Just Stones

When driving through the patchwork of green fields and grazing sheep in North Yorkshire  this weekend, I marvelled at the hard simplicity of the stone walls. Once these hillsides and valleys crossed by fast-flowing rivers must have been as strewn with stones as the vast uncultivated land between Shiraz and Isfahan. Our first day there was grey, a drizzle, keeping the fields green. Centuries ago sheep farmers cleared the stones. They used them to mark borders, then walls with the large stones at the foot and small ones poked into the holes between them, while the big pointed ones stood beside one another waist high at the top. Nothing simpler. The fields were cleared into tough territory-defining walls that could provide a windbreak in bad weather. Some of the light grey stones are mottled by lichen; others are coated in green velvet-like moss right to the pointed stones. Stones from the hillsides were gathered and built into the farmhouses and barns.

Police notices have calmed the swarms of black-clad motorcyclists who used to terrorise us by taking corners of the narrow lanes on the wrong side. Now one senses a rush of air and a bevy of cyclists in brighter colours rounds the bend at top speed, often amazingly holding conversations funnelled along the stone walls of lanes which, decades ago, witnessed the slow trudge of miners.

Few traces of those coal, lead, iron or alum mines still exist. Once closed, the slates from mine and cottage roofs slipped down and rain rotted the wooden floors. The tracks are trodden by hikers and stones are carried off to repair or build walls. Yorkshire people are thrifty.

The sheep are a tough breed here in Yorkshire. Their wool is only good enough for carpets, never for the fine cloths woven in Florence in the Middle Ages. Wool from the Cotswold sheep was exported.

Sunday morning and the sun caught the raindrops on the blue geraniums along the hedgerows. By evening when we were driving home, the trees, stone walls, farms and isolated barns and even the sheep threw shadows on to the stoneless green pastures. A quintessential vision of tranquillity thrown over a history of toil.

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