Early Dry Stone Walls

5 February 2006: Leader - Tom Lord

The cruck timbers in the barn at Lower Winskill were used to demonstrate that buildings may decay and change as thatch gave way to stone slab roofing but field walls may hold the key to the distant unrecorded past. Winskill is fortunate in having written records and field names known from the 1590’s, having previously been owned by Sawley Abbey since the mid-13thC and at least in the 1500s and 1600s by various families of Fosters. Two distinct types of wall can be seen at Winskill. We started by inspecting a boundary wall considered to have been built about 1600, as monastic properties were split up, double-sided in an A-shape with sloping coping stones and about 16 inches (40cm) width at the narrow top. The wall was purposely filled with rubble lower down and stones were placed with ends facing outwards, largest ones near the base (to minimize lifting effort), vertical joints covered by a stone on top. We then moved to a double-sided wide top wall with vertical sides, wider - about 20 inches (50cm), and with flat top stones protruding on one side. Shaped stone sizes were much more variable from top to bottom giving an impression of being built by a stone mason. Such walls include orthostats - slabs on their sides or ends. This was probably an old boundary wall between infield and outfield, a system in use in the 13thC, designed to prevent deer and wolves getting into sheep-folds and to stop sheep jumping over, which in itself reveals something of the nature of farming in medieval times. It may be that such massive walls were built by lay members of the monasteries during winter since only in warmer weather was lime mortar workable, as needed in other construction work. A map of Ingleborough dated 1605 (see Journal of 2004) notes a Broken Wall which is still extant which helps to date such wall types to earlier centuries. An understanding of the high value the monasteries placed on high pasture and grazing land and why they enclosed their properties against intrusion by local people suggests that some boundary walls may date back to the 13thC, not just lying on the boundary line but actually being 700 years old. The wall at the top of Catsteps, the Stainforth-Langcliffe boundary, is a good example. The change from fences and hedges to more permanent stone walls may have been brought about in medieval times by introducing continental practice. The change from one type of wall to another around 1500 may also indicate changes in threats from wild animals outside and different and more intense farming practices. The fact that a prominent high point above Stainforth is the site of a burial cairn and the field name is Crutching Close suggests occupation in Anglo-Saxon times since crutch means cairn. The very successful business of animal husbandry in northern counties has perhaps been not been given its due compared to arable farming in southern England and studies of walls rather than evidence of ploughing are helping to create a clearer picture of undocumented life in north-west England.

Many other aspects of wall architecture were pointed out to us. The evidence at Winskill is convincing and we were privileged to hear the interpretation offered by Tom Lord. Despite the cold and mist we much enjoyed this visit to Winskill and had our eyes opened to an aspect of landscape which books cannot easily convey.

(For more detail see YAS Occasional Paper no.2, ‘Archaeology and historic landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales’, eds. R.F.White and P.R.Wilson, published by Yorkshire Archaeological Society 2004).