Kerry Fieldhouse, NYMR Lineside Conservation Officer, takes us through some of the work currently underway along a short stretch of the railway line as part of Yorkshire's Magnificent Journey.

Picture the scene
Some 180 years ago, just north of Pickering on the newly built Whitby & Pickering Company railway, a small team of men are hard at work hand masoning large sandstone blocks into shape for a new wall and open drain.

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As marsh tits call nearby and robins watch on the edges for a juicy grub that might be exposed, they must keep their senses alert for the familiar noise and movement in the grass of the adder, the most northerly viper in the world.

At least, that’s how I imagine it! All we do know is that sometime around the 1840s a drystone wall measuring about 136m was hand-built with a corresponding open stone ditch. We are not sure just why the wall was made, many agreements were made with local landowners whilst the railway was under construction, but we do know that it is very old. It is certainly from the days when the railway was horse-drawn as examples of the old foundation stones and ‘fishbelly rails’ from the horse-drawn days can be seen in Pickering and Goathland stations.

Why ‘Adder Wall’?
We have nicknamed the wall the ‘Adder Wall’ from the many anecdotal records from PWay, lineside volunteers and even drivers who recall seeing adders in the area.

In the past, the bend on the track meant that the trains had to crawl around the corner very slowly giving everyone a great view of the wall and the adders which would bask on top of it!

A forestry track runs very close to the wall now, used by forestry vehicles on the Duchy Estate, and it was those vehicles that caused a large collapse in several places some 15 years ago.

After vehicle collision 2010 - Nigel TrotterAfter vehicle collision 2010 - Nigel Trotter

Since then the wall has been open to the elements and erosion and subject to the pressures of the adjacent road which has compressed the ground behind it and caused buckling. Vegetation and trees have grown up, in, and around the wall threatening its stability and shading adder habitat.

Resources had not allowed for prioritisation of the restoration of the wall but in 2020 we were pleased to be able to marry the expertise of the Countryside Worker Apprentices and leaders (CWAs), funded by the YMJ National Lottery Heritage Fund, with a grant from the North York Moors National Park with Anglo American S106 funding. This allowed us to hire a local contractor with a super cool mini digger and grabber (technical language) to do the heavy lifting and the CWAs to do the head-scratching for the rebuild and put in place some adder habitat restoration.

Week 1
In October 2020 we spent a large proportion of our first week rescuing fallen stones from the ditches and those that had been misplaced and working out the construction of the wall. Before we can rebuild it, we need to know how it was built. Each stone has been hand masoned and, it would appear, for a particular coarse, location and purpose. We chose a partially dismantled 10m section, took it apart and carefully rebuilt it. The stones are incredibly heavy and without the mechanical grabber, the work would just not be safe.

Outline sketch of the wall as seen in profile:

Likely bedrock base with supporting triple coarse of stone on the railway side of the ditch. Two large foundation courses with third coarse being interspersed with large blocks with triangular-shaped backs which bed into the banking behind. The following three courses have parallel stones of gradually thinning stone with curved coping stones on top. The wall is made of hand chiselled sandstone and all the gaps are infilled with smaller material.

Planning, placing and infilling between courses and layers.

Week 2
Buoyed by the success of our first week we were raring to go for our second week's work in February. However, the snow got a bit in the way… Our second 10m section had already been chosen and following our first methodology we started to carefully dismantle it, rescue the stone and lay it out in order. However, the snow soon covered all the work area and we just couldn’t see what we were doing! The spring was running fast and overflowing so we spent some time unblocking it and enabling a true flow.

The remainder of the week was spent on managing brash and tree encroachment and creating habitat piles and refuges for our reptilian friends.

Clearing pesky brambles and brash, creating adder refuges and habitat work.

Moving forward
We hope to complete the wall section we started in February and finish our habitat work for the adders. We will also be laying out ‘survey mats’ to survey our reptile communities in the area over the Spring. All fingers and toes crossed we will still find adders in the area as well as slowworms and, if we are lucky, some common lizards… watch this space.

Thanks go to the funders and the hard work of the CWAs and our contractor Duncan Eddon. It may be a small stretch of wall, but it is a big, time-consuming project that needs to be done with care and consideration. We hope to secure funding for 2021 to continue the restoration of this lovely old heritage wall.

This project has been supported by the North York Moors National Park using contributions from Anglo American as part of agreed obligations to offset the impacts of the Woodsmith Mine development. The Countryside Worker Apprentices and the Lineside Conservation Officer are part of the NYMR’s Yorkshire Magnificent Journey Project funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund.