Drystone walls are a dominant landscape feature of the Yorkshire Dales. Together they are the largest human-made feature in the Yorkshire Dales. A survey in 1988 recorded over 8000 km (5000 miles) together with 1000 km (620 miles) of hedgerow and 250 km (155 miles) of fence. Some dry stone walls have been allowed to fall into disrepair as farms amalgamate, or even removed altogether to make larger fields, but most are maintained as an essential part of farming systems.
The principal functions of field boundaries are to mark a piece of land and to limit the movement of animals. Initially this may have been to keep wild animals away from crops or domesticated animals but their main uses today are to indicate ownership of land and to help manage sheep, cows and horses and prevent them eating crops or escaping. Some field walls are amongst the oldest man made features of the Dales landscape but most of those still in use were built during the last five hundred years. Many of the oldest walls, such as those around the Bronze Age settlement on Burton Moor or the parallel co-axial field systems on Calverside Moor in Swaledale, which are now only visible as low lines of stone may originally have been topped by a wooden fence or even a hedge. They do not now contain enough stone ever to have formed a stock proof boundary on their own and it is unlikely that large quantities of stone have been robbed from them.
Many boundaries probably originated while clearing land for cultivation. Clearance cairns, such as those near Ribblehead, are a good indicator of prehistoric farming. These mounds of small stones were often piled up around a large boulder or perhaps a tree stump. In particularly stony areas, or as more stones were exposed as topsoil was lost through erosion, the stone which was cleared from the area being cultivated gradually accumulated along the edge of the cultivation plot. Rows of cairns could be joined up to form stone banks or walls. Thousands of years later some walls were built much wider than they needed to be, just to consume the large quantities of stone removed while clearing land to make it easier to mow. Good examples of this can be seen at Whaw in Arkengarthdale.
Dry stone walls are called dry because no mortar or other bonding material such as clay is used to keep the stones together. From the late 18th century a typical wall has consisted of a foundation course, generally of larger stones or boulders known as footings, with two wall faces of large stones. The cavity in between the faces is filled with smaller stones or hearting. The wall is capped by a layer of larger stones, often laid partly on edge, known as top stones or coping stones. In most walls of the Yorkshire Dales the two wall faces taper slightly towards the top of the wall and are bound together with one or more rows of throughstones or throughs which span the full width of the wall. In many walls, particularly on roadside walls and in Wensleydale the throughs are a nearly continuous row and project on both sides of the wall.
The structure of walls is heavily dependent upon the local geology but recent careful studies have also shown that there are variations relating to the date of walls. Dating a wall is not easy because the date of a boundary is not necessarily the same as the wall that runs along it. Walls do deteriorate and collapse over time, particularly on soft ground and steep slopes and are subject to constant maintenance. Sometimes they are built directly over solid rock and this has enabled identification of a late medieval style of wall. An archaeological survey of limestone walls in Malhamdale and Ribblesdale has shown that straight sided walls with a wide top and an often overhanging coping, as opposed to tapering walls with a narrow top, can be correlated with walls which documentary research shows existed in the late medieval or early post medieval period. An example is the wall along the Watlowes valley above Malham Cove which formed the boundary between the estates of Fountains Abbey and Bolton Priory. The use of very large stones or orthostats, laid on edge at the base of the wall is also often an indication of early post medieval or early date. The large block foundations of one of the walls surrounding the Knights Templar estate in Wensleydale still survive in situ although the wall above has been rebuilt. Similar walls have been identified around the village of Hebden.
Elsewhere the best dating evidence for walls comes from the Enclosure period. Most of the arrow straight walls which subdivide the higher allotments and moorlands of the Yorkshire Dales date from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries and were built to detailed specifications laid out in the enclosure award. The 1788 Fremington enclosure award for example specified that:
Walls should be 7 quarters high (seven quarter yards is 1.6 metres) exclusive of coap and coble [the two top courses] and have two rows of throughs at proper distances and be made 30 inches (0.75 metres) wide at the bottom and taper gradually to 16 inches (0.4 metres) at the top.
The use of throughs seems to have been a technical innovation in the 18th century which was widely adopted and has become standard for most new specifications.
Most walls are built out of locally available stone. In the more cultivated areas of the Dales much of the walling stone has been cleared from the fields but elsewhere, especially on the extensive walls built during the enclosure period, quarried stone was used. Occasionally a township quarry was the source but more frequently a local outcrop of stone was worked or a series of shallow pits dug alongside the wall to provide stone. Quarried stone is usually more angular than stone won through field clearance and which has been subject to weathering for longer.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century a good waller would have built about 6 or 7 metres of wall in a day, lifting about 12 tonnes of stone in the process. Dry stone walling is a traditional building skill which is harder than it looks. A good dry stone waller never picks up a piece of stone twice but is able to look at a pile of walling stone and pick up the right size and shape of stone every time. A well built wall should easily last for a century or more, with little maintenance other than the replacement of loose topstones provided it is not subject to vibration or on an unstable slope. Cattle are less agile animals than sheep and, as sheep have become the main farm animal in the Dales, many walls have been heightened by wall top wiring to make them harder for sheep to surmount. This can also be a cheap form of maintenance, quicker and easier than rebuilding gaps.
Walls are not simple structures but contain a wide range of features. Gateways are perhaps the most obvious. They are also one of the more vulnerable parts of a wall and have often been altered to allow the passage of larger tractors and other machinery. The oldest forms of gate found are pole gates, where the opening was blocked by a series of poles that slotted into holes or sockets in the gatestoups. These were often notched to allow for greater strength and stability but were time-consuming to open and have been replaced by wooden or metal gates. Sometimes a notched gatestoup can be spotted, turned to allow a gate to be hung on metal hinges. Traditionally gatestoups would be of wood if suitably sized blocks of local stone were not available but occasionally dressed gritstone or sandstone or Helwith bridge flagstone would be transported outside its area. Today concreted wall heads or concrete or even metal posts may be used.
Vertical wall heads mark the start or finish of a section of wall. These are commonly found at gateways but can also indicate who is responsible for maintaining a wall. Sometimes vertical stones or boulders function as a wall head but more often they consist of alternate throughs and large stones stretching back into the wall. Sometimes wall heads are also marked by initials. Blocked gateways can sometimes be seen by the presence of wall heads or walled up stoups.
Other features of walls include small holes near ground level which are variously known as creep holes, cripple holes or smouts. These were used to allow sheep to move from one field to another to gain access to water. When required the hole could easily be blocked by a large slab of stone or by walling. A variation on this theme are the small passage ways underneath walled tracks and roads which enable cows and other animals to move from field to field. A good example runs under Lambert Lane near Settle.
Stiles are another form of wall furniture. Like walls these vary in appearance from dale to dale, in part due to the local geology, but traditionally typically consist of staircases of staggered projecting large throughs or of narrow slits in the wall, or sometimes a combination of the two.
Some walls were built for very specific purposes. Deer park walls (for example Capple Bank Park) were normally higher and more massive than normal field walls but even walls built with smaller animals in mind can be impressive. That surrounding the Woodhall rabbit warren at Carperby is particularly distinctive. For most of its length it is considerably higher then the neighbouring field walls and has curved rather than sharp, angled corners. Where the interior walls butt up against the boundary wall, the latter has been heightened to over 2.5 metres for a short distance on either side of the junction to prevent rabbits escaping from the warren.
Where there is little easily available stone for wall building hedges are the main form of boundary. However, a total survey of field boundaries in Hebden revealed an association between the first generation of drystone walls (probably medieval) and embankments, relic hedgerows and mature trees. It seems likely that planted hedges preceded walls in the sequential process of field enclosure. Hedges can be easily planted and are more suitable where the ground conditions are less stable. They are however difficult to keep stockproof against sheep and also need more frequent maintenance than walls, ideally being laid every seven years or so, normally in winter. Most hedgerow plants have a tendency to form bushes and laying involves cutting back the hedge, removing lateral suckers and restoring the hedge to its intended line. Dead materials and unwanted plants such as elder which provide a poor barrier to stock can be removed. The stems of the main shrubs are then partly cut through close to the ground so that they can easily be bent at an angle of about 60 degrees along the line of the hedge and laid on top of its neighbour. A thick wall of vegetation forms as growth resumes the following spring from the cut shoots. A good example of a well-maintained laid hedge can be seen alongside the footpath at Killington Bridge. In the Dales, hedges are most common in the lower valleys, particularly Dentdale and the fringes of the Howgills although there is an unusual group of regular Enclosure period hedgerows in Bishopdale. Both walls and hedges provide important wildlife refuges and corridors. Hedges also provided an important source of fuel.
Contributor: Robert White
Beaumont, Heather M et al (2006) Pointers to the Past: The historical landscape of Hebden Township, Upper Wharfedale Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No 5
Dennison, E (2004) ‘Woodhall Rabbit Warren, Carperby’ in White, R F & Wilson, P R (eds) (2004) Archaeology and Historic Landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No 2 pp137-144
Joy, David (2002) Hebden. The History of a Dales Township Hebden: Hebden History Group
Lord, T C (2004) ‘One on Two and Two on One a preliminary results from a survey of dry stone walls on the National Trust estate at Malham’ in White, R F & Wilson, P R (eds) (2004) Archaeology and Historic Landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No 2 pp173-186
Raistrick, Arthur (1946) The Story of the Pennine Walls Clapham: Dalesman
White, Robert (2002) The Yorkshire Dales. A Landscape Through Time Ilkley: Great Northern Books