When the Tour de France came to Yorkshire on 5-6 July 2014 – yes, nine years ago, can you believe it? – many of the television and media commentators became very impressed by the aerial views of our beloved Yorkshire. In particular, it seems the dry stone walls captured their imagination the most.
We that live and have grown up with these walls and who have scuffed our knees many times while climbing over them, or have leaned on one to admire the view or catch our breath after climbing the hills that are also very much part of the landscape of the Colne Valley, have become very familiar and on the whole don’t regard them as particularly remarkable unless someone else points them out.
The familiarity of the grey sandstone, the green hills and the mighty oak trees that seem to surround all of our communities give us a large amount of stability and comfort, and at the same time our walled ginnels, tracks and pathways guide us safely on our way to other destinations.
Boundary wall toppings
Local boundary wall toppings have developed over many generations for different uses. Some had a dual purpose of using up stone not good enough for the wall itself, and as in the case of the first photo – of a wall near Southowram, Brighouse – to keep the Colonel of our WARTS walking group from straying from the path.
I understand that the castellated toppings in the other photo were designed to discourage sheep from jumping over the wall. I have carried out extensive investigation on this matter and I have been unable to discover how the sheep knew this. This wall is near a derelict farmstead near Slaithwaite called Nathan’s and, as it was built in 1758, perhaps the sheep in those times knew something that modern sheep breeds don’t. It’s a mystery.
When I was a lad there were many derelict buildings scattered around the valley like Nathan’s, I’m pleased to say that many have been completely re-built and even extended, and due to modern materials are certainly much warmer and drier than the original.
Walls to separate churchyard yews from cattle
Other walls that had several uses were to be found surrounding churches.
The wood from the yew tree has been used to make war bows for over a thousand years. Unfortunately, the leaves and berries are poisonous to cattle and therefore a way had to be found to separate yew from cattle. Also, the yew has a sacred symbolic meaning in many cultures. It is associated with Hecate, ancient Greek goddess of death, crossroads and the underworld, and it was used by Druids in their death rituals. It has also long been seen as the bringer of bad luck if it is completely cut down. All this meant that the yew was planted in churchyards and a wall surrounding the church would be required to keep cattle away.
Walls to safeguard land ownership
Before the first of the Enclosure Acts in 1604, the agricultural system in common use was the ’open field system’, whereby common land was used by each village when and by whom it was needed at that time. This eventually became impractical and inefficient. While the construction of new roads and canals meant that food could be distributed more efficiently to the ever-increasing population, the open field system was unable to keep up. Thousands of government acts followed that were supposed to fairly distribute land according to need and efficiency and during the 19th century this really kicked off. Farmers and landowners had their land taken from them.
At first this process was agreed through informal arrangements, but then – surprise, surprise – the government had to take over and much of the land was re-located to a different ownership. I can just imagine what a surprise it would have been for some when they opened their front door in the morning to find that they didn’t have the land that they had yesterday, and when stepping outside in disbelief to argue their case they could turn to find they didn’t have a house either.
This probably happened quite often if the farmer tending a small piece of land just big enough to support his family did not have the resources to surround his plot with a stone wall. In such cases, he could easily find himself taken over by a neighbouring landowner or local Lord and kicked out. Life was tough in those days and justice was tougher.
Walls are everywhere
As can be seen in the following two photographs, sandstone walls in the Colne Valley and our close neighbours are everywhere, not just for propping up railways, protecting canals and guiding weary travellers along the straight and narrow, but they also line the ginnels between our houses and create walled footpaths between villages.
There is also very neatly constructed walling of sorts in the shape of stone sets underfoot like the one leading to Heath House Mill on Bolster Moor, and overhead as seen here holding up the railway in Slawit.
Boundary and supporting walls are but a few of the uses for our local stone. Dozens of small quarries sprang up all over the Colne valley to provide for the many uses of stone among which were housing, churches and dams. It is only in the last 50 years that they have been able to regain their majestic and subtle shades of grey instead of the unbroken matt black of the soot and grime caused by the industrial revolution.
The cruellest flight of steps in the land – and a wall for rest and recovery
Pictured below is a very well constructed but otherwise unremarkable wall which runs alongside the bank of the Butterley reservoir and on into Marsden. The design of the Yorkshire stone steps that in turn run alongside the wall must be the cruellest flight of steps in the land. There are 212 steps in total, set at two angles so that if looking from the top, as in the photo, there are only 147 knee jarring steps visible to descend – then a steeper 65 steps gradually come into view that are surely designed to completely destroy your knee cartilage altogether. But if the plan is to ascend, then a relatively easy 65 lung burning steps can be seen from the bottom and as we are praising ourselves for reaching that 65th, we look up to discover that there are another 147 heart busters to go.
But there is another fine wall to rest on at the top while we pretend to be admiring the view while we regain our breath. Something I find myself doing more often these days.