Living here in Boot, we are constantly reminded of the fact that “our ancestors were mighty men” to quote the Duke of Chalfont in Kind Hearts and Coronets and erected a landscape of stone walls that endorse that sentiment.
Wainwright too had a soft spot in his heart for the men who laboured to build these testaments to changes in land ownership and agricultural practices, that have endured long after the commissioner and builders have been forgotten.
For those who don’t know, the Lake District is criss-crossed by a network of walls – normally enclosing fields in a logical pattern, but often not – going off in wild directions, hugging crags, or even just stopping, seemingly without reason. The mightiest celebration of the wallers imaginative pattern making occurs in our neighbouring Wasdale, where walls assumed enormous width and the title of consumption walls, for the amount of stone they er, well, consumed. When viewed from above on Great Gable the patterns are breathtaking.
But perhaps even more amazing is that many of these walls are approaching 200 plus years old and they have stood that amount of time without mortar or cement holding them up.
A dry stone wall is a mosaic of carefully placed rocks held together by the action of the rocks meshing and gripping together and the force of gravity. Over time the walls are buffeted by winds, rain,frost, snow and the passage of sheep, dogs and occasionally people scrambling over them. Eventually they succumb and the walls will give at a point of weakness. Driving over the fell road near Black Coombe is a wonderful example of that decay, a wall no longer functioning or required and abandoned to its fate. It gives the appearance of an impromptu roller coaster , with gaps gradually linking up the remaining standing areas until it will return into the fellside from which it was won.
But for us in Boot at the Mill Trust, a break in a wall can let sheep or people into areas we would prefer them not to be, so when the wall just at the point where the corpse road leaves the village of Boot collapsed recently it was time to dust off some little used skills and get walling again.
The stone hereabouts is mainly Granite boulders, mostly about the size of a person head, but about 5 times as heavy. So firstly the wall needed to be made safe by stripping back the wall to where it stands securely and down to its firmer foundation stones. This is done slowly so as the gap doesn’t want to be made wider than it needs and the stones are sorted out into like with like as you go. With the infill made of smaller stones making a separate pile (next time I need a bucket).
This particular wall was abutted against the intake wall (where the cultivated areas stop and the fellside proper begins) and stands about 6 feet tall, it’s going to be slow work – not the 6 metres a day of the skilled local wallers.
Stripping the wall back is now completed and revealed the obligatory old broken glass bottle. Some initial work has been undertaken to begin rebuilding it, now I need to think about how I can get into the field on the other side as it grows in height!