These photos illustrate walls, mostly in the countryside near Lagartera. Here, we call them ‘paredes’, while elsewhere, they are called ‘muros’ (1).
We can see that these walls have at least four functions, depending on their size and height:
1) Low walls, sometimes made with only one stone, which indicate boundaries, for example, between olive groves, or to show the boundaries between private land and the public land of a road or track.
2) Medium height walls to keep livestock within a pasture, although nowadays, twine or wire is often strung along the top, to reinforce the enclosure and prevent livestock from escaping.
3) High walls, often around enclosed gardens or ‘huertos’. Huertos are enclosed land which can have many functions in their lives. In the old days, washing clothes was done in huertos, and you don’t need a high wall for this, but they are also used as vegetable gardens and for keeping chickens. A high wall is useful to protect vegetables and chickens from animals that would otherwise eat them.
Sometimes there are dogs inside the huertos, and a high wall prevents them from escaping. A high wall also provides shade in summer, and helps to create a microclimate inside the huerto where fruit trees can grow better.
4) Walls that retain the soil to form terraces which prevent erosion, and allow olive trees and other crops to grow better on the side where the soil has been retained.
We can also see the different ways the walls were built:
1) They were often built by using stones from rocky soils, especially to the south of the village. If there was already a very large stone where a wall was to be made, it made sense to incorporate that stone into the wall.
Other stones that were incorporated into stone walls were those found when farmers were ploughing. These smaller stones made farming more difficult so they were taken to the wall. Because of this, some of the walls in the south of the municipality are somewhat anarchic.
2) Walls were also built with quarry stones, the larger ones at the bottom, and some larger ones further up to reinforce the wall.
3) And then there are walls built with small stones.
4) Sometimes stones are used up to the middle of the wall, and then height is added using mud and straw, built onto the wall itself (a ‘tapia’) rather than using mud and straw bricks (adobe). This is a technique widely used in the walls of the huertos, perhaps when owners wanted to increase the height of the walls, or to save on stones when the wall was originally built.
Some stone walls are built without any mortar, while others are built with stone and mud.
There is also a wall inside the pueblo built with a mixture of rubble and stones, which looks like a work of abstract art.
Changes in recent decades:
1) With emigration, there are not so many people to look after the olive groves. Before, in the old days, up to the 1970s, the whole family used to go to pick the olives. Now the children may be in Madrid, Barcelona, or other places far from the village. Furthermore, the disappearance of the pueblo oil mill means that it is now more difficult to take the harvest from a small olive grove to sell, or to exchange it for oil. These changes have meant that many olive groves, especially the small ones with difficult access, have been abandoned, which means that the maintenance of the walls in the groves has also been abandoned. Maintaining an olive grove in this area, where olive groves are relatively small and harvesting cannot be mechanised, is now carried out more out of love than to earn money.
2) The rise in labour costs is beneficial for those people who can earn a wage, but it means that it is now more expensive, in proportion to your wage, to pay someone to build or repair an old wall. Meanwhile traditional building techniques are being forgotten, so it is difficult to find someone who knows how to do it well.
3) Now on the tracks and roads near the pueblo, where there used to be stone walls, there are block walls. This creates a problem when the block wall is low, because the old walls retained the soil, while the new walls leave soil uncovered, which contributes to erosion and increases the risk of desertification.
The ‘humble heritage’
According to Pepe Castaño from the neighbouring village of Herreruela, the walls are part of the ‘humble heritage’ of our environment (2). Perhaps, because they are so commonplace, we sometimes look at old walls and don’t appreciate the knowledge and patience of our ancestors. It’s very easy, with a machine, to destroy what represents many hours of effort by men who had decades of apprenticeship in the art of building walls.
Also, for many older people, ‘the old’ represented a difficult past, when many families didn’t even have enough to eat, and ‘being modern’ seemed to be the solution to finding a better life. Now we realise that change doesn’t always mean ‘progress’, and that we can learn something from our ancestors.
The old walls of Lagartera are part of its heritage, and are worth preserving. They are part of the cultural heritage of the village, and perform important functions. Moreover, they are more aesthetically pleasing than the blocks. The construction, reconstruction and maintenance of them should be subsidised in order to preserve this heritage.
Alison Lever, Lagartera, November 2021
Thank you to J.M. Alia for his help with this article.