interlock. The centre of the wall is filled with small stones and rubble, so that rainwater can drain away. The National Stone Centre at Middleton by Wirksworth, on the edge of the Peak District in Derbyshire, contains many fine examples of dry-stone walling. Indeed, it is here that the Millenium Wall was constructed, in 19 sections, by members of the Dry Stone Walling Association. The Millenium Wall shows the many different styles and types of dry-stone wall built in Great Britain. The National Stone Centre also conducts workshops and holds courses in dry-stone wall construction.

Dry-stone walls need periodic attention, as frost can cause damage due to movement of the stones as the ice within expands and then thaws. However, the life of a well-maintained wall is almost indefinite. When I came to New England, I was pleased to see many dry-stone walls (some over 200 years old) being used as field boundaries. It was a cultural link between my old home and my new one.

As an aside, my favourite cartoonist, the late, great, Carl Giles once drew a magnificent cartoon of his fictional ‘Giles Family’ in Derbyshire, as part of his actual tour around Great Britain in a mobile studio. The family were depicted as becoming stuck in their caravan on a narrow Peak District road, in the midst of a maze of dry stone walls, and yes, I’ve seen that very thing happen!

Originally posted to shortfinals on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 06:39 AM PST.

Also republished by Derbyshire and The Peak District.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I learned stone wall building... (14+ / 0-)

    ... by a stone mason in the Umbria region of Italy.

    I built dozens of walls using Sonoma Moss Rock / Field Stones in Sonoma and Marin Counties of California.

    They all stand strong, some almost 30 years later.

    All dry and with no concrete or mortar bed.

    A Poet is at the same time a force for Solidarity and for Solitude -- Pablo Neruda / Netroots Radio podcasts of The After Show with Wink & Justice can be found on Stitcher

    by justiceputnam on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 07:04:37 AM PST

  •  Nice diary, very interested in stone walls (7+ / 0-)

    but what do the links have to do with dry stone walls? They were both about an old airplane?

    We have a lot of dry stone walls in my part of Pennsylvania, but more for gardens than for field boundaries. Many of them are ancient. When we needed to excavate the front yard last year to replace the main drainpipe for the house, the digging yielded up some gorgeous golden limestone (our 1955 neighborhood is built directly over a huge local vein - just lucky the developer got here before the quarry guy). Maybe the only silver lining to having to replace the old pipe, was the stones we found. Not enough to make a full wall, but we did use them to edge the flower bed that is on a steep slope - just a foot high, it's helped a lot with erosion. And the natural beauty of the stone, instead of fabricated mass-produced building material, there's just no comparison.

    Each spring we (or, I should say, our lawnmower blade) finds a few nice, sizable rocks that the earth pushes up during the winter. I'd love to find out more about how to collect and use them in our landscaping. Is there a good book you can recommend for the DIY-er on building dry stone walls?

    Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. ~ Yoda Political Compass: -8.50, -6.46

    by Cinnamon on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 07:11:31 AM PST

  •  I tried to build a dry stone wall at my barn (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    shortfinals, RiveroftheWest

    in France (which I no longer have), and its not easy at all.

    In the end, based on a tip from a local builder, I cheated by using mortar in the hollow between the two sides. It was only a couple of feet high - just enough to delimit our land, but was still standing strong when we sold it 15 years later.

  •  Not just in UK/Europe (4+ / 0-)

    In New England, where (IIRC) most of the soil has been deposited by glaciers, rocks are a major "crop", and removing to the edges of one's fields to make drystone boundary walls was a standard practice for local farmers for a couple of centuries.

    We have a summer place in the Berkshires (Western MA), and one of the things I discovered on our property was a straight  line of old stones snaking up and down over some ridges in back of our house site: obviously the remains of an old wall. I think drystoning is probably a common practice anywhere the stones are common (and they're certainly common in Massachusetts)...

    •  I was going to say (5+ / 0-)

      the same thing. New England is full of these walls. They serve two purposes: the rocks form boundaries and you have to get them out of the soil to grow or plow much. I love seeing them.

      My wife pulled a sizeable number of rocks (decent size but not as large as those used in these walls) just from making a 6 by 6 foot garden a few steps from our back door.

      Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

      by fenway49 on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 07:37:33 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  They ARE common, Jay C, and in the area.. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Jay C, RiveroftheWest

      ...around Weston and Lexington....very old!

      'Per Ardua Ad Astra'

      by shortfinals on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 08:05:00 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I've had to make dozens of them (5+ / 0-)

    In New England, you can't turn a pitchfork without pulling a rock out first. Sometimes you build a wall just to do something with all the rocks you

    "The United States is a nation of laws: badly written and randomly enforced." -Zappa My Site

    by meagert on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 07:25:23 AM PST

  •  My wife was a geneaology hobbyist (5+ / 0-)

    Although she was an RN, she may have missed her calling by not becoming an archeologist.  She was very much into family history, and managed to locate the farmstead of her first Irish immigrant ancestor to this country.  It is up on a mountainside, so modern road building and development has not encroached and destroyed what is left of it.  

    We found a stone wall almost identical to the ones in the diary. The wall was almost perfectly straight and went on for well over a quarter mile through the woods. In places, trees had come up next to the wall, but amazingly, tree growth had not collapsed the wall. We also found the original cellar to the house, and it was similarly constructed of stone blocks, fitted together so well one could not insert a piece of paper between them.  Three sides of the original cellar were still intact.  From the looks of the place, the fourth wall was never walled in, but must have been a kind of "walk in basement."  None of the wood of the house was left, having all rotted away.  

    I have a number of photos, but they are in storage boxes.  My next project is to scan as many of those old negatives as possible, digitizing them.  History needs to be preserved and passed down to subsequent generations.

    The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand. - Sun Tzu

    by Otteray Scribe on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 07:37:05 AM PST

  •  Where I live in Connecticut (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    shortfinals, RiveroftheWest, ozajh, Jay C

    we don't have rocky soil, we have dirty rocks.
    So the poor bas+ards that struggled to farm here, picked the rocks out of the "fields" and made walls of them. Rumor has it that they employed Indians to do this work on a will-work-for-food basis. The local Native Americans were not stone workers. They made tools from stone but they didn't build permanent structures. They must have though the white guys were nuts, but they did the work.
    So, all through the woods here there are miles of dry stone walls, hundreds of years old, defining fields and paddocks that are now, for the most part, reforested (since many of the farms here were abandoned in the latter half of the 19th century).
    Connecticut was almost completely clearcut by 1800. My grandmother's house, built in 1815-1820 was made of recycled wood. If you stand in certain places and look at the shape of the land and the arrangement of the walls, imagining the scene without trees, you can see the farms that were here, even sometimes find the foundations of the buildings they burned down for the nails when they moved west.
    CT is glacial till. The ice, coming down from Canada, ground off the tops of Vermont and New Hampshire and spread them over the land until it hit the coast. It ran another 15 miles offshore and dumped a terminal moraine out there that's now called Long Island. The rocks here are all kinds of stone from pink and grey granites to schist to various sedimentary rocks, et cetera. Some pockets, like Moodus and East Haddam have lots of layered rock so the stonewalls there are built of flat stone, nice and neat, easy to build and repair. But most of the stone here is not flat so oldschool masonry was much trickier. Modern masons (and that's a very lucrative business here in upscale exurbia) cut and break stone to get flat edges and faces (and they charge over $100/running foot for a 3 foot high wall!) but the original wall builders fit the stones together without cuts. Quite an art when it was done well.

    If I ran this circus, things would be DIFFERENT!

    by CwV on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 07:48:40 AM PST

  •  I love old things, the older the better. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    shortfinals, RiveroftheWest

    It's rare today, for anyone to build anything new, that has the remotest chance of ever getting old.

    •  With society in a state of constant flux, (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      native, RiveroftheWest is hard to engender good environmental 'habits'. The town I live in lost its only Colonial style inn (1881) slap bang in the middle of town, in a community where is almost NO hotal provision (and three colleges!). Bought by a company from NY, torn down, and the lot left as it stood (with a security fence around it). Five years later, the grand plan to build condos on it has failed, and it is an eyesore and a tax loss to the community.

      Can someone stand up in Town Meeting, and ask a Selectman to spell 'greed'?

      'Per Ardua Ad Astra'

      by shortfinals on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 09:32:15 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I think you're wrong here (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, shortfinals, Jay C

    about the motivation in building these walls having anything to do with livestock.

    CvW has the right of it, in his/her comment above.  Almost all of the dry stone walls were built to enclose ARABLE (by the standards of the time) fields, not to enclose stock.  The stones were there at the sides of the fields because they had been carried there to allow plowing of the soil, however thin.

    When on holiday back in the UK in 2001 I spent a couple of days surrounded by dry stone walls in the Peak District (viewed from my car, unfortunately, due to a big Foot & Mouth outbreak at the time).  I was struck by the sheer EFFORT that had gone into creating what can only have been marginally productive land.  They people must have been truly desperate to grow more food.

    (Same same the rice terraces in South-East and East Asia that we Westerners Ooh and Aah over.  No one ever built those for FUN.)

    •  I am truly sorry to disappoint you... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      ....the land you can see was NEVER under the was always, repeat, always, grazed (although mostly by sheep). I was born within 20 miles of this place, and one half of my family have been in this county for more than 200 years (my mother's eldest brother, William, was the last to work on a Derbyshire farm).

      Some grain and other crops were grown, but always in the river 'bottom' land, never on this thin, acid, upland soil.

      Trust me, I was born here....I know

      'Per Ardua Ad Astra'

      by shortfinals on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 06:47:43 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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