A history of dry stone walling


Stone is the oldest construction material known to mankind and used in dry stone construction is bound together by friction, gravity and the skill of the craftsman. The Egyptian pyramids, Peruvian temples and The great Zimbabwe (as shown on television) being world famous examples. A local example which we have all heard of is the world heritage site of Stonehenge.

Prehistoric dwellings extend from the Shetland islands to the eastern Mediterranean in a dry stone construction.

Dry stone walls and hedgerows form the most commonly used field boundaries in the British isles which create what we regard as the traditional pattern of fields and lanes so evocative of rural England and the rest of the British isles.

The roots of dry stone walling in the British isles lie as far back as the iron age. Cornwall holds a field dating from this time…earthen banks surmounting large boulders topped with smaller stones and more earth. This type of walling was the forerunner to Cornish banking we see today…stone walls, filled with soil and with a hedge planted on the top. Many Cornish hedges are believed to date from 4000bc, although there is little dating evidence. However carbon dating has shown an entire field system now covered by peat, dating from 3500bc in county Mayo, Ireland.

Dry stone walling fell out of favor in the dark ages as the anglo saxons tended tended to settle the lowlands. During the medieval period, highland settlement increased. As this increased so did dry stone walling. The main reason for this was the plentiful supply of stone in these highland regions. As anywhere in the world, the higher you are, the fewer trees you will find…hence less wood, so stone becomes the most cost effective method of building. At lower levels the exact opposite is in effect. Many Monastic houses, particularly in remote locations, such as those favored by the white monks of the 12th century, favored walls of dry stone construction. Many of these medieval walls can still be seen today, most notably at Fountains abbey in North Yorkshire.

Most dry stone walls we see today are a legacy of mans movement towards the enclosure of common farming and grazing land as english society moved away from feudalism. As common land used by villagers was enclosed by dry stone walls, so villagers had their right to use the land removed. Mass sheep and cattle farming was establishing itself. The lower slopes of highland areas were enclosed by walls of a rough and irregular stone. They enclosed small farms and date from the late medieval period to the late 16th century. During the 16th and 17th centuries, dry stone walls enclosed slightly higher elevations and the fields were larger. At the highest elevations are the great sheep grazing areas that were bounded under acts of parliament during the great enclosure movement of the 18th and 19th centuries. These dry stone walls are the most regular and run for many a mile across an otherwise forbidding landscape. Dry stone walls were inexpensive as there was a plentiful supply of both stone and labour…hence the vast amount of dry stone walls in this country.

Typical of so many older crafts is the lack of skilled craftsmen to continue each and every craft. Dry stone walling is no exception. Modern wire fencing has reduced  the cost of enclosure in todays world. Vast stretches of fencing can be built quickly and at a relatively cheap price rather than using stone. After the initial expense of building a wall some of this cost con be offset by the sturdiness and long and low maintenance lifetimes.

Today there is an appreciation of our heritage and coupled with an environmental awareness, dry stone walls and craftsmen capable of constructing them is ensuring that there is a demand for dry stone walls to be built along with many structures built in a dry stone construction method.

Dry stone walls are by their nature of construction a haven for both fauna and flora. They offer differing micro climates, an exposed wet side, a dryer warmer side, a windswept top and finally inside is dry and snug. You may find a field mouse , shrew or a hedgehog at the base. Higher up you can find a robin, a redstart possibly and even an owl deep inside the wall. Where trees are scarce, the wall can act as a perch for birds of prey. Dry stone walls are a wildlife garden. Lichens (early signs of life) favor an exposed, pollution free area. On a damp shaded area you will find mosses and algae which create a tilth  and compost for ivy, ferns and cranesbill to gain a foothold.

To find out more about dry stone walls please feel free to contact us via letter, phone, email or the form, found on the contact page.