We’ve all seen them, mile after endless mile, zigzagging the countryside. Often hundreds of years old and looking a bit shabby, with contemporary stock fencing running alongside. Comprising of countless tons of stone, gathered from the surrounding fields over the eons and formed into the convoluted boundary structures we see today.
The scale of the task is remarkable. It took a dozen of us five hours to build a section of wall measuring one by six meters. Admittedly, most of us were amateurs, but even so, it’s not something you can rush.
Or rather, it’s something you shouldn’t rush. I suspect a few corners were cut in much of the dry stone walling that crisscrosses our countryside, which is why it’s now crumbling and toppling, because when built properly it should last indefinitely.
So, as I mentioned, when I had the opportunity to spend a day learning how to build dry stone walls I jumped at the chance.
There are several different types of dry walling and many different kinds of structures built using these techniques, but the one I worked on was a double wall.
It begins with the footings. You use the biggest, flattest stones for this, and dig out the ground so these large foundation stones can be laid in.
We began the wall about a metre wide, and laid the foundation stones widthways, so they tessellated together, like interlocking fingers.
With the footing stones laid along the path of the wall, and rising no higher than ground level, the next stage was to begin laying large stones along the length of the wall.
These stones are laid on the outer edge of the wall on each side, and small stones are used to prop them up and stop them wobbling. This process continues along the wall and the centre cavity is filled in with smaller stones, known as infill or hearting.
The hearting helps give the structure weight and stability and the large stones give the wall shape and strength. As the wall rises course by course it tapers in towards the top, which keeps the centre of gravity low and causes the stones to lean in towards the middle, further adding stability to the structure.
Stones are always placed widthways, into the wall, and longer stones are kept for when the structure rises above knee height. Placing them at this height and above helps pin the two sides together and increases the strength and durability of the wall.
When it reaches the required height capstones are placed on top of the wall, usually these are flat, vaguely triangular stones that are set vertically and held by alternating rectangular stones.
Straight walls can be kept on track using lengths of string and curved ones can be kept on course by stepping back and having a good old look at where you’re going.
If you’d like to have a go at learning how to build these age old structures then spend a day up on the Mendip Hills volunteering with Magnificent Meadows Conservation, who can be found through the Somerset Wildlife Trust. The organisers and volunteers were all friendly and fun, and there’s free biscuits too!