Dry stone walling

Dry stone walling is a slow and precise process

There are several miles of dry stone walls on the Skyline fields. For many years they have been gently falling down as time, trees and animals have taken their toll. All over the country the story has been the same. A hundred and more years ago farmers would deploy their workers on repairing walls in the winter but as agriculture became mechanised fewer farm workers were employed and farmers themselves no longer had the time or money to repair their walls. Lengths of wall have been left to fall and the gaps filled with barbed wire fences. You will see the result everywhere you go around Bath.

The building of walls and structures with dry stones goes back thousands of years. The typical walls we see today mostly date from the ‘enclosing’ of formerly open land during the agricultural revolution of the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries. Smaller fields were needed to achieve the new techniques of crop rotation and management of livestock. Thousands of miles of walls were built by journeymen wallers at that time. Those are the type of walls we have on the Skyline farmland, built to enclose land on Ralph Allen’s estate. They were built from the cheapest suitable stone available at the time.

We also have more formal eighteenth century estate walls built of squared second grade stone blocks from Ralph Allen’s quarries; stone good enough for an impressive wall or a modest house but not of high enough grade for the façade of an impressive house in Bath. Those walls have also fallen into disrepair.

The Team

The Bath Skyline is lucky to have a team of volunteers who have practised their trade over a number of years. They work on the Skyline’s walls two days each week, in almost all weathers.

All crafts transform knowledge and experience into art – and walling is an art capable of creating a wall to last well over a hundred years by following simple rules carefully and accurately; the “look” of a wall is as important as its structure. That’s what we aim to achieve, following in the footsteps of those who were on the same spot doing the same thing nearly two hundred years ago.

Recent walling work

In recent years the dry stone walling team have worked on the wall bisecting Bushey Norwood. This wall can be dated to the mid-eighteenth century by reference to Ralph Allen’s estate map. Much of it still survives but in a delicate state. In 2014 the team found fragments of an eighteenth century cider flagon left in the wall by the original builders. Two years ago when working on a wall at Rainbow Wood Farm we found fragments of a bottle from the Anchor Brewery in the old Southgate Street in Bath which had gone out of business by 1850. The two sets of fragments were left a hundred years apart but the builders were refreshing themselves in the same way.

The current project is a wall on Rainbow Wood Farm across Claverton Down. The length of wall that needs rebuilding is so long that it will keep the team busy for a few more years.

Wildlife

Walls are home to a variety of wildlife including mice, bees, frogs, toads, weasels and stoats. Badgers will dig underneath if they decide the wall is in their way. They are capable of moving enough stones to cause the wall to collapse. Then it is often better to rebuild the wall including a hole for the badgers rather than block their run because they’ll undermine it again if foiled.

Many wall collapses are caused by trees growing too close to the wall. Their roots burrow through the foundations forcing the stones out of position. The structural integrity of the whole wall is lost so causing it to fall. This was an issue for the wall at Bushey Norwood. The wall was taken down and rebuilt using large stones to bridge over the tree roots and give them space to grow. Where a tree is very large the best option is to leave a gap in the wall. You’ll see where we’ve done this if you take the Skyline walk through Bushey Norwood.