Yes, you may well wonder where I am going with this blogpost ….

I confess to having become fascinated by walls since we moved up to the north-east of England …

It’s all down to building materials, of course.  When we lived in Mid-Devon, there was very little of the local sandstone, and what there was available was used for important and expensive buildings like the little St Lawrence Chapel which we looked after for Crediton parish church.Our own house (round the corner) and Victorian had nice brick garden walls in the garden itself …But once you ventured down the track behind the houses that the coal delivery man would have used, you were back to the older cheaper local stuff – cob. Cob is made up of anything to hand – mostly dung, mud and straw. It’s very vulnerable to the elements.  To protect the wall, it was preferably built on a small stone base, and roofed with slates  – both of which you can see in this picture. What you can also see in the picture is the render – that’s the modern casual way to repair a cob wall …I might once have been inclined to say there is no finer sight than a good cob wall (as you can see here on the shed wall at our B&B in Woolfardisworthy last damp summer) …Until I came to live in Northumberland where there is stone! Beautiful stone! Our own cottage (a converted steading) shows this particularly to perfection in the light of the rising sun a couple of days ago.  This is sandstone, abundantly and gloriously available here …And everywhere there are fine stone walls (sometimes with the odd little whimsical brick) …Which we took for granted until we saw where a local farmer had driven casually through a stone wall so as to deposit the manure from the barn in an inaccessible field …Elsewhere we saw how a collapsed wall had been – well, err, left collapsed …

Time takes me in mouthfuls; the teeth of the frost bit into my body here; here my mortar crumbles; the wind rubs salt into every wound  (says the poet, Kevin Crossley-Holland.) Yes, that’s just exactly what happens to the walls near the sea round here …Eventually the stones were cleared away leaving the bank alarmingly vulnerable …Walking up to Edin’s Hall Broch in the nearby Scottish Borders, we noted the irony of collapsed walls left to deteriorate and be replaced by barbed wire fencing … While the much more ancient stone walls of Edin’s Hall Broch itself were still standing well …Once we started looking at walls with these eyes, we saw a great deal that was both impressive and beautiful – and quite a lot that was sad. You cannot but be struck by the beauty of the wallflowers growing in the walls on Lindisfarne …Nor the mossy walls we found when on holiday near Lochgoilhead.  I am overgrown with insidious ivy …And – oh my goodness – how I love to see the willowherb growing in the walls along the East-Coast railway line …But these are the beginnings of damage. A young shoot breaking through the wall …Puts down strong roots …Without doubt a broken wall is an evocative sight, adding strongly to this picture of desolation and damp and mist in Scotland.  I am a desolate wall, accumulator of lichen …But a broken wall isn’t just picturesque – it can be downright dangerous. This is the wall separating the East-Coast Railway line from our local footpath – now, just think of the speed those trains travel! Why a hop, skip and a jump and I’d be over. I am unrepaired; men neglect me at their own risk …I was intrigued to see the anatomy of a good wall laid so clearly bare when walking on Lindisfarne recently …You can be sure that this hole (also on Holy Island) will be repaired properly. (I have to admit to being fascinated by this hole – what on earth caused it?  It’s very rare for a well-built wall to collapse like this.  I can only think a car drove into it.)Once – just once – we happened upon somebody repairing a wall (up near St Abbs).  This man deserves every accolade because it was a miserable day to be out working … After all, there is so much in a good wall to admire – and intrigue.  Can you see the faint line of stones in the centre of the wall sloping down to the left?  I can’t explain this …Sometimes falling render reveals old secrets, little unsuspected doorways …And even unconcealed doors in walls have a special lure …This door is set in the wall which surrounds the local Paxton estate …And walls of that size are in themselves a source of wonder – all that labour! We had to stop and admire the colour of the worn sandstone …At one point there must have been a rather fine entrance here. Just look at that worked stone at the top of the wall on the left!Repairs vary – the best are surprisingly successful (aesthetically as well practically). Just like this large brick patch   …Even painted walls have their beauty too. Every lump and bump is enhanced …And what a wall can do for a garden! This is Priorwood, in Melrose. These gardens nestle under the more famous Abbey, and my photo on a dull day doesn’t really do justice to them. But they are wonderful – and this large backdrop of a wall frames them perfectly  …Then I found myself in London, walking round Walthamstow, with walls on my mind. Oh, the variety of these little walls! All the houses have similar mouldings, porticos and bay windows – but the front walls!Just look at the creativity here!And here!So much personality expressed in just a little suburban wall!You’d think I’d have had my fill by now, but an unexpected birthday present last year opened my eyes to yet another aspect of walls – political walls … This is a fascinating book – I had no idea that so many countries had built – and were building – walls.  My business is to divide things, my duty to protect. It’s shocking – but I’m not going to dwell on it right now …I’m coming back to where I started – our home, and the walls around us. Because right there – on the boundary between our gardens and the next door farm – are some fascinating remnants of when this farm was a grander affair – coping stones.  There are only a few odd ones left now, and when these buildings were converted, they were shoved higgledy-piggledy amid whatever stone the builders could find.  Not very elegant, but a powerful reminder of what labour used to be.  These coping stones are rounded and would have been worked with the simplest of tools. Makes you think …My business is to divide things: the green ribbons Of grass from the streams of macadam …

All quotes from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s poem, The Wall.


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20 thoughts on “Walls”

  1. Yup you sure have a thing about walls. Wait so do I, I was taking pictures of windows for a photo challenge but got distracted by the wall they are set in. Walls do certainly have their own personalities, styles and stories. Loved this post.


        1. Of course there is flint! Silly me – I have seen such fine flint walls in your part of the world, and Kevin Crossley-Holland’s poem mentions it. Fascinating how ingenious people are with the building materials to hand – and brick walls are as fine as any.

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  2. J > The whole in the wall : close inspection of the full photo seems to reveal that the wall was either built or (more likely) re-built (locally, perhaps) with mortar. That is almost certainly the explanation for the collapse. The mortar appears to have been made with too much cement, which makes it harder, stronger and less susceptible to damp and frost than the stone, and therefore when winter damp and frost strike, it is the stone that spalls rather than the mortar. Now a mortar-bedded wall doesn’t take much skill to raise, because it isn’t dependent on a skillful drystane waller picking exactly the correct stones to ensure that every stone is intricately interlinked, and so when the stones are frost-damaged, they get slightly smaller and very easily fall out, sometimes bringing others nearby with them. The strong mortar very often continues to hold together stones higher up (which tend not to be so wet, are further from the ground, and therefore don’t suffer frost damage quite so much), resulting in the effect you have photographed.


  3. Enchanting photos and musings Katherine! You seem to see the beauty in the cracks and the constructions, the patches and the roots as much as the whole wall. Wonderful!


  4. The contrast between soft, natural elements – the plants that may eventually take the wall down – and the hard material of a wall is always lovely to me. Loved this post. I remember building walls I saw in Italy, doors and windows filled in, or opened up where needed, in San Gimignano in particular I was struck by what a historical record they provided, while being eye-catching as well. There was an old wooden fence between my house and the neighbors for many years. It was covered in lichen, weathered to a silvery sheen, and I adored it. One day I came home to find it had been removed (it was on their land) and I had a nice expansive view of their lovely back yard. But I preferred the wall.


    1. You’re quite right about the contrast of soft and hard – interesting, thanks for pointing that out – I hadn’t realized that. And I completely understand why you preferred your neighbours’ wall with all its lichen and weathering 🙂


  5. Fascinating piece, loved the poetry. Some great craftsmanship in these walls. Sad to see them neglected. Even here in Shobrooke, a fine corner wall opposite the pub is losing stones, as well as the one below the village hall. I think it’s a craft that has just disappeared and people don’t know how to go about repairing them. It also requires strength and fitness – we’re such softies now! The wall in my front garden had to be taken down several layers after the thatchers had damaged it. I really enjoyed building it back up (I reckon it’s an ancestor memory!) but boy was it hard work! Perfect for sheltering critters. I often see a vole making a quick dash across the path to get to it.


    1. Thank you, Mandy. Very impressive to hear that you repaired a wall yourself! I don’t just think wall-building is a lost art – I think it’s a shortage of manpower that’s part of the problem. Local farmers we have talked to don’t even have the staff to get basic chores done, so it’s not surprising things that can be put off are ignored. Coupled with the fact that it’s very time-consuming so very expensive to buy in. All sad – though a crumbling wall can look very fine ….


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