This book excerpt will be published in Fall 2021 in Boots: A Thousand Miles on Foot and on Life. I’m walking from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, coast to coast. across England and just spent the night at a farmhouse in Yorkshire Dales National Park, an area known for its dry-stones fences:
The next morning, I walked out of the farmhouse carrying my pack in front of me until I reached the road. I swung it over my shoulders and buckled the waist and chest straps, before turning and double-checking that the stone walls of the house had mortar surrounding the stones. They did. It was silly to think they might not, but the barn next to the house didn’t, and I knew the miles and miles of fences surrounding the farm didn’t. That’s what made them dry-stone structures.
I had walked halfway across England and all along the way, stone fences kept me company. I climbed over stiles to cross over them and turned sideways to maneuver through small gaps that were meant for the agility of people, not the wide shoulders of sheep. I assumed the fences were dry-stone because they were less expensive to build. It seemed easier to stack rocks in a heap from the field to make a fence. But now I wondered if that was true. As I walked, I saw a collapsed section of a fence and left the road for a closer look.
Structure of Dry-Stone Walls
What I discovered fascinated me. The fence consisted of two rock walls built parallel to one another with about an eighteen-inch gap in between at the base. A few feet up from the ground, the two walls merged, eliminating the space, and at the top flat rocks stood upright like books on a shelf marrying the walls together to look like one. The fence stood almost as tall as I was and didn’t have a foundation. The stability of the wall had to depend on the builder’s skill to choose and stack stones.
The stones had the freedom to flex with the Earth, and the English rain could find its way to the ground without being captured by mortar. It’s possible that dry-stone fences outlasted cemented stone ones because they could move and shift, and freezing temperatures wouldn’t weaken the wall as the moisture expanded and contracted.
Stacking Stones in Relationships
The fence reminded me of my relationship with Roger, my husband. We’ve been together since we were sixteen, over forty years. Somehow, we had learned to stack our own stones alongside each other. In a sense, we grew up side by side. Our lives running parallel, always remembering that we were building together.
We weren’t the same person. He camped and hunted on his time off. I traveled. He liked science and mastering the physical world, fixed and built things, and spent time alone. I’m more social, drawn to different cultures, spiritual concepts, and understanding how people think. For the first ten years we were married it was hard being so different.
But now it feels more sturdy, more reliable. He listens to my ideas and watches me struggle and shift, but he doesn’t pull at me or try to contain me. The stones on top of our walls, the books that stand upright that connect us are our children, grandchildren, and fondness for each other. Our stacking has held. Our commitment has held.
That night at dinner, I heard a group of drystone craftsmen talking at the table next to us. I started a conversation with them to be able to ask them dry-stone questions. After their park project, repairing the buttress of a church, they had a contract in the United States. Dry-stone construction, once a common village craft found all over Europe, had all but disappeared and was no longer easily available. Their craft had become a specialized field with a high-demand for skilled workers.
As we talked, I discovered that I’d made a few wrong assumptions on the wall’s construction. Each wall has a shallow foundation, and both walls connect using “through stones,” a stone that spans both walls part way up. A “through stone” is placed across both walls, then rocks continue to be stacked separately until the walls join at the top by “coping stones,” the upright rocks. I was right, though, that dry-stone fences flex and shift with the ground and outlast mortared ones. The first walls started out as roughly built barricades for protection.
Amazingly, some of Yorkshire Dales’s 5,000 miles of dry-stone structures are 5,000 years old. Their ability to flex and move is what allows for their sturdiness, strength, and longevity.