(Very fine formal garden they have there too, for those of you who are interested…)
I went to visit it a few weeks ago when staying with the Tanseys in Hebden Bridge. But fascinating though Shibden Hall was (well worth a visit if you are in the area) what totally rivetted me was the dry stone walling exhibition in the grounds.
The exhibition has been put together by the Otley and Yorkshire Dales Branch of the Dry Stone Walling Association, a splendid organisation which is trying to maintain the UK’s 193,000 km of dry stone walls. But since only 13% of those walls are in good nick and 70% are derelict – they have a mountain to climb and need all the support they can get! Their plan is to teach as many of us as possible how to build and maintain dry stone walls – either professionally or just for fun – in the hope that we will get out there and do just that. To that end they offer a whole series of courses from family fun days to teaching you to become a master craftsman.
And fun I think it can be. I met someone a couple of years ago who regularly went on dry stone walling weekends – all held in fabulous parts of the countryside – and he absolutely loved it. This image comes from the association’s site.
Anyhow, back to Shibden Hall.
The exhibition is in a field, sloping down the hill to the woodland, placed there presumably to display the the stone waller’s talents to the best advantage. Building a circular wall (known as a pinfold) on the side of a hill, not with round forgiving stones but with long flat stones, is certainly not easy. And look closely as there are several layers of different shaped stones. At the very bottom there are slightly squarer stones, presumably to take up the slope of the hill. They are topped with two to four rows (depending how far up/down the hill you are) of long, relatively thin stones, then one row of much thicker stones and then finally the jagged ‘topstones’ – much bigger and thicker, but still rectangular stones, but all nestling vertically side by side to ‘finish’ the wall off.
Round the rest of the hill were other examples of of walls, ‘bee-boles, smoots, seats and gate surrounds’ each built in a different indigenous Yorkshire stone.
So here are big round stones forming the main part of the wall with neat, thin flat stones knitted in towards the left end to make a very neat sharp corner.
Here are two very different approaches. On the left big uneven, all shapes pale grey stones carefully arranged so that their points and curves and angles marry into a slightly tenuous looking wall – a good push from a flock of sheep might do it damage. On the right, very big dark grey random shaped stones form the base of the wall with three or four strata of thin, flat, dark, grey stones above, ‘topped off’ with just another layer of thin flat stones.
Here we have very uniform flat mid grey stones in thicker and thinner layers. These are interleaved with big flat stones cantilevered out from the wall at sitting height – some very narrow (for kids?) some much wider (for more substantial citizens?). This wall is topped with the same stones but set vertically and now largely moss covered.
And here we have what I presume is a ‘bee bole’ – a little stone bee hive set into a niche in a wall – the niche sides made from large flat stones, the arch from neatly set small grey stones. The wall itself is here made up almost entirely of rather elegant very thin and uniform dark grey stones (it would remind you of those very narrow bricked Dutch houses) – with just two courses of thicker stones at the bottom and topped with large flat, dark grey stones – first a horizontal layer and then a tall vertical topping.
Further along this wall was what I think they would have called a style. Basically two abutting walls with a narrow gap between with waist-high upright stones set on either side of the gap and quite close the the wall. Fine for a relatively slim human or dog to segway through but a sheep, fully laden with fleece, would not stand a chance!
And finally, the piéce de resistance – the shepherd’s hut.
Perfectly matched, square and flat blond stones layered to create a small round hut, a wooden door to enter and a smooth, humped conical roof made from more perfectly matched thin stone ’tiles’, this time a dark mushroom colour. You can see why they might be proud of it.
For more check out the Dry Stone Walling Association‘s website.