Country diary: mystery built into drystone walls

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The track north-west of Abney is an old one, a packhorse route linking the village of Bradwell with Ashford and points south. Here it reaches its high point before dropping steeply into Bradwell, an exposed spot, often harsh on a winter’s day and sometimes on a summer’s one as well. I found myself leaning into a strong breeze pushing across the moor, shaking the hairgrass and ruffling the yarrow and selfheal growing prettily against a long drystone wall that bordered the trail and offered me some shelter.

Abney Moor is a fine vantage point to consider the endless miles of these “Derbyshire hedges” and how varied they are, in function and form: how in one direction they can seem pleasing and complementary to the landscape, following the rise and fall of steep pasture, like a cast net, and yet in another appear angular and stern, laid ruler-straight with no feel for the ebb and flow of the hillside.

Too small a hole for a sheep? A wall at Bleak Knoll, Abney.

Built into the footing of the one next to me were remnants of a medieval cross that once marked the boundary of three parishes, shown on the map as Robin Hood’s Cross, although originally named for a local baron and not the outlaw. Rather than follow the track down to Bradwell, I cut left here along Bleak Knoll, its crest split down the middle for more than half a mile by an unusually high wall, over six feet in places. And along its length every 15 feet or so, roughly a rod in old measures, a small rectangular aperture had been built into its base a few inches off the ground. It must have been the devil to work in so many of these things, and the obvious question was why.

Holes in drystone walls have a plethora of names that sometimes explain their purpose: “lunky” is common in some parts of the country, “hogg hole” in others, a hogget being a yearling sheep. But these gaps seemed too narrow for all but the youngest lambs to squeeze through. Wallers might also build in a “smuse” or “smoot” hole for rabbits, to trap them as they passed through or stop them burrowing underneath and weakening the structure. This seemed more likely; 100 years ago, a rabbit farm nearby was supplying a London furrier.

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