Yesterday Rob and I were in the heart of Wensleydale to meet one of the farmers we’ll be interviewing as part of this project. As always, we were distracted by the walls. The day had started under a blanket of fog, so thick on the road between Dent and Garsdale that visibility was reduced to tens of metres. But as we approached Hawes and headed towards Aysgarth the air cleared and the sun slanted into the dale beneath the lifting clouds.
There’s something about the light in the Yorkshire Dales that makes you stop in your tracks. It teases its way into the flat valley bottoms. It picks out the contours of the hills where stones jut out in lines; and softens the grassy slopes. In the winter it pushes its way in between the greys and brings a hush to the land. In summer, it’s as yellow as the buttercups in the meadows.
By the time we arrived in Thornton Rust to meet Sheena Pratt and her son, we’d stopped a few times to look more closely at the walls. They’ve been standing so long that they’ve gained a covering of lichen and as the air became clearer and clearer and the sunlight crept in they looked almost silver.
Back in the summer we were talking to Helen Keep at the Yorkshire Dales National Park offices. We had endless questions and she did her best to answer them. One was just how many miles of walls there are in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Not surprisingly, the drystone walls – each one raised by hands and held together by skill, with no cement or other joiner – account for the largest manmade structure in the Dales. A survey carried out in 1988 stated that there were over 8000 km (5000 miles) of walls, as well as 1000 km (620 miles) of hedgerow and 250 km (155 miles) of fence*. And with the extension of the National Park last year (in August 2015 the national park grew by almost 25%) there will now be many more miles.
These walls may be loved and photographed a great deal, but they’re not decoration. They are a management tool and have been in place here for many hundreds of years. They provide essential barriers for stock, to keep sheep and cows in some areas and out of others. The style of walling varies from dale to dale and always it’s local stone that is used – this determines the final look of a wall as well as the difficulty of making it strong.
Walls have many features. If you look at any wall you’re likely to see stones jutting out in the middle of the wall (sometimes there are two such lines). These are through-stones, important for maintaining integrity in the structure. Sometimes they’re extra large and serve as steps. You’ll also notice stones on the top lined up (there are different styles for doing this). These are the cap stones. Then there are neat square or rectangular holes at intervals in some walls. These are hogg holes – big enough to let the hoggs (young sheep) pass through, and may also be called smoots. If you have a chance to join a walling day or course, take it: the rhythmical building of a wall and the challenge of finding the right stone for the right gap makes for a satisfying day. And there are always gaps.
All the farmers we have met count walling as one of their every-pressing jobs. At Heber Farm in Buckden the count is 23. The last farm in Kingsdale, Kingsdale Head, has about 12 miles. The farmer here, Michael Faraday, says it has been his life’s ambition to finish all the walling on his farm but, after fifty years he still hasn’t managed it. While good walls can stand for a hundred years, weather, stock and time are all threats.
Inadvertently, walls also serve a purpose beyond that of keeping in stock. The nooks and crannies between the curved stones offer perfect nesting spots for birds such as wrens, and for mice, voles and other small animals. Over time, as part of a practical tool for farming, they have become not just a cultural landmark, but also an important part of the environmental fabric of the national park.
We’ll be photographing the different styles of walls over the coming year, as well as the many barns, most of which are built with the same stones that the walls are made of. These barns are quintessential Dales, and with more than 6000 here, you’re never far from one.
*For more facts and figures and a deeper look at the archeology of the Yorkshire Dales, head over to Out of Oblivion, which explores the evolution of the Dales landscape over time.