Drystone walling

"All Derbyshire is full of steep hills and you see neither hedge nor tree but only low drye stone walls"
Celia Fiennes - 1697

Today I got a chance to try my hand at something I've been wanting to have a go at for a long time - drystone walling. For those of you who don't know what this is, it's a technique for building walls using just stone and with absolutely no mortar, hence the name. In Derbyshire the practice dates back to at least 2500 BC, with systematic building starting in the 14th and 15th centuries and carrying all the way through to the 19th century. The Parliamentary Enclosure Act of 1750 saw the building of standardised walls, paid for the landowners wo were claiming the land for their own use. By 1820 most of the existing walls were complete, and since then there has been a gradual decline, with many of the walls falling into disrepair. More recently there has been a resurgence in interest in preserving and maintaining the walls, which form a distinctive feature of the Peak District landscape. The number of professional wallers is beginning to climb both in response to this interest and also because of the availability of government grants for walling work.

The section we were working on was an existing wall that had become derelict, alongside the Pennine Bridleway at Hayfield. The first job was to take down the remnants of the existing wall, laying the stone to one side so we could reuse it. The foundations were OK, so we didn't need to dig right down - when starting a fresh wall the top 6 inches of soil need to be dug out to give a firm footing. Most field walls are 4'6" high and are 2' wide at the base. As the wall rises it gets narrower, the amount is known as the 'batter' of the wall, in our case we were using a ratio of 1:8, so at the top our wall needed to be about a foot wide - we used metal bars at either end of the section with strings between them as a guide, moving the strings up the bars as the wall rose.

Drystone walling

The wall is actually made up of several different components. Free-standing walls are double-skinned with each face being built seperately, so they can be thought of almost as two walls leaning against each other. The components of the wall are as follows:

  • Footings. These are the largest (and heaviest!) stones and take the entire weight of the wall - there can be between 1 and 2 tons of stone per meter of wall - and my back says that's probably about right!
  • Face stones. These make up the two outside faces of the wall, and start off with the largest ones at the bottom. Narrow stones are placed with their long edges into the wall, not along it in order to give the wall strength.
  • Hearting. This is small stone used to pack the middle of the wall between the faces. Soil isn't used as it would wash out over time - a well-built wall will last for over 100 years.
  • Throughs. These span the entire width of the wall and tie the two faces together. On a 4'6" wall they are about 2' from the ground, spaced about a yard apart along the wall.
  • Copestones. Usually semicircular, these fit vertically on top of the wall and again tie the two faces of the wall together.

Drystone walling

Here you can see the base of the wall, showing the two faces and the heartings between them.

Drystone walling

The wall is a bit higher here and you can see that it is starting to narrow. Although the stone is all irregular, it is considered to be cheating to dress it to shape. The aim is to build in regular horizontal courses (as far as possible), and to overlap the vertical joints in the same way as is done for brick walls.

Drystone walling

Here the wall is at full height, with the top being levelled up with small face stones so that the copestones will sit evenly across the wall.

Drystone walling

The final stage is to add the vertical copestones that tie the top of the wall together.. Some walls have dressed semicircular copestones of a regular size, but here we are going for the rustic look - actually, we didn't have any dressed stone!

Job done, and I have the aching back and bruised fingernail to prove it! As I said I'd always wanted to have a go at walling, and I was lucky enough to have a fine bright autumn day (and pleasant company to boot!) for my first attempt. Many thanks to Terry for showing me the tricks of the trade, and I can't wait to go back to do a bit more. Hopefully the wall I helped to build today will last considerably longer than I will :-)



Re: Drystone walling

What fun! Dry-laid stone walls are common in New Hampshire, too. And since I miss good old Concord NH, we built a dry-laid granite wall on the front of our property here in California. It reminds me of New England and I love it. But I have to admit, I did not build it myself! --ClaireG

Re: Drystone walling

I am jealous - at least you have something very tangible to show for your work, and something that will probably outlast much of what most people do. And a stone wall is simply beautiful, especially after moss settles in.