Walls

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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Edin’s Hall Broch

Last week Stephen took me to Edin’s Hall Broch.   He had discovered it on one of his longer walks, but I had never been there before – indeed, had never even heard of it.

As it turns out, Edin’s Hall Broch is a very remarkable place, and I am surprised more people don’t know about it.  Or perhaps they do.  Perhaps it’s just another closely guarded Borders/Northumbrian secret.

For those of you who (like me) don’t even know what a broch is, here is a brief summary of received internet wisdom.

There is much debate about their function and purpose.  What is agreed is that they are only found in Scotland, they are superb examples of drystone architecture, and they are round.  Nobody is sure whether they were built for defensive purposes or to be lived in as farmsteads.

But ooooh – I do love the word “Broch”!  I roll it round my lips and savour the sound – quite different from any other word I know. Stephen in Edin's Hall Broch It wasn’t really that special a day to be out.  As you can tell from our photos, the day was dull, and it was quite sharply cold for May.  But it was still a comfortable – and very interesting – walk from the carpark, about a mile and half from the ruins.

After a short walk through a forested area, you cross the Whiteadder Water by the Elba Footbridge.  The Whiteadder Water then runs parallel to the walk as you climb the hill up to the broch.Crossing Elba footbridgeThe Whiteadder Water is magnificent here, swirling dramatically over craggy rocks.  But, wait – is there a yellow conspiracy afoot?!  There’s masses of gorgeous clumps of golden scented gorse, many of the trees are in that early flush of colour when the leaves are transparent yellowy-pale-green, – and to cap it all we saw a Yellow Wagtail bobbing around on the rocks in the stream! Looking down at the Whiteadder waterWhere the scenery wasn’t yellow and green, it was silvery-white.  The lichen is as much an ornament on these blackthorn trees as their own blossom.Lichen on treeOur route takes us on up and up.  The sheep gaze down anxiously at us from the ridge, not sure whether we are friend or foe.  Don’t worry, sheepy friends, we’re travelling up to the right of this pylon.

Ah yes, this pylon.  We were happily admiring the beauty and wildness of the place when we realised that there was a huge great plonking pylon – no, a chain of pylons striding across the valley.  How fascinating that we’d subconsciously “subtracted” it from our awareness.  How strange too that we object to wind farms but seem oblivious to these earlier man-made monstrosities.Pylons, sheep and gorseThe way is well-signposted.  But look behind the sign, and there’s a telling indication of modern farming.  That’s the old drystone wall broken and crumbling, and it’s been superceded by an ugly barbed-wire fence (which you can just see in the foreground of the photo).  How very sad.Route sign to Edin's Hall BrochNature gives and it takes.  En route we found evidence of the harsh reality of nature red in tooth and claw.  Somebody’s dined here….perhaps the sparrowhawk we saw wheeling above?Nature red in tooth and clawHowever the kindly sheep have left me some lovely bits of fleece to collect – it’s the softest and cleanest fleece I have found out and about for a long time.  Wish I could catch a sheep to take some more fleece home with me!fleeceFinally, we get to the top of the hill, and there – amid a lot of other stone ruins (it’s a prehistoric hill fort) – is Edin’s Hall Broch!  (You get a really good idea of the whole site with this aerial picture on the Welcome to Scotland website.)Approaching Edin's Hall BrochThe people who built this place knew about dry stone walls – they could teach modern farmers a thing or two.  Just look at the size of the stones at the base of this building!huge stones at base of wallsThe size of the walls too is enormous – at their maximum they are over 5 metres wide.thick wallsThere’s a proper entrance, and what must be a front door slab lying on the ground beside.entrance to Edin's Hall BrochOn either side of the front entrance, there are guard rooms.entrance to guard roomsSet in these huge walls around are well-built steps and more rooms. stone steps Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this place is that this is one of only a handful of brochs in the Lowlands.  They are mostly found in northern western Scotland.   And this broch is not like the northern brochs – it’s too large in diameter for starters, so there are doubts that it was ever roofed.  As you will see on the information board reproduced below, Historic Scotland have come up with the hypothesis that somebody in the 2nd century AD travelled south bringing broch-building skills with them and adapted them to this Border locality.Historic Scotland information boardWho knows?

What we do know, however, is that when this site was first excavated in the late 19th century, a number of artifacts were found (these were donated to the Museum of Scotland).  They include a stone spindle whorl, a piece of jet ring, an amber bead, an oyster shell, bones and a fragment of a glass bracelet.  Very much the normal sort of possessions of people’s lives – food, ornamentation, and the means to clothe oneself.

I’d read about spindle whorls recently in Rebecca’s Needle and Spindle blog.  She describes so clearly what an vital part they had to play in basic survival tactics – and that would have been especially the case in these colder northern climes.

So – I’m once again stretching my imagination back to the people who lived here, and I’m finding that they (like me) enjoyed a bit of bling.  Ancestors of the modern sheep grazing around would have been of value to them for clothing – just as they are to me.

The modern world interrupts my old-times reverie. Well – a slightly more modern world.  Down through the trees, on the other side of the Whiteadder Water, there’s a glimpse of an intriguing house – actually another Round House.  Apparently it’s The Retreat, built in the late 18th century by the Earl of Wemyss as a shooting lodge.  You can’t help wondering if he was referencing the round broch on the opposite hill in his choice of architecture……  It looks very comfortable and well-appointed compared to the exposed stony broch of the ancients.looking down at The Retreat