Monday, 12 October 2020


 Looking at the dilapidated stone wall between my garden and the field and wondering what to do about it has set me thinking about walls.  

One of the most popular sessions in my many years of chairing at Words by the Water in Keswick was a talk on the art and craft of dry-stone walling by professional Cumbrian waller, Robert Drake.   Not only was it a sell-out event in the studio at Theatre by the Lake, but almost everyone who had bought a ticket queued up to buy the book (A Solitary Trade) and filled the foyer book signing area. 

One of the most well-known wall poems is Robert Frost's 'Mending Wall' in which the poet and his neighbour do their annual repair of the boundary wall between their land.  The poet reflects 

     'Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
      What I was walling in or walling out'. 

When I lived in Cumbria I sometimes used to go for a walk near 'the Wall' as we called Hadrian's Wall.  I could never quite fathom the motives for the Romans building this vast piece of civil engineering in a far-flung part of their empire.  The wall is important physically and metaphorically in Two Countries by Northumbrian poet, Katrina Porteous.  In 'Wall' she writes in the voice of the wall:

     'I, the Wall,
      Defend this place
      I am the edge
      The frontier
      This is where the world ends.'

Norman Nicholson's 'Wall' poem opens 'The Wall walks the fell'.  Immediately I picture those long snaking boundary walls of the remote Cumbrian fells, following 'each give of the ground, /Each creak of the rock's ribs'.  Robert Drake says that a ton of stone is needed for every yard of wall.

     'They built a wall slowly,
      A day a week;
      Built it to stand,
      But not stand still,
      They built a wall to walk'.

One of my favourite wall poems is Patrick McGuinness's 'Walls: Lleyn'.  It reminds me of the small stone-walled fields, some of them the remnants of Celtic field systems, on the lower slopes of Garn Fadryn: 

      'for mortar live air ...
      the day in pieces          irregular
      half stone          half hole
      half view           half held from view'

Walls are ambivalent - they confine and imprison but they also provide shelter, protection and shade.  

There is a soft domestic side to walls.  I remember a local woman who always put her teatowels to dry on the stone wall which separated a small house back yard from a large farmyard.  There is a an old photograph of one of the double farmhouses on Bardsey Island with adults and children on or by the wall at the back of their dwelliings.  I imagine them sitting there and chatting on a summer evening after their work has finished.  Walled gardens are special places - think of Ivy Compton Burnett's classic children's story, The Secret Garden, or those lush walled gardens in the Scottish highlands that flourish as soon as sheep and wind are excluded.  

I looked for more poems by women about walls without much success, though in 'Post-box in wall at Rosbrin' by Moya Cannon a freshly-pastered wall, / now blurred with yellow lichen' does put in an appearance only to be upstaged in the poem by the disused post-box and the ivy-leaved toadflax which has colonised it.  

My own poem, 'Wall', was published in Out of Time to accompany Horatio Lawson's dramatic photograph - a wild highland landscape with a dry-stone wall leading the eye into the picture.


     What do you see
             as you lean against the stones?

     The light running at full tilt
             turning the rushes gold,
                     storm clouds
                             jostling for peak position
     and the mountain's darkening veil.

     You are not folled
             by the wall that takes us in.
     You remember
             your home, your town,
                    the familiar greetings 
                              in the street,

      Absurd here
             as a tea pavillion
                     in the wilderness.

© Mary Robinson 2015

 Robert Drake A Solitary Trade: the art and craft of dry stone walling (Bookcase 2008) 
Robert Frost 'Mending Wall'
Norman Nicholson 'Wall'



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