Story of a (temporary) drystone wall

Kirsty Brown – Conservation Project Assistant

Back one Sunday in August, Alex and I took part in a drystone walling workshop for the general public led by National Park Ranger (West), Carl Cockerill.

The heavens opened just after we arrived at the Sutton Bank National Park Centre, but thankfully we were indoors for the first half-hour to watch a short film about drystone walling…set in India. It was interesting to discover the technique of drystone walling was devised because of a lack of skilled people to provide dressed stone, so the careful interlocking and balancing of stone of all shapes and sizes, known here as drystone walling, meant stock-proof boundaries could be built without dressed stone. There are examples of these types of boundaries all over the world.

Next it was outside for some hands-on effort as the sun came out, and our first job was easy – dismantle the training wall!

We carefully brought the wall down to the foundations. Then Carl set up the A-frames to ensure we would be working to the correct width and height as we began the rebuild. Some boulders were so heavy I was unable to move them, but with a bit of teamwork the wall slowly came together, layer by layer. The foundations consisted of the largest stones, and in this style of wall, stuck out from the first layer by about 5cm. The base of the wall was roughly half the height in order to provide stability. Throughstones ran from one side of the double-skinned wall to the other at regular intervals to steady the layers. Small stones were packed into the middle of the wall, filling in gaps and strengthening the structure. The upper layers included coverbands (creating a flat layer beneath the coverstones) and finally there was a topmost layer of flat, slanted coverstones.

There is a huge amount of skill behind a good drystone wall, and a wall repaired by a skilled waller can be expected to last around 100-150 years! Whilst it would have been nice to be able to see how well we did in the long term (I’m thinking potentially 5 – 20 years at most!), unfortunately the next workshop will enjoy dismantling all our hard work! Keep an eye out for events in the North York Moors and in our ‘Out and About in the North York Moors’ free magazine for future workshops and events such as another Drystone Walling workshop.

Wildlife within the walls….drystone walls provide shelter and habitats for all kinds of creatures, such as slow worms, lizards and adders, attracted to the warmth absorbed by the stones from the sun. So walls can be as much use to biodiversity as other traditional boundaries such as hedgerows and ditches.

Hares, voles, mice, stoats, frogs and toads, and bird life such as wrens also make good use of these boundaries, weaving in and out and sheltering within the stonework.  Birds of prey such as kestrels often perch upon the walls, keeping an eye out for movement from these small creatures.

Various beautiful lichens and mosses live on the rock faces, often preferring the cooler north-facing stones.

All kinds of invertebrates live within the nooks and crannies like beetles, snails and springtails.

Livestock frequently use walls for shelter against strong winds, rain and snow, and these boundaries hinder soil erosion.

In some cases, people have deliberately created structures within walls for particular animals, such as bee boles and sheep creeps (a sheep creep is a purpose built gap in the wall which sheep can get through to graze the next door field but other bigger farm animals can’t). The Dry Stone Walling Association has informative leaflets on both walls and wildlife, and bee boles.

Drystone walls are an important landscape and cultural feature of the North York Moors, across farmland, past and present, and along the edge of the moorland. In many cases a stock proof drystone wall is still an important management tool. If you have a field boundary drystone wall in the North York Moors that could do with being repaired, have a look at our Traditional Boundary Scheme grant information. You could potentially receive up to £2,000 per financial year towards your wall repairs.

Wall in landscape - Ladhill Gill

2 thoughts on “Story of a (temporary) drystone wall

  1. A lovely post! I wonder if there’s a follow-up piece on “the archaeology within” – many of our drystone walls incorporate hints to our ancient past: prehistoric rock carvings (cup and ring stones dating from the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age, probably from burial monuments nearby or ploughed out), even ancient quern (corn-grinding) stones – saddle querns (Neolithic from 3000BC onwards), Beehive rotary querns (at least Iron Age to Roman). The important thing is, if you find something, to make location notes (with OS grid reference) with a sketch and take a picture if you can, leave it where it is (!), and report it to the National Park (or local Historic Environment Record manager.

  2. Pingback: Boundaries restored | The official blog for the North York Moors National Park

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