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Curious Questions: What is a crinkle-crankle wall?

The mysterious term crinkle-crankle wall is something you'll see scattered in to architecture books and even property listings. But what are crinkle-crankle walls? Why are they shaped as they are? And who first came up with the idea? Martin Fone explains all.

By the River Debden, about three miles south of Framlingham, lies the Suffolk village of Easton, the erstwhile seat of the Dukes of Hamilton. After the death of the 12th Duke in 1895 from ‘an attack of the kidneys’, and in the absence of a male heir, his daughter, Lady Mary, assumed responsibility for the upkeep of the 27-bedroomed Easton Hall and its 4,833-acre estate. Unable to service the family debts and meet the high tax demands, in 1919 she put what was described as ‘a residential and sporting estate’ up for auction, parcelled up into 137 lots.

While most of the lots were sold, raising £56,000 —£4.6million at today’s values — the house and its 150-acres of parkland failed to attract bidders. A private buyer was eventually found three years later;  the parkland was transferred to nearby Martley Hall; and the house, deemed surplus to requirements, was demolished brick by brick in December 1924 by a team from Reades of Aldeburgh. The bricks were reputedly transported to America and re-assembled as a ranch.

If true, it completed a remarkable journey for this country pile, for this wasn’t even its first demolition. The building had started life in Tacket Street in Ipswich before being dismantled by Sir Anthony Wingfield in 1627 and re-erected to form the original Hall at Easton. The demise of Easton Hall, sad as it was, was not unique. During the twentieth century it is estimated that around one sixth of England’s country houses, some 1,200 in all, were demolished.

Easton does, though, have a lasting memorial to the Hall’s former glory in the form of an eccentric boundary wall, which runs all the way to All Saints Church and surrounds three sides of the graveyard. Built in the 1830s and reputed to be the longest wall of its type in the world, at its prime it stretched some 2.5 miles, although now its longest continuous section runs for three-quarters of a mile. It was designed to ensure that the Duke and Duchess could walk to church unobserved and made the headlines in November 2013 when a hit-and-run motorist drove into it, knocking down a section.

What is distinctive about Easton’s wall is that it is wavy, sinuous, snake-like, with alternating convex and concave curves. It is what is known as a crinkle-crankle wall, defined by Nikolaus Pevsner in his Architectural Glossary (2010) as ‘a garden wall undulating in a series of serpentine curves’.

Crinkle crankle wall in Eye, Suffolk.

Crinkle-crankle is one of those wonderfully euphonious reduplicatives that appear willy-nilly in the English language, constructed from the word ‘crink’ which was used in the 16th century to mean twisting or tricky.

Pevsner associated this type of wall particularly with the county of Suffolk, and a local man named Ed Broom has undertaken to identify, visit, and photograph all the county’s surviving crinkle-crankle walls. To date he has documented 105, with a further five to be confirmed, of which thirty-two have been listed to at least Grade II standard.

However, crinkle-crankle walls are not peculiar to Suffolk. There are examples to be found in Whitechurch Canonicorum in Dorset and Egginton and Hopton in Derbyshire. Lymington in Hampshire boasts several, built thanks to the availability of cheap labour in the form of French prisoners, captured in the Napoleonic Wars, including one in Church Lane, marking the boundary between the lane and the garden of Elm Grove House.

Why, though, does this twisting wall design exist? It’s incredibly ancient — architectural records show that building continuous, wavy walls was a technique known to the Egyptians some four thousand years ago — but it was probably only introduced to England in the 17th century. Dutch engineers were hired to assist in the draining of the Fens to transform the marshes into farmland. As well as laying drainage and irrigation systems, they built brick walls, but to a very different design from that to which the locals were accustomed. Instead of a straight wall two bricks thick, the Dutch walls were only one brick thick and wavy. They were called slange muur, snake walls, and they were built to help solve a very specific problem.

Crinkle-Crankle walls in Country Life in June 1972.

Conditions in the Fenlands were challenging. The ground was notoriously soggy, wet, and unstable, making it difficult to build on, while the flatness of the terrain exposed any structure to the full force of the elements. With their shallower foundations, the Dutch designed walls proved more adaptable to the conditions and with their series of alternate convex and concave curves, offered less of an exposed target to the winds that blew across the Fens than a straight wall did.

An added advantage — and a counterintuitive one — is that it took fewer bricks to build a wavy wall than a straight one. This is because a curvy wall gains all the support it needs from its sinuous shape, while a straight wall needs to be strengthened using buttresses in the form of a wide footing or supporting posts positioned every few metres. A Texan mathematician named John D Cook has explored the numbers behind this phenomenon, and while you’d need A-level maths and physics (at the very least) to understand his full explanation, the basics are easy enough. While the length of the curvy wall will be longer than a straight wall covering the same stretch of land, the quantity of bricks used in its construction will be reduced by anywhere between twenty and fifty per cent, depending upon the amplitude of the curve.

The number of bricks used to build a wall became increasingly important after 1784 and the introduction of the Brick Tax. Initially set at half a crown per thousand bricks, the rate rose to four shillings in 1794, then five shillings in 1797, before settling at 5s 10d a thousand from 1805 until its abolition in 1850.

Crinkle-crankle walls weren’t the first trick put in place to mitigate the effect of the tax, though. Bricks were made bigger to reduce the impact, with Joseph Wilkes, a brick maker from Measham in Leicestershire, developing the Jumb or Gob which was twice the size of the standard brick. In retaliation, the government imposed a standard size on bricks in 1801, ten inches by 5 by 3, and doubled the tax rate on larger bricks. As the new standard size applied to the mould, the finished bricks were slightly smaller than before due to shrinkage in the manufacturing process. Strange, though, to think that the standard brick size we still use today came about not from engineering or manufacturing, but through taxation.

With bigger bricks no longer a way to dodge tax, the alternative was to use a design requiring fewer bricks, and thus the first half of the 19th century, with Brick Tax in force, became the heyday of the crinkle-crankle wall, most of the surviving examples dating to this period. Gardeners were quick to spot their benefits, too, many of which were built to run from east to west so that one side of the wall faced south to catch the sun. As well as increasing the area available for cultivation, the alcoves created by the curves acted as both a sun trap and a windbreak. Known as forcing walls, they made it easier to cultivate more exotic and fragile fruits, such as grapes.

Curvy walls, though, took longer to build and demanded greater skill of the bricklayer, two factors which meant that when the balance between the cost of materials and labour tilted in favour of the worker, the days of the crinkle-crankle wall were numbered. The perimeter wall at Holloway Prison, built in the 1970s, is a rare modern example.

Walls need not be bland and utilitarian. Perhaps it is time for a crinkle-crankle renaissance.

The former Holloway Prison site, with its crinkle-crankle exterior wall.