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Drystone walls: precious part of the landscape

Friday 10 October 2008

Our countryside correspondent John Sheard, who once struggled to maintain drystone walls round his garden, discusses the history of these ancient landmarks – and applauds an initiative designed to ensure that they survive into the future

THEY have been part of the landscape in England’s uplands since the Iron Age. There are miles of them in the Yorkshire Dales dating back to medieval times. But any non-expert who has tried to maintain a length of drystone wall knows that, as well as being beautiful, they can be a pain in the backside.

Drystone Walling
Drystone Walling

I know this to my cost. I once bought part of a field from my farmer neighbour to extend my vegetable patch, a small plot which was bordered by such walls. I didn’t realise that, once my brassicas bloomed, they would become irresistible to sheep – and without constant repair from skilled hands, they were about as much use as a sandcastle on an incoming tide.

Even with all the necessary stones to hand – for at least the sheep id not carry them away, as do some modern day thieves looking for rockery material – I could never put them back together again, Humpty Dumpty like: this is a 3-D jigsaw of immense complexity to the untrained eye. In the end, I put up a barbed-wire fence and felt a deep sense of shame every time I looked at it.

This is why, this week, I am delighted to write about a unique scheme designed to emphasise the importance of the drystone wall to the Yorkshire Dales – and to encourage young people to take up the elaborate skill of walling. For, sadly, it is a skill on the wane.

Steve Marsden with the CLA glass trophy

Steve Marsden with the CLA glass trophy

The history of such walls can be traced back into the Iron Age, five hundred years and more before the Romans invaded. Many of the Dales walls can be traced back to Medieval times and others to the 17th and 18th Centuries when they were the subject of much bitterness during the Enclosure of the Fields Acts, when ruthless landowners took over previously common-own land and walled it off as private property.

The fact that they have lasted so long – and become to subject of a million picture postcards, calendars, and TV films – is that they were constantly maintained by farmers after damage by sheep, frost and heavy snows. It was a regular winter job for farmers, their families and, in the good old days, paid farm workers.

Those times are long gone. Few hill farmers these days can afford paid labour and one of the most serious problems facing the Dales landscape is that more and more farmers’ families are quitting the land for easier, better-paid jobs in the towns and cities. This means that there is little spare time and far fewer skilled hands to maintain this precious heritage.

So this is why I applaud this week’s ceremony at Stainforth, neat Settle, when 25-year-old Steve Marsden, from Long Preston, was named as Yorkshire Drystone Waller of 2008 in a unique, biennial competition staged by the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) – the only contest of its kind in England.

Steven impressed the judges from the Yorkshire Dry Stone Walling Guild with an outstanding 225 metres (246 yards) of new wall built over four months during last winter/spring adjacent to the bridleway at Stainforth, near Settle, for the owner, CLA member Thomas Lord.

Dry stone walling was once thought to be a dying craft but Steven Marsden is a worthy winner and proof that a new generation of competent craftsmen is emerging alongside the more experienced practitioners

The wall will be a long standing addition to the Pennine Bridleway, a new path for horse riders, cyclists and walkers shadowing the long established Pennine Way. Significantly, the costs of the wall were funded by the Government agency Natural England.

CLA Yorkshire Regional Director Dorothy Fairburn, who devised the competition eight years ago, said: “Dry stone walling was once thought to be a dying craft but Steven Marsden is a worthy winner and proof that a new generation of competent craftsmen is emerging alongside the more experienced practitioners, to meet an increasing demand from farmers and landowners, and the CLA competition was devised to help stimulate that positive development.”

“Hear, hear” is my response to that. It took a rural based organisation like the CLA to spot a threat to one of our landscape’s most precious features and a Government-funded agency to cough up some cash to get this difficult work done.

Government and the CLA have exchanged some pretty harsh words over the years. To see them working together on such a project gives me hope that all is not lost in the countryside, despite the world’s financial markets crashing round our ears.

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