If you happened to be around Maer Cliff near Bude earlier this month you may have seen rangers from across Cornwall and our community volunteers getting to grips with some traditional skills. Dry-stone walling, particularly in the style of Cornish hedging, is an important cultural aspect of the county; I’d say it’s impossible to travel a stretch of road and not come across several examples of it along the roadside! They also have the practical application of preventing livestock from escaping the fields along with also being a haven for wildlife.
Cornish hedging involves the careful stacking of stones, layer upon layer (known as courses) trying to get as much contact to each other as possible as it is friction that holds the wall together, then being backfilled with consolidated earth. A key feature is the batter, or curve, of the wall; being wider at the base and tapering towards the top. This is important as when the earth in the centre settles, the walls will begin to bow outwards which has the effect of interlocking the stones more tightly. Should the wall be built without the batter, it runs the risk that sections will bulge outwards, looking both unattractive and also at risk of collapse. The batter is also a method of stopping livestock climbing out, as the surface is too sheer for them to traverse.
Up on Maer, there are a series of Cornish hedges dating back to the medieval period. Now a key part of the landscape, sections of them have fallen into disrepair requiring the rangers to come along and fix it. Last year the repair started at the end of one wall which had almost completely gone. Thanks to both the rangers and our volunteers, the end of the wall was repaired!
The wall then sat unattended until earlier this month when our very own Ranger Basil organised a walling workshop; inviting both full time volunteers and rangers from across Cornwall to develop their skills in this craft. Like the section above, the wall was little more than an earth bank when we arrived, however a quick bout with a digger left it ready to be built up. Hedges across the county vary in both style and stone type. Historically this was due to what was available nearby at the time, and as Cornwall’s geology changes and you move either up or down the county. Because of this we endeavoured to source local stone so our wall would match the location it is in.
The rangers then arrived later in the week and after a brief talk about the history and theory behind Cornish hedging by Ranger Basil, we were let loose to start building. The first task was to set our grounders: large stones set below ground level, angled down to serve both as a solid foundation but also to begin the batter as mentioned above. Soil was placed behind the grounders and tamped solid until level with the height of the stones. This ensures the stones are firmly in place along with providing a bit of footing for the next layer of stones. At this point the next course could be added. Here we attempted to follow a similar method as to what can be seen in modern brick-laying: staggering each layer so that the joints where two stones meet are covered above by a single stone. This removes the risk of running joints up the wall which are a structural weakness.
Course after course we continued in this fashion. Occasionally we were stumped in trying to find just the right stone to fit what could be some pretty awkward gaps. Nevertheless the wall continued to rise in height until the time came to call it a day. At this point the visiting rangers left, having done a wonderful job, and handed the baton on to our volunteer group to continue the work.
Our volunteers then arrived later in the week and, having been given a similar talk about the history and theory on hedging, set about the task with gusto. Having a section already started, they were able to add course after course; the wall jumping up in height.
Once at the desired height, a course of smaller stones were added as a capping layer occasionally called Jack-and-Jills. After this the final round of tamping earth began, piling up the earth to get an added bit of height, before then being topped with turf.
After a couple of weeks of organising the workshop; inviting people down; preparing the wall; sourcing stone; and two days of construction, the wall was completed. We’d like to thank everyone who joined us in helping repair this section of wall: from all the rangers coming from far-flung regions of Cornwall to our dedicated volunteer group, you’ll be able to come back in years to come and see the results of your handiwork!
Volunteer Ranger Boscastle to Morwenstow