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Drystone wall cross-section view

Dry stone walls are, with hedgerows, one of the most commonly used field boundaries in England, and help create what we now regard as the traditional pattern of field and lanes so evocative of rural England.

The roots of dry stone walling as a method of enclosing fields lie at least as far back as the Iron Age. In Cornwall fields dating from that time are often enclosed by earthen banks surmounting large boulders. These banks are then topped with smaller stones and more earth.

At a Glance
Dry stone walls are commonly used as field boundaries in the highlands, such as the Yorkshire Dales. In the lowland regions of England hedges are the most common traditional boundary.

Dry stone walling fell out of favour in the Dark Ages, not least because the Anglo-Saxons tended to settle in the lowlands, where their agricultural techniques were more successful.

Throughout the medieval period, as settlement in the Highland areas increased, so too did dry stone walling. Many monastic houses, particularly those in remote locations favoured by the Cistercians, favoured walls of dry stone, and many of these medieval walls can still be seen (notably at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire).

Dry stone walls are not merely features of agricultural interest; they are in a sense, living history; a legacy of the movement towards enclosure of common farming and grazing land as English society moved away from feudalism.

Drystone wall plan view

As individual landowners abandoned farming in favour of raising sheep and cattle, they enclosed land which had been owned or used "in common", by all the inhabitants of a village. The right to use the common land was lost as landowners enclosed fields and, in some cases, evicted villagers to make room for sheep!

Most of the dry stone walls we see today are products of the post-medieval move toward enclosure.

Building a Dry Stone Wall.

So how are these traditional walls built? Although techniques may have varied in different locations, the common practice was to cut a narrow trench, and lay a base of small stones within it. Then the wall is built up in progressive layers, each narrowing slightly towards the centre of the wall.

That centre is filled with small stones or rubble. At about a height of 2 feet a layer of through stones is laid across the entire width of the wall to tie it together, and then the wall continues above the through stones. The wall is generally topped with a row of slanting or vertical stones. When the wall is forced to climb a steep slope, the stones are commonly laid horizontally, not parallel to the slope.

This type of stone wall can be built very high, the walls found around the district of Rishton are not built that high. The average height of a stone wall locally is about 5 foot.

The wall is built either side straight up in stone, with the odd through stone binding the 2 sides of the wall together. The centre is filled with rubble.

The top Stones are sometimes rounded, and stood upright across the top of the wall.

References

History of Dry stone Walling