“I can build a better stone wall than you can,” “My wall is straighter than yours,” and “My stone wall is longer than yours” were all familiar brags in fifteenth-century Yorkshire when the farmers were building walls around Littondale to enclose their sheep and cows.
After 100 years of controversy and shoving between rival wall builders a man called Clarence Boycott decided to settle the issue once and for all. He began the Littondale Wall Contest in 1632, where farmers from this valley and beyond were given the task of building a wall up a hill within the 24 hours of the day of the summer solstice.
Each farmer was allowed three helpers who could bring food and drink to him and place stones along the line of the wall, but they must not help him construct the wall in any way. The helpers could also hose the farmer down on the hotter days.
The farmer is not allowed to seek others’ help in the alignment of the wall, nor is he allowed to use anyone as a marker to aim his wall at. The farmer is not allowed to plant a scarecrow on the hill, nor is he allowed to use his sheepdog in any way.
Once the 24 hours are completed then all competitors must leave the area. The walls are guarded until the judging can commence at first light – this is to prevent any sabotage of the walls by a rival.
The length of the wall isn’t the main criterion for a winning wall. Above all the judges look for straightness and sturdiness in the wall; it has to be strong enough to prevent a determined sheep or bullock from escaping and the wall has to follow the property line of the farmer. Height is also an important factor as there’s no point in building a wall that an animal can jump over.
The farmer also has to allow for a gate to be included in his wall though he doesn’t have to put the gate in place himself. This rule was introduced when the winner of the 1763 contest, Hadrian Roman from the Scottish Borders, built a very long wall up the hillside but then pointed out to the judges that he wouldn’t be able to get any sheep into the area contained by the wall as there was no gate. Hadrian commented, “It has run in my family for hundreds of years to build walls without gates, but they’re of no use to either man or beast.”
In 1842, Jeremiah Spalding built the longest wall in the history of the competition. It stretched 167 yards up the hill and was in a perfectly straight line. However, this wall didn’t win as it was just two feet high and one foot wide – the judges didn’t believe Jeremiah’s excuse that he was a grasshopper breeder.
The competitors mustn’t touch any alcohol during the contest – this was after an unfortunate situation in 1802 when Barry Cockerill consumed too much cider in the summer sun and started to build his wall across the path of the other participants. This lead to a sharp exchange of words and the cancelling of the contest until the following day, so that Cockerill’s wall could be dismantled.
Gabriel Herriott won the Littondale Wall contest a record five times, including an unprecedented hat-trick between 1845-1847. His detractors claim that Herriott used his pointer Snowball illegally by having the dog take one step uphill every five minutes thus giving Herriott a theodolite other competitors didn’t have.
The shortest wall on record measured 12 feet 8 inches in length and was built by a Master James Handysides in 1683. To be fair, James was the owner of a particularly ferocious bull, which would explain why the wall was 73 feet high. This structure still stands today and is used as a windbreak by the local cattle in stormy weather.
Some competitors in the first years of the Littondale Wall contest didn’t survive through the 24 hours. In 1647 Arthur Welland was killed when his wall collapsed on him during a severe rainstorm. In 1653 Peter Garton was bludgeoned by a local farmer when he started to dismantle the farmer’s house for stone. In 1660, Gilbert Bruyle was shot by another farmer when he was discovered ‘taking a break from walling’ with the farmer’s wife.
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker