Gardens to Gables

Emperors, walls and money

There are no Roman emperors in Kentucky, even if we must endure politicians who act like ancient despots (or just idiots). We can, however, claim miles of beautiful drylaid stone fences and walls. Scots-Irish stone masons immigrating to the Americas brought their craft for drylaid masonry to Kentucky, constructing fences from quarried limestone, and shaping the cultural landscape in a way that is celebrated now some 200 years later. The Bluegrass has the most quarried stone fences in the country; as you move out from the Inner Bluegrass, fences made from field rock are just as common as quarried stone.

A drylaid stone fence in the Outer Bluegrass
Fence along a roadway in Franklin County, Kentucky
Emperors and stone walls were not at the top of my agenda when my sleep fogged brain registered the NPR story on the radio this morning, about Hadrian’s Wall and the loss of funding that has shut down the Hadrian’s Wall Trust, which maintains this incredible feature of northern England. I realize this story also plays heavily on the upcoming Scottish vote for independence, but my thoughts instead focused on the ramifications for this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Hadrian’s Wall, between Housesteads and Once-Brewed (or between my sweaty exertions and a pint)
When I look back on the adventures of my holiday in 2013, my most memorable time – and I saw many incredible buildings and gardens – was spent hiking along Hadrian’s Wall. It was one of those experiences you drink in like air, and are barely able to register the meaning and beauty of it in words. I posted about it last year, but mainly through a series of photographs – I didn’t feel equipped to assign words to how the walk made me feel, what I saw, and what I thought.
As a professional in the field of historic preservation, I consider myself slightly inured to the lack of concern and funding for our historic sites. Our land fares a little better, with organizations like the Bluegrass Conservancy and Fayette Alliance helping to save thousands of acres of valuable Bluegrass – but a land ethic, alas, is not widespread across our Commonwealth. As you move away from the few urban centers in Kentucky, property rights are scared, and many farmers and rural residents depend on the sale of their land – for development – as their only reliable retirement option.

Detail shot of Hadrian’s Wall
Do I expect better things in England? I suppose I do. The relative youth of our country often seems to be both our greatest strength and weakness. Our history is too recent, our monuments still evolving, and contentious. But to be able to follow the line of wall that the Roman empire constructed to defend their territory – to gaze out on a landscape both magnificent and forbidding – to sink into the evocative mood of the surroundings, which is surely enhanced by the very air you are breathing – it defies the petty issues that cloud our lives and blind us to the fabric of the world to which we belong.
I remember when the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) lost federal funding. The NTHP did not fold, though the growing pains of becoming self-funding were difficult. It can be a good thing to not have all of your eggs in one basket, and diversification behooves all organizations, not just businesses. Can the various councils that will now share the responsibility of caring for Hadrian’s Wall (see story here) work together to protect and promote this very special landscape?

Drylaid stone walls line a road in Central Kentucky
 The real issue, of course, goes beyond the meandering curves of Hadrian’s Wall. The challenges facing English Heritage and its re-focus (and lack of government funding) will impact all of England, and the consequences will shape the tourist experience of the future. I’m not too worried about seeing residential subdivisions cropping up along the route of Hadrian’s Wall – (indeed, many of the houses and buildings one sees and admires along the wall were constructed with robbed stone) but I am uneasy about what this signals for the next generation of heritage protection, management and interpretation in England.

Hmmmm…I wonder where they got that building material? 

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2 Thoughts on “Emperors, walls and money

  1. Oh, no. I had not heard this. Hadrian’s Wall is my favorite place and thing on the planet. I had the most transcendant moment of my life while walking along the Whin Sill. I will have to watch for what happens with on-going support to the Wall. And I share your sentiment and concern for the future of Britain’s heritage. Thank you for this post and your tribute to the Wall.

    • Thank you for reading Marc, and for your comment. Hadrian’s Wall is such a meaningful place, but its very character is also is biggest pitfall – the immense area it covers makes it hard to protect and maintain (a very different challenge say from a single historic country house or castle).

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