Ha-Ha: A wall is no laughing matter

Posted on: 25 March 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Basil Turner investigates the origin and purpose of walls.

The Ha-Ha wall is variously described as a walled ditch, an earth bank faced with stone or a "sunk fence". The clue is in the word 'fence'. Any exterior wall is a fence made of stone or brick, and any fence is a 'defence' against an enemy or intruder.

Walls are found everywhere, and their purpose, not surprisingly, is to separate something from something else. Why on earth does this particular type bear such a strange name? I submit that these walls are more likely to be funny-peculiar rather than funny Ha-Ha.

Let us take 'intruder' to mean any unwanted guest. The most common unwanted guests to the country landowner are animals, domestic or wild. Conventional walls may keep them out, but they impair the view. Some kind of ditch has to be created of a sufficient depth to stop ‘one's cows wandering into one's garden' and that ditch has to be faced with stone. But why "Ha-Ha"?

One story goes that when a certain gentleman was asked how he kept his stock away from the house, he pointed to his new wall. 'Wall, what wall?' queried his neighbour, 'I can't see any wall.'
' I'll show you.' And with that the gentleman took his friend to the end of the garden.
When finally the neighbour saw the wall, he gave forth a mighty "Ha-Ha".

I don't believe a word of it! He may have been mildly amused and failed to hold back a muffled titter: this might have given us a "Giggle Barrier", but somehow I doubt it. I doubt, in fact, that humour is involved in any way.

The accepted dictionary derivation is more warlike than domestic. In days of old when England and France were in more or less permanent conflict, the French were surprised to find such an unusual obstacle blocking their advance. The cry went out "Ha-Ha". I find this equally dubious, although I would find "A- Hah!" acceptable - exclamation mark (rising intonation and in a French accent). If, however, the name is simply a corruption of a French phrase expressing incredulity, this type of defence would be a "Sacray Blur" (Sacré Blue!) or even a "Mon Dew" (Mon Dieu!) wall.

Is there a third possibility? Could it be that the name originates from the landowner himself when first he saw how effective it was? Did he bllow a triumphant and drawn-out "Haaa-Haaa!" at an unfortunate beast trying unsuccessfully to enter his garden? Was his reaction more gloating than comical? Was it, in fact, a sardonic, boastful utterance? "Fixed you at last, you b*****. Now sod off!"

Ha-Ha walls still serve their purpose. The photo shows the top of one that guards the grounds of Bradeham Manor in Buckinghamshire. The whole of Bradenham village is owned by the National Trust, but since the manor house itself is not open to the public, its Ha-Ha wall now keeps out unwanted human intruders too.

Are all three explanations questionable? No barriers will be erected to stop you entering the debate. Simply e-mail your suggestions to: [email protected]

© Basil Turner 2006

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