Dry-stone walls around Ullswater

by Eddie Allen

Banner Image: Grisedale © Anne Clarke

The Art of Dry-stone walling

The art of dry-stone walling has a long history, reaching back into prehistory. Although dozens of regional styles can be identified within the UK alone, they all employ the same basic principles, which indeed apply to dry-stone structures found throughout the world.

Most of the field barns, and many of the older farmhouses surrounding Ullswater are dry-stone built; with lime mortars and renders applied primarily for wind and weather proofing.

Visitors to Ullswater will be struck by the many miles of field walls which criss-cross the valley floors and strike out in straight lines across the commons and high fell. The anatomy of a typical Lakeland wall can be seen in this drawing.

As the name suggests, the common feature of all dry-stone walls is the absence of any kind of mortar to bind the stones together. A well built dry-stone field wall has been accurately described as a structure ‘in equilibrium’, with each stone’s weight borne by two stones in the course below, and each side of the wall supported by the all important hearting/filling stones in the centre.

Typically 90cm wide at the base and 40cm at the top, each course of stones is set in slightly on the course below to produce a triangular cross-section. The degree of taper from bottom to top is referred to as the ‘batter’, and will vary according to the job the wall has been built to do.

Regularly-spaced through stones are critical to a wall’s longevity, and wallers would often only be paid if the specified number of through-stones could be clearly seen. This is why you will often see rows of through-stones projecting many inches out from the wall face.

Drystone walls are habitats and wildlife corridors

A well-laid row of cams or coping stones to cover the wall top act as a ‘roof’, keeping the interior of the wall dry and thus free from the damaging effects of frost. This protection from the elements makes dry-stone walls an important habitat for native mammals and birds, as well as reptiles and amphibians. They also act as wildlife corridors, providing safe links between different habitats.

How old are the walls?

Some of the oldest walls in the area are to be found in the valley bottoms, surrounding the farmsteads. Meandering and irregular in nature, these walls are often characterised by massive, rounded footing stones. Some are known to date back to the early 16th century.

Above the farmsteads, the straighter walls reaching up and along the valley sides are known as ‘intakes’ and represent early individual efforts to enclose open land. These walls remain important tools to today’s farmers.

Most of the arrow-straight walls you will see on higher ground were built between 1750 and 1850 under various Enclosure Acts. These Acts gave landowners who were able to erect a boundary within a certain timeframe the right to extinguish commoners’ rights to graze their animals, and claim the land as their own. Walls running for many thousands of miles were built throughout Britain under these Acts.

By Eddie Allen

Walls on Arnison Crag © Anne Clarke
Hogg hole © Tim Clarke

Kids' Fun Fact

What are hogg-holes? Can you spot one?

Hogg-holes let young sheep through the wall but can be easily blocked with a boulder. When do you think shepherd's would use hogg-holes?

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