“Good fences make good neighbours,” says Robert Frost’s neighbour in his poem, Mending Wall, as stone by stone they repair the tumbledown boundary between Frost’s apple orchard and his pine trees. The poet is perplexed. Unless you own livestock, why bother if the barrier between one property and the next is not pristine, if one or two boulders are astray?

Frost’s wall is both a private philosophical matter, and a wider political metaphor, one that Donald Trump and his kind would contest. But in this part of the world, there is only one wall of significance. In its heyday it was so monumental that, like the Great Wall of China, it could surely have been seen from the moon.

Hadrian’s Wall, the biggest Roman edifice that survives anywhere in the world, is an hour and a half’s drive away. Coming from the north, it is reached by a road also built by the Romans, so straight is must gladden every geometry teacher’s heart. Standing on the ruins, near Housesteads, and looking towards Scotland, it is hard to imagine what it must have been like, when this massive fortification loured over the region. Kipling, however, had no trouble picturing it. In Puck of Pook’s Hill, his centurion Parnesius, recalls:

“Just when you think you are at the world’s end, you see a smoke from East to West as far as the eye can turn, and then, under it, also as far as the eye can stretch, houses and temples, shops and theatres, barracks and granaries, trickling along like dice behind – always behind – one long, low, rising and falling, and hiding and showing line of towers. And that is the Wall!... Old men who have followed the Eagles since boyhood say nothing in the Empire is more wonderful than that first sight of the Wall!”

The reverberations of that spectacular edifice reached even to Hoolet, which is only a few miles from the Roman fort at Newstead. By 126 AD, this was the last bastion of Rome in the country. Now, whenever I see an old wall bounding a field or hill, I wonder how many of its stones came from that crumbled outpost. There’s hidden history in these scavenged remains, gathering moss as they topple off, forming a stepping stone to help folk clamber over. It’s not impossible – in fact it’s highly likely – that the foundations of the oldest houses in the village include boulders first shaped by the Romans. It’s thrilling to think that if they could speak, our own cottage might tell tales from Italy.

The very week before lockdown we had a low drystane dyke built at the front of our house. It’s astonishing the difference it has made, overnight changing the appearance of the place from rundown to respectable. Several passers-by seem to agree. A few evenings ago, the phone rang. It was a neighbour, who thought we would like to know that a car had parked a few minutes earlier, just out of sight of our cottage. A woman had got out, taken photos of the house, and driven off. Were we planning to sell?

Various sinister possibilities occurred, but the most probable explanation – I hope – is that she too is wanting a wall, and liked the look of ours.Yet, if that was the case, why didn’t she knock and ask who had built it? It’s amazing how much headspace a small mystery like this can occupy. If anything untoward does happen, our neighbour has a description of the driver, and her car.

Since I was knee-high I’ve loved stone-built enclosures, especially those in which flowers and mosses flourish. There was a tall, red sandstone stockade on my trek to school every day. Scooped out by the wind like scallop shells, it bellied more and more with the years until in places it looked ready to burst. Originally built to keep hoi polloi at bay from the boarding school in the grounds beyond, it had become a thing of beauty. Back home, meanwhile, our own gable was a jigsaw of gaps and nooks. In one, a bat used to creep out to sun itself at the entrance, soaking up the rays as if to recharge its batteries, like a solar-powered radio.

The crannies in the rugged garden wall were a perfect nesting place or roost. Come winter, when I put my hand in, as also in the boles of trees, I’d often retrieve a tiny bird skull. These I’d collect in the sandpit, a grisly repository tolerated by my parents until the day I brought home a semi-decomposed and vile smelling gannet from the beach, hoping it would soon be reduced to a skeleton.

Around Hoolet, the best-kept and most imposing barriers are those enclosing large landowners’ estates. One in particular extends for miles, so vertiginous that, by late summer, over-fed pheasants struggle to rise high enough to fly over. Often they’ll perch on the coping stones, like technicoloured statues, looking loftily down on passing cars.

Whether it’s a collective memory dating back to Roman occupation, or a natural instinct, but sheer walls are always intimidating. They bring to mind Joseph Heller’s opening line, “I get the willies when I see closed doors.” Perhaps that’s why drystane dykes are so appealing. There’s an openness about them, and a sense that they have grown out of the landscape rather than been imposed upon it. Of all the wonders of the world, the one I’d most like to see is the dyke that entirely encloses the island of North Ronaldsay, keeping its sheep confined to the shore. Under constant attack by storms, it is the embodiment of a wall in perpetual motion.

The Borders are not famed for their drystane dykes, like the Orkneys and Shetlands, but there are plenty to make the landscape look at ease, inviting to wildlife and walkers as well as farmers.

After getting our own miniature version, I started eyeing the old fence in the back garden, patched up with chicken-wire, and lichened with age. Might another modest wall be worth considering? Yet it would reduce the view of the fields, and the hefty lambs that have been hoovering up the nettlebeds, chewing so noisily they must be wearing ill-fitting dentures. For now, I’ve come to the conclusion that even tumbledown fences have their place.

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