In January 2018, I contact Smithsonian Magazine to ask if I could write an article for their Folklife magazine. I wanted to spread the word on the art of drystone walling and the people who build these walls.
My documentary film If Walls Could Talk is about centuries-old dry-stone walls in Derbyshire, England, what secrets they contain, how they were built, and what future they hold. The film showcases miles of dry-stone walls in the English countryside landscape and explores how these age- and weather-beaten walls communicate their hidden tales to present-day wallers, countryside lovers, and nature enthusiasts.
Building walls is an antique art that has endured for thousands of years. Extant dry-stone walls, built without the use of mortar or any binding agent, can be dated as far back as 3500 BCE. In the UK, the Celts developed boundary walls or field walls as they transitioned from nomadic pastoralism to settled farming. Farmers built stock-proof walls to confine their livestock. They reformed natural rocky outcrops into useful barriers. They used stone to create irregular systems of dikes and ditches.
In Derbyshire, the Romans—who would have used enslaved labor—built walls that followed the road system. The first Enclosures Act of 1604 further ensured that farmers enclosed their land with sturdy walls. In the mid-1700s, fleeing the famine in Ireland, unemployed Irish Navvies (manual laborers) brought their own style of walling.
The Navvies worked for homesteads or wealthy landowners who were obsessed with cultivating and clearing the land of what they saw as rubble stone. This material was a far cry from the stones that had been quarried, but it was great material for building walls to enclose animal and for the creation of boundary walls.
The camaraderie and support system among dry-stone wallers of Derbyshire is readily apparent. Each has a story to tell, as well as unusual finds to share, including old clay smoking pipes discarded by the Navvies, leather shoes, grenades, and assorted fossils.
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