Why Derbyshire’s dry stone walls are an integral part of our countryside

PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 September 2018

Walls acting as enclosures

Walls acting as enclosures

Roland Keates

His love of one of Derbyshire’s most distinctive landscape features has led Roland Keates on an investigative journey…

Fancy wall at Chatsworth built by Derbyshire members of the DSWAFancy wall at Chatsworth built by Derbyshire members of the DSWA

Dry stone walls are a prominent feature of Derbyshire’s landscape. These walls of stacked-up stones constructed without mortar binding are inescapable when walking in the Dales and the Peak District and visiting the quaint villages nearby. For centuries they have stood to mark boundaries, enclose land, keep pastures separate and provide a habitat and shelter for wildlife and plants. They have become such an integral part of our countryside that we often take them for granted.

These countryside landmarks first fascinated me as a child when my parents took me and my sister caravanning and walking in Derbyshire. I started to question their origins, and wonder what secrets they held and who built them?

Building walls is an ancient art that has endured for thousands of years. The existence of dry stone walls can be dated as far back as over 3,500bc. It is believed that farmers of the Iron and Bronze Ages constructed their agricultural walls with the huge structures arranged by the ethnic chiefs and lords. In Derbyshire alone we have standing walls that go back to Roman times; ancient clearance walls built to mark boundaries and contain livestock; slavers walls built by people who were captured and brought here because they could build walls effectively; and famine walls built by Irish labourers in the 1800s, working either for homesteads or wealthy land owners.

At a glance, the ages and types of dry stone walls are identifiable by their shape, form and location. Enclosure by Act of Parliament was standard in the mid 1700s, although the first Enclosure Act was passed in 1604. Walls built in this period are the most common in the countryside, dividing land in straight strips of a rectangular shape and called the enclosures walls, as seen in the countryside near Monyash and Flagg.

An ancient walling system near MonyashAn ancient walling system near Monyash

Outside the villages, are walls which veteran master craftsman dry stone waller Trevor Wragg calls ‘higgledy-piggledy shaped’. These walls are much older and are identified as run-rig, derived from the Scottish system of land tenure, and good examples can be seen on the outskirts of Sheldon and Middleton.

The type of stones used and the style of dry stone walling varies throughout the country depending on the stones available in an area. In Derbyshire we can even see this difference from village to village. Sandstone is more common in the lower areas, while limestone and gritstone are in abundance higher up and in the Peak district. There’s a very good example of this variation at Calver, near Bakewell, where you find sandstone used on one side of the village and limestone on the other.

As the years have progressed, the sources of the stones used have also shifted. Although old quarries can be spotted nearly every five to ten miles in the heart of our countryside, in the past, apart from quarried stone, rubble and stones cleared from the land to make way for agriculture was used to make up miles of the fat dry stone walls that run along the hills and mountainsides. Stones from deconstructed old buildings were also recycled. At a farm in Birchover, the face of an angel and a series of celtic cross carvings can be found in the dry stone walls where stones were used from an old Norman church in the village.

Dry stone walls are a constant in our diverse landscape that has stood the tests of time, the elements and the changing seasons. They are seeped in history and tradition and have witnessed countless changes of rule, battles and the turn of centuries. If only they could talk, what tales could they share! Some of their secrets are only uncovered when they crumble and a lucky (or not so lucky) dry stone waller happens to spot them when rebuilding a wall. Sally Hodgson found a live, Second World War grenade when she was working on a wall near Matlock and Emma Yates talked about a carved stone with the likeness of a Green Man hidden in many dry stone walls.

Emma Yates with a green man stone found in a wallEmma Yates with a green man stone found in a wall

The dry stone wallers of today are a far cry from their counterparts in the past. Nowadays, dry stone wallers travel the world to build structures for art exhibitions, such as Gordon and Jason Wilton who work with sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, and Sally Hodgson who walls in Canada. It is wrong to assume that all wallers are born on a farm with the skill passed down through the generations. Most of our successful wallers today took up dry stone walling as a change in career or life direction. However, whichever path they have come along, they share passion for building, working with nature and the elements, and a love of transforming the stone in their hands. Despite the labour intensive nature of dry stone walling as a profession, dry stone wallers are very grounded people who find working with nature a ‘mindful’ and contemplative experience.

What is the future of dry stone walling? If we are not careful in 20 years time this ancient country craft could be dying out and the countryside scattered with hundreds of miles of broken and crumbling walls that might never be rebuilt. Awareness about preserving this old tradition needs to be raised. The introduction of apprenticeship schemes for young dry stone wallers, similar to that offered by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme where dry stone walling counts as one of the skills, is one idea. The prison service has also initiated a programme that teaches prisoners dry stone walling as a new skill. There is also ‘Walls for the Future’, a dry stone walling training provider based at the Derbyshire Eco Centre at Middleton by Wirksworth, which was formed by three professional master craftsmen and woman dry stone wallers Trevor Wragg, Sally Hodgson and Gordon Wilton. They are striving to impart their knowledge and skills to the next generation and at the same time to encourage the young to value the importance of dry stone walls for wildlife, livestock, botanical life, the environment and our cultural heritage.

With the cooperation of the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain’s Derbyshire Branch members, the National Stone Centre at Middleton and the support of a like-minded film crew, I have written and produced a film on the subject. ‘If Walls Could Talk’ is a 45-minute documentary of the story and history of dry stone walls and wallers in Derbyshire. With the aid of interviews, drone footage and steady camera work, it showcases the beauty of Derbyshire’s peaks and dales. A copy of the film can be purchased via rolandkeates@yahoo.com for £5.

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