Today, in the second in a series of weird and wonderful English words, we investigate the delightfully-named crinkle crankle wall and the ha-ha, both landscape architectural terms. (If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.)
Also known as a crinkum crankum, ribbon, wavy or serpentine wall, the crinkle crankle (from Old English for zig zag, or ‘bends and turns’) uses an efficient number of bricks, usually one brick thin, to make a strong, self-supporting wall without the need for buttresses. While a straight wall built with one layer of bricks could tumble easily, the sinuous curves of a crinkle crankle resist lateral forces and are much more stable.
This construction technique was brought to Britain by Dutch engineers in the 1600s; the crinkle crankle is called slange muur (‘snaking wall’) in the Netherlands. The term ‘crinkle crankle’ became popular during the 18th century, when these walls were used primarily for growing fruit. They were built east to west so that their south-facing “pockets” would catch the sun and be more productive. Wavy walls can be found throughout Great Britain, although Suffolk boasts the most examples (50); the longest is in the village of Easton. Lymington, Hampshire is also a crinkle crankle hotspot. Among the several in town, there are two in Church Lane alone, one of which was constructed during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) by exiled Hanoverian soldiers stationed in the adjacent house.
Crinkle crankle walls, which are discussed in the 2006 book A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture by the aptly named James Stevens Curl, are not limited to Great Britain. Holland has many, and the grounds of the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, are famous for their Jeffersonian Serpentine walls. (Jefferson has been erroneously credited with their invention; he simply admired the benefits of the crinkle crankles’ design and used them extensively.) Cincinnati, Ohio incorporates steps in its massive Serpentine Wall, built in 1976 as a flood wall along the riverfront.
Back to Britain for another quaint garden feature: To go with those charmingly wavy walls, one needs a fine country house, with a sweeping view across chamomile lawns to a private lake bedecked with classical Greek folly. To shore up such a picturesque estate – and keep marauders out – one must, naturally, have a ha-ha!
A ha-ha is a recessed ditch in a lawn or garden that creates a vertical barrier to wildlife and vehicles without the need for obtrusive fencing, thus preserving an uninterrupted view of the landscape beyond.
Ha-has have ancient French origins. The royal forests or parks established by the Normans in England after 1066 used deer-leaps (saltatoria; or leapyeat on Dartmoor) — sunken ditches with one steep side surmounted by a fence. These structures allowed deer to enter the park but not to leave, thus ensuring a well-stocked hunting ground pour le plaisir de Sa Majesté. French estates began incorporating the ingenious feature around 1700 to keep grazing livestock from destroying their formal gardens, and the decorative yet practical ha-ha was born. The word “ha-ha” derives from the unexpected and amusing moment of discovery when the vertical drop in the landscape suddenly becomes visible. Ha ha! Cette allée-ci, ce que c’est drôle!
Beyond Britain, ha-has can be found in Australia on the grounds of former Victorian-era mental asylums, where they prevented patients’ escape while maintaining the illusion from the outside of non-imprisonment. In the United States following 9/11, a low ha-ha was installed around the Washington Monument to protect the structure by preventing the approach of large motor vehicles. Canada has two historic examples of ha-has, including Unlacke House, built in 1813 by the Irish-born Attorney General of Nova Scotia.
Well, three examples, if you include one that will never be found on Wikipedia. The house in Toronto that my grandfather built in the 1940s, which I visited often as I was growing up until it was sold in the ’80s, was blessed with a long, sweeping back garden affording a fine prospect of a lushly treed ravine. Admiring the view from the flagstone patio at the top of the lawn, you’d never know that Grandpa, who had English and Scottish roots, had built into that sloping ’scape a beautiful stone ha-ha!
Next time: We conclude our investigation of architectural oddities with snugs and inglenooks!