Dry Stone Walls of Britain: Ancient Boundaries Still Defined by Stacked Stone Walls

Tractor Tales from Wales

| June 2010

  • Whilst small stones are fiddly and make for slow work, large slabs are much harder on the back! The strings give waller Gerallt Jones, Pentrefoelas, North Wales, a guide as to where the wall should be.
    Whilst small stones are fiddly and make for slow work, large slabs are much harder on the back! The strings give waller Gerallt Jones, Pentrefoelas, North Wales, a guide as to where the wall should be.
    Josephine Roberts
  • Gerallt Jones is pictured here rebuilding a damaged section of a very wide old wall in the Conwy Valley, North Wales. The width of this wall once allowed it to be used not just as a boundary, but also as a causeway over ground that was (and still is) frequently flooded during the winter months. Huge slabs placed flat on the top are worn down in the middle from hundreds of years of footsteps, showing that it certainly had plenty of use.
    Gerallt Jones is pictured here rebuilding a damaged section of a very wide old wall in the Conwy Valley, North Wales. The width of this wall once allowed it to be used not just as a boundary, but also as a causeway over ground that was (and still is) frequently flooded during the winter months. Huge slabs placed flat on the top are worn down in the middle from hundreds of years of footsteps, showing that it certainly had plenty of use.
    Josephine Roberts
  • Welsh wall builders sometimes call these small rounded stones pennau cwn (dog's heads) on account of their shape. Stones like this are the bane of every wall builder's working life, and it takes immense skill to make a tidy and secure wall using them. This neat example was photographed at a farm near Beddgelert, North Wales.
    Welsh wall builders sometimes call these small rounded stones pennau cwn (dog's heads) on account of their shape. Stones like this are the bane of every wall builder's working life, and it takes immense skill to make a tidy and secure wall using them. This neat example was photographed at a farm near Beddgelert, North Wales.
    Josephine Roberts
  • On a warm, sunny day wall building must be the best job in the world.
    On a warm, sunny day wall building must be the best job in the world.
    Josephine Roberts
  • Wall builders, like Gerallt Jones, who repair old walls like this have the satisfaction of knowing that they are preserving an ancient monument that might well stand for another few hundred years.
    Wall builders, like Gerallt Jones, who repair old walls like this have the satisfaction of knowing that they are preserving an ancient monument that might well stand for another few hundred years.
    Josephine Roberts
  • A farm wall in Capel Garmon, North Wales, built with flat stone. Walls in windswept and upland areas are not just boundaries: They also provide hugely valuable shelter for grazing livestock.
    A farm wall in Capel Garmon, North Wales, built with flat stone. Walls in windswept and upland areas are not just boundaries: They also provide hugely valuable shelter for grazing livestock.
    Josephine Roberts
  • Detail of a Welsh dry stone wall, showing the upright copings that are placed along the top. It takes real skill to build a wall with randomly shaped stone, and it is said that a good wall builder uses whatever is available, and never rejects a stone, but always finds a place for it.
    Detail of a Welsh dry stone wall, showing the upright copings that are placed along the top. It takes real skill to build a wall with randomly shaped stone, and it is said that a good wall builder uses whatever is available, and never rejects a stone, but always finds a place for it.
    Josephine Roberts
  • A recently restored dry stone wall, incorporating a half-buried existing boulder. A good dry stone wall can last centuries as long as it is well maintained. Here the wall builder has put netting along the top to prevent wild goats that live in this area from damaging the top of the wall.
    A recently restored dry stone wall, incorporating a half-buried existing boulder. A good dry stone wall can last centuries as long as it is well maintained. Here the wall builder has put netting along the top to prevent wild goats that live in this area from damaging the top of the wall.
    Josephine Roberts
  • A slate fence in an old-fashioned sheep handling pen in North Wales. Slate fences are frequently seen in the slate mining regions of North Wales. They were a relatively fast and easy way of providing a lasting boundary fence, but the size of the gaps is crucial: too big and the sheep will get their heads stuck, too small and you waste slate.
    A slate fence in an old-fashioned sheep handling pen in North Wales. Slate fences are frequently seen in the slate mining regions of North Wales. They were a relatively fast and easy way of providing a lasting boundary fence, but the size of the gaps is crucial: too big and the sheep will get their heads stuck, too small and you waste slate.
    Josephine Roberts
  • A slate fence bordering a meadow in an old slate mining region of North Wales.
    A slate fence bordering a meadow in an old slate mining region of North Wales.
    Josephine Roberts
  • A winding mountain wall at Ogwen, North Wales. Building a wall in a place like this is not for the faint-hearted! Especially when we bear in mind that the men who built these walls, perhaps hundreds of years back, had none of the modern lightweight, waterproof clothing that we have today.
    A winding mountain wall at Ogwen, North Wales. Building a wall in a place like this is not for the faint-hearted! Especially when we bear in mind that the men who built these walls, perhaps hundreds of years back, had none of the modern lightweight, waterproof clothing that we have today.
    Josephine Roberts
  • A farm wall in the Nant Ffrancon Valley, North Wales. It is awe inspiring to think of the tough souls who built walls on slopes like this.
    A farm wall in the Nant Ffrancon Valley, North Wales. It is awe inspiring to think of the tough souls who built walls on slopes like this.
    Josephine Roberts

  • Whilst small stones are fiddly and make for slow work, large slabs are much harder on the back! The strings give waller Gerallt Jones, Pentrefoelas, North Wales, a guide as to where the wall should be.
  • Gerallt Jones is pictured here rebuilding a damaged section of a very wide old wall in the Conwy Valley, North Wales. The width of this wall once allowed it to be used not just as a boundary, but also as a causeway over ground that was (and still is) frequently flooded during the winter months. Huge slabs placed flat on the top are worn down in the middle from hundreds of years of footsteps, showing that it certainly had plenty of use.
  • Welsh wall builders sometimes call these small rounded stones pennau cwn (dog's heads) on account of their shape. Stones like this are the bane of every wall builder's working life, and it takes immense skill to make a tidy and secure wall using them. This neat example was photographed at a farm near Beddgelert, North Wales.
  • On a warm, sunny day wall building must be the best job in the world.
  • Wall builders, like Gerallt Jones, who repair old walls like this have the satisfaction of knowing that they are preserving an ancient monument that might well stand for another few hundred years.
  • A farm wall in Capel Garmon, North Wales, built with flat stone. Walls in windswept and upland areas are not just boundaries: They also provide hugely valuable shelter for grazing livestock.
  • Detail of a Welsh dry stone wall, showing the upright copings that are placed along the top. It takes real skill to build a wall with randomly shaped stone, and it is said that a good wall builder uses whatever is available, and never rejects a stone, but always finds a place for it.
  • A recently restored dry stone wall, incorporating a half-buried existing boulder. A good dry stone wall can last centuries as long as it is well maintained. Here the wall builder has put netting along the top to prevent wild goats that live in this area from damaging the top of the wall.
  • A slate fence in an old-fashioned sheep handling pen in North Wales. Slate fences are frequently seen in the slate mining regions of North Wales. They were a relatively fast and easy way of providing a lasting boundary fence, but the size of the gaps is crucial: too big and the sheep will get their heads stuck, too small and you waste slate.
  • A slate fence bordering a meadow in an old slate mining region of North Wales.
  • A winding mountain wall at Ogwen, North Wales. Building a wall in a place like this is not for the faint-hearted! Especially when we bear in mind that the men who built these walls, perhaps hundreds of years back, had none of the modern lightweight, waterproof clothing that we have today.
  • A farm wall in the Nant Ffrancon Valley, North Wales. It is awe inspiring to think of the tough souls who built walls on slopes like this.

The oldest surviving dry stone walls (those built without the use of concrete or mortar) in Britain are to be found in Skara Brae in Orkney, Scotland.

These walls are thought to be about 3,500 years old. Very early field boundaries are important because they serve as a record of a crucial moment in the history of mankind. They mark the transition from a nomadic and hunting-based lifestyle to a farming-based existence, so their relevance cannot be underestimated.

Tracing the history

Most very old walls are actually “clearance walls,” in that they were made from stones that were first cleared from the land in order for agriculture to take place, and they tend to mark the boundaries of small, ancient fields. Clearance walls served two purposes. They contained stock and marked boundaries, and they gave people a convenient place to get rid of all of the stones that they kept digging up with spade and plough. In some areas it’s possible to see clearance walls that are several feet in width, made up of numerous large and small stones.

At first sight you may wonder why anyone would want to make a wall that wide, but the answer, of course, is that the land must have contained far more stones than what you would require for a standard width wall, and rather than carry the stones away, early farmers just made their walls extremely wide. These walls are sometimes referred to as “consumption walls,” on account of the number of stones they can be said to consume.

Not all dry stone walls are as old as the clearance walls. Most conventional agricultural walls in Britain date to the 18th and 19th centuries, when huge areas of land began to be enclosed, that is, given private ownership and therefore requiring a boundary. Small amounts of land had been enclosed since around the 12th century. The Inclosure Acts (notably the General Inclosure Act of 1845) resulted in huge poverty and crippling restrictions for the poor and the working classes. These acts of parliament meant that traditional rights to graze livestock on common land were suddenly ended. That caused a massive de-population of the countryside, with the poor folk heading toward urban areas, desperate for employment. Some stayed to become tenant farmers, but they were often left without rights and suffered much hardship.



Ireland’s “famine walls” have an extremely poignant history. During the Irish famine of the 1840s, the starving masses built enclosure walls for wealthy landowners, often working for just a few scraps of food a day. Ironically, the purpose of these walls, today referred to as “famine walls,” was usually to keep the desperate and hungry masses out of the great estates. Some might view such building schemes as a form of slavery; others might see it as something that kept the starving hordes alive until the famine ended. Either way, the walls are monuments to a very sad time in Ireland’s history.

Types vary by region

Every region of Britain is home to a different type of agricultural wall. The differences depend on the type of stone found in that area, and the building styles can also vary, subject to local traditions. Some walls are based on huge boulders, and some are made from numerous tiny pieces of flat shale, depending on what was available. In places like Derbyshire the walls are often made out of blocks of warm-colored brown sandstone, and then in other areas, like some parts of Wales, walls are made out of random size, almost round stones.



SUBSCRIBE TO FARM COLLECTOR TODAY!

Farm Collector April 16Farm Collector is a monthly magazine focusing on antique tractors and all kinds of antique farm equipment. If it's old and from the farm, we're interested in it!

Save Even More Money with our SQUARE-DEAL Plan!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our SQUARE-DEAL automatic renewal savings plan. You'll get 12 issues of Farm Collector for only $24.95 (USA only).

Or, Bill Me Later and send me one year of Farm Collector for just $29.95.




Facebook Pinterest YouTube

Classifieds