Dry-stone walling 22.9.97 revised 25.5.02 3/4/03.
One of my treats of an evening, is to sit next to an open fire and look at my dry-stone wall. It guards one side of the field we refer to as our garden. Vertical crazy-paving to a purist, an achievement to me. No, its more, its a miracle. A miracle it ever got built, and a miracle its still standing.
I enjoy this alone or in the company of fellow closet pyromaniacs. Amazing how many there are, and its not a gender thing. Unsurprisingly, Peter is one of them. He did offer to help me build the wall, but as we couldn’t quite coordinate at the time, he comes and looks at it instead. As the large red summer sun goes down we chat in fire light. Maybe even a glass of red wine each.
‘How long is it now?’ he asked one night.
‘Since you built it?’
‘Yes. You remember, we’d all that trouble with next door’s cows. His new calves always used to raid us September-time, but that year they came in June. The whole bloody herd on the back patio six o’clock one morning, mooing away. Couldn’t bear the thought of shovelling shit for four months, so I had to do something about the wall.’
We actually put up a fence first. Me and the child-bride drove across town to a fencing retailer and asked for twenty five metres of barbed wire.
‘The sort that’ll keep cows out of gardens.’
‘Oh, you’ve got that problem, there’s a lot of it about just now.’
The lady fence expert turned to her computer, ‘We’ve a special on at the moment – be cheaper.’
So we bought ten wooden posts and a two hundred metre roll of barbed wire. Had we got more posts we could’ve fenced another half dozen gardens.
Borrowed a 50lb hammer from Babbins, our friendly joiner with a limp. I was surprised how easily Andrew and Chris put it up. They got quite accurate with the hammer. I even held the last few posts with my eyes open.
I was even more suprised by my dedication to the wall, particularly as I’d just started a new part-time job.
‘Do you know, Peter, I’d it done in four weeks. But you’ve to keep at it.’ Every day, it’d been still there, waiting, incomplete. I was a mild obsessive-compulsive for a month.
‘Because of the fence, I couldn’t keep swapping sides, so I did the outside wall “overhand”. Didn’t bother with a frame. Just by eye. Last section’s the best, just there see,’ and I pointed to a bit that resembled what we’d been trained to do.
‘How long is it since we did the course?’ asked Peter.
‘Must be six years.’
He laughed, ‘Do you remember Beverly? I was in love with her.’
‘Aye I do.’
‘Morning, are you the three gentlemen from Honley? I’m Alison, the local secretary.’
We paused, and turned to a petite young lady cuddling a clipboard. Oh no, not here as well.
Peter took pity on her and replied for us all, ’You could say so’.
Difficult to say what impression he was trying to create. A touch of mystery maybe? Alison concentrated on the paperwork, took his answer as a yes and added three ticks to her list.
‘All here. You’re the last.’
We crossed the road and joined a small bemused group who were glancing sideways at each other. A motorist sped past at breakneck speed, horn blasting, suggesting with a hand and arm movement that we might like to step back onto the curb.
‘What’s up with him?’ wondered Peter.
‘Angry about something,’ replied no one in particular.
‘E’ll ‘ave a stroke if ‘e’s not careful,’ said Geoffrey, getting a cigar going. Safely on the grass verge, road rage behind us, we sighed and nodded and, feeling just a bit silly, faced ‘the wall’.
The blurb from the association suggested we needed no prior knowledge and no tools; just bring lots of old clothes, a strong pair of gloves and lunch. The men wore an assortment of boiler suits, tatty trousers and raggy pullovers, finished off with bobble hats and wellies. The ladies did too, but more thoughtful. Coordinated at the very least.
‘Right let’s get started, gather round.’ A tall clean-shaven man in a thick fairisle sweater, trousers tucked into walking socks, stood by the wall. ‘My name’s Lawrence and I’m the local coordinator. Good forecast for the weekend. We won’t get wet. Can we introduce ourselves and say why we are here?’
I searched fleetingly for the flipchart. Must be coming out later. My turn and I told the class about my broken down back-garden wall, an inadequate barrier to incontinent herds of large grazing mammals with wind. I received a polite if unconvincing laugh. Still, the ice was chipped a little.
Lawrence then summarised what we were about. ‘Over the next two days, you are going to rebuild a 25 metre section of this wall.’
Silence as the wall came under intense scrutiny. It came up to my chest and to be honest, for a moorland wall out in all weathers, looked in reasonable nick. It must have been two hundred years old.
‘The last course did that,’ Lawrence pointed and the difference was obvious. Several murmurs of approval. ‘Mmm, yes. Pretty good.’ Maybe we could do this?
‘First thing is to knock this bit down.’
Right. We hesitated.
‘Get on with it then.’
So we did. Ten minutes later we had a large gap and a shallow trench. Not long to demolish something so old. At the same time, a builder’s yard appeared from somewhere: buckets, hammers, and thousands of stones randomly dumped all round the place.
Beverly, a slightly made young lady who told us she built walls for a living, took over. ‘Foundation stones go in like this,’ and she demonstrated.
Now foundation stones are big, awkward and heavy and resist being moved about. Didn’t seem to deter Bev. Pretty soon, she’d picked up and placed half her own weight in rock along the trench. She could’ve lifted stones for England.
‘How does she do that?’ whispered a young man with a cockney accent. Several pairs of male eyes glazed over. Beverly worked on, apparently preoccupied, but the corners of her mouth moved up slightly. Not averse to a spot of admiration then.
‘Now its your turn.’
We hauled and cursed, the women too. Our first tentative steps. Apprentices under the watchful eyes of instructors.
‘Hang on a sec,’ said Lawrence suddenly.
We backed off. Beverly seemed to be consulting with the rest of the teaching staff, performing calculations and making designs. Then she was doing it. Erecting two frames of iron poles and wooden brackets. Hammering them into the ground. Attaching lengths of string. Ah, in full flow she was a wondrous sight. Finished, the frames stood over the trench like something you’d grow sweet peas on, only wider at the bottom than at the top.
Lawrence took charge again, ‘Divide into two groups one either side. Here’s what we do now.’ He got a piece of stone and placed it on the foundations, and then another next to it and then another next to that. In no time, apparently effortless, he’d a snug fitting line of them. ‘Off you go.’
‘What do we do?’ asked a bloke on the far side.
‘You do the same. Its really two walls you see.’
Oh, right, obvious. We all got started somehow. Neither quick nor effortless. Embarrassed and nervous. Chatter and laughter. Introductions forgotten. Reacquaintance with the person next to you, and the instructors.
Joan, a shy mature lady waller, began to help our section along.
‘You’ve to cover the stone joints and make sure it fills half the gap otherwise all you’ve got is a face wall.’
‘Sorry Joan, give us a clue.’
Joan moved my latest effort two inches to the left and clockwise twenty five degrees. It now touched Barry’s wall opposite and showed the outside world a smooth flat surface parallel to the string that hung between the two poles. Easy.
‘What do we do with the gap?’ asked Barry.
‘You fill it with rubble, the small bits lying about. That’s what the buckets are for.’
Course they were. I got another stone and placed it, ‘Dave, it’ll not do. You’ve to think of your next course. See the top. Too big. You’ll never get over it.’ I took her word for it and got another.
‘I didn’t know you were coming,’ I said to Barry. We sang in the same choir.
‘How could you?’ He smiled.
True enough, ‘Its good here, isn’t it?’
‘Have you a wall, Barry?’
I gave it a rest then, the wall was hard enough.
‘Don’t forget your filling,’ said Joan.
‘I’ll go find some,’ my back needed a rest and I wandered away with the bucket. There wasn’t much loose stuff about so I collared the nearest staff member, a bloke with a white beard and a boiler suit. He seemed amused, unsheathed his hammer and picked up the nearest stone. I got the point.
I struggled with the my next bit of wall and came to a full stop.
Mild-mannered Joan sounded annoyed, ‘I said not to forget your next course. This one here,’ pointing to a stone in the level below, ‘is ugly, its too hard to get over.’ She replaced it perfectly and I was off again. ‘Its only good for fillers,’ she said and bashed the wayward stone with her hammer.
So we built, and the string rose up the frame and our two walls, each leaning slightly inward, came closer together.
‘Who put that stone there?’ Beverly inquired loudly, within four feet or so of Peter’s right ear. He was on the other side from me, a couple of wallers away. I noted his slight down and out glance and a certain pursing of the lips. There’d been a lull in conversation anyway, but possible censure produced a quiet stillness which Beverly filled with a full and detailed description of the stone’s inadequacies. Nobody was ever going to own up to it, certainly not the culprit who, had his eyes been open, would have been looking towards heaven. For a while after we kept an eye on Beverly’s whereabouts.
The instructors were good with stones. They had an uncanny knack of matching an unpromising looking rock with an equally unhopeful gap, often with elegant results. You knew there was a problem when one of them went walkabout,
‘I remember just the stone, where was it?’
‘I was keeping that for later.’
‘Were you, what for, its an ugly brute?’
‘Well you want it.’
‘I’ve had my eye on that all day.’
Strange how people can get possessive over a boulder, and just when you need it.
Joan told us, ‘They’ll fight over a stone,’
‘Who will?’ we asked.
‘Champion wallers at competitions. Its a dirty business.’
I didn’t know whether to believe her, but maybe they did. Enduring image isn’t it. I was going through a bad patch again when boiler suit and white beard appeared at my elbow. The laughter lines around his eyes creased as he leant across me, picked up my awkard stone, got his hammer out and knocked a corner off. Fitted a treat.
‘Thanks,’ I said.
‘Don’t mention it,’ and he walked off.
Taking a rest was allowed. Searching, bending, lifting, placing one way, then the other, then back the first way again before finally rejecting is a tiring business, mentally as well. You needed a break from the thing to get some perspective. I spotted Peter stood back from the wall, admiring his work from a different angle,
‘Not bad; maybe that first stone was a bit naff,’
‘She’s bossy,’ I said.
Peter’s beard curled and his eyes twinkled, ‘I like ‘em a bit bossy.’
We’d been too idle to prepare anything at home, so lunch was at the local hostelry. We were thirsty and needed the loo. No one had thought to provide one out on the moor.
‘Where do the women go, you know?’ I wondered.
‘I’ve seen them crossing over the road into golf course,’ said Geoffrey.
‘Have you now?’ Peter and I stared at the hunting pictures next to the bar.
‘Maybe they go behind the trees next to the observatory,’ suggested Peter.
After a short pause I asked, ‘How do they know which tree is ‘the ladies’?’
Another pause, longer this time.
‘Its a mystery,’ I replied eventually. ‘Shall we bring something tomorrow? We’re missing the craic.’
‘Yes,’ big smile from Geoffrey. Two pints of enthusiasm, ‘what’ll we have?’
We all looked at the hunting pictures, daydreaming of our favourite snap and how we liked it. Then the negotiation, who’d bring what.
It was more of the same in the afternoon, shorter and not as difficult somehow. Several trips to the golf course. About four o’clock, when the wall was two foot high, Lawrence called a halt, ‘Time for the ‘throughs’.’ They looked like big flattish foundation stones to me. Lawrence showed us how to take care filling the gap underneath to prevent later breakage, and for once they hadn’t to be flush with the string. ‘Not too much sticking out either, he said, ‘sheep have been known to use them as steps and do a runner. A case of woolly jumpers becoming high jumpers.’ Oh, how we laughed. Well, we made an effort.
‘That’s it, see you tomorrow.’
I’d have to root round for another pair of gloves. Today’s had got holes in the finger ends.
With the sun gone, it was getting chilly, so I put another couple of logs on, ‘I’m quite proud of it.’
‘It might sound daft, but I look at that wall and wonder about the blokes who built all the walls in the past. Hang on, I’ve got this book, I’ll go fetch it.’ Peter gave me one of those looks that suggested I was mildly insane.
‘Here, listen to this,’ and I read from Hartley and Ingilby’s book on The Yorkshire Dales, ‘”Often setting out in the dark the men walked miles to distant fells, earned 2s. 6d. or 3s. a rood of seven yards, regarded as a day’s work, and in order to addle a living ate their oatcake and raw bacon as they worked.” Sounds a hard long day. Didn’t work winters though.’
‘Didn’t they? Well yes, course not,’ Peter paused as he took a sip of red wine, ’I’ve just been thinking, if the course was six years ago and you built the wall three years ago, how come the delay?’
It was a good question. After all, I’d retired in 1997. I was back at college but still should’ve had loads of time.
‘I made a start with Geoffrey when Sue died,’ I replied. Sue was Geoffrey’s wife who hadn’t come round from a heart operation.
‘We completed the dismantling, but never got beyond the builder’s yard stage. Geoffrey came most nights at first. Then once or twice a week and then he stopped coming altogether.’ Geoffrey’d looked doleful when lack of progress was tentatively discussed, muttering about my stones being non-regulation size. They weren’t large and flat. They were small, lumpy and disheartening.
‘Once he’d gone, I lost interest.’
Peter sensed I’d wandered, ‘You’ll remember your pal Kenneth then?’
Sunday’s weather was the same. Aerodrome and limp wind sock at the bottom of the field, warm rolling foothills criss-crossed with walls just beyond, and, away in the distance, blue hazy Pennines. Behind us, the road and the golf course. You couldn’t see the observatory.
The instructor line-up had altered. Lawrence had gone to a harvest-festival with Alison. Beverly and Joan were still with us, boiler suit and white beard as well. Kenneth, the chairman, would be there later.
We didn’t need any new coaching; we simply pressed on and built over the ‘throughs’, raising the height of the wall to about four and a half feet. The higher we got, the smaller the stones. Great for the back. For some reason, Barry had changed sides and worked next to me. Every time I wandered off, in search of a stone or to fill the bucket, I returned to find my bit looking different. I couldn’t work it out until Barry put a stone on whilst I was actually there, right where I was working. Bloody cheek! He built too quickly anyway; couldn’t possibly be doing it right. I chucked his crappy flakes of stone away when he wasn’t looking. Hmm, serve him right!
At coffee, thoughts turned to absent friends.
‘I bet Lawrence is a vicar,’ I said.
‘Do you think so?’ said Peter.
‘Well he’s got that ‘how-was-it-for-you’ about him hasn’t he? You know, head on one side, looking concerned. Feely-touchy?’
‘Mmm, maybe. You’re the doctor.’
This easy-going even-handedness was getting on my nerves, so I tried again, ‘Anyway, I heard him and Alison talking about church politics. They’ve even got it in religion. I bet he’s having it off with her.’
‘How do you know?’
‘They’re all at it, vicars.’
He took a sip of coffee, a bite of kit-kat, licked his lips and smiled, ‘Mmm, nice thought but unlikely.’
Kenneth arrived and introduced himself, ‘I’m the chairman’.
He was that kind of bloke, he had presence. Short, slightly balding, overbearing and a pain in the arse.
‘This section needs doing again,’ he said, pointing at mine and Barry’s. Boiler suit and white beard laughed.
‘I’ll help,’ he said.
‘So will I,’ said Joan, and pretty soon we were back on track. ‘He frightens me,’ she confided, and she was English lady champion. Dear Joan, you could just crush her.
‘Who’s the bloke with the white beard in a boiler suit,’ I asked her.
‘Gerald from Rochdale.’
That explains it then.
They say you store useless memories that rerun when you least need them. Kenneth was all the nasty schoolteachers I ever had, rolled into one. Beverly was a kitten at the side of him. Anyway she didn’t count because Peter fancied her.
At all times, we knew where Kenneth was. We did anything to get out of being supervised by him.
‘Quick, he’s here,’ said Joan.
Barry was up and off, ‘We need a bucketful. I’ll go.’
‘Gee, thanks. Hang on, I need the golf course.’ Gerald waved as I crossed the road.
And then Kenneth stopped coming.
Gerald walked over to join us, ‘Relax, he’s sat in his range rover doing paperwork.’ He winked, ‘Important man you know.’
‘Its all about land you see,’ said Gerald, ‘keeping animals in balance with the land. You look after them and the rest takes care of itself. Am I right Joan?’
‘Aye, we’re all green.’
‘Effective stock control. Environmental preservation. That’s what its about.’
‘And there’s me thinking we were here to build walls,’ I said.
I was idly gazing down the field at the aerodrome when I spotted Kenneth, twenty five yards away, bending over, in the posture one adopts when about to take one’s trousers down before alighting on the toilet.
‘Kenneth looks as if he’s going for a crap,’ I whispered to Barry.
Barry stopped building, ‘Aye he does.’
Gerald saw what we were looking at, ‘He’s checking our wall. How it fits with the walls either side. Whether you can see through it. Not supposed to see daylight through a wall. That’s Ken for you, chairman and strategic thinker, taking the total view.’
‘Taking himself a bit serious if you ask me,’ I said. ‘Hadn’t see him as a Ken,’ and I smiled to myself. Ken Wall, music hall act. Leading member of the “The Wallflowers”, a travelling band of percussionists. Played different makes of water closet. Strutted their stuff for years.
Joan grinned at me, ‘Whatever that was, you keep it to yourself, young man; you’ll get us into trouble.’
Lawrence and Alison returned after lunch.
‘See, I told you.’
‘Lawrence and Alison. Flushed and happy. Just out the sack. Its one festival after another for them.’
Kenneth demonstrated the final skill, flat ‘cover’ stones topped by a layer of vertical ‘coping’ stones. Hammers worked overtime on awkward shapes and sizes. Kenneth gave it an inspection, and for a moment, I thought he was going to give us a mark. He pointed to one of the coping stones, ‘That’ll have to come out.’ It was one of Barry’s who was standing next to him.
Kenneth walked away.
‘He can stuff that,’ said Barry.
Towards the end, all sorts of people appeared, with paper mostly, membership forms and flyers. Presidents, secretaries, chairmen, bureaucrats to a man, ‘Had we thought of joining? We’ve a meet at Cumberworth next week. What about helping with a sponsored wall demo at a show?’ I thought I recognised a neighbour in the crowd, which now included one or two motorists. During the day, the odd car had stopped and gawped, but the crowd attracted a car park. One of the bureaucrats was doing a roaring trade handing out paper. We’d become an advert and they were cashing in.
She’d a clothes factory in her garden and it was her husband who was a waller, and a champion and not here.
Two of the new arrivals were tidying up, piling loose stones.
‘Do it themselves,’ said Kenneth, ‘that’s the sort of organisation we are. I don’t need to ask, it just gets done.’
‘Frightened of getting detention,’ whispered Peter. You realise things in those moments. Kenneth fantasised about his leadership
Lawrence gave a speech, short, not too much touchy-feel. ‘Its a wall, well done. A metaphor for life really. Learning and doing. Making mistakes. Finally achieving something despite setbacks. Tired and happy.’
Everyone smiled at each other, so he must have judged the mood right. Alison handed out certificates and we gave each other a clap. No one moved then. We lingered at wall-side, wondering what to do.
‘Have you joined Barry?’ I asked.
‘Aye, I ‘ave. I’m going to Cumberworth and the demo.’ Barry pulled himself to his full height of five foot six was a joiner, a pleaser, even if his bit of the wall was naff.
‘Are we having one?’ Geoffrey was thirsty and bored.
‘Aye, we’ll call on the way back.’
‘What’ve you got on next week,’ inquired Peter, ‘Anything?’
‘No, nothing. Reading, I might write something.’ I said.
‘Its alright for some. I think I’ll retire,’ said Peter.
Our ‘BBQ’ broke the same year, the second of our mishaps. We’d bought it for one of mum and dad’s wedding anniversaries. As they hardly ever used it, we acquired it nearly new when dad died. After many years of use and abuse, its bottom fell out, and we struggled to find a suitable replacement. It was collapsible and portable and went everywhere with us, and they don’t make them like that now. So I thought I’d build a fire at the top of the garden. Not your garden rubbish bonfire. More your hearth.
That same dictionary defines a hearth as the floor of a fireplace. I cobbled it together from discarded bricks and a metal plate and to start with, I shifted it after each fire to let the grass recover. After every move you could see the wall from a different perspective. I read somewhere that traditional societies used their hearths for toilets and so villages regularly migrated, which was rather surprising and unromantic. Or was it because the fields were no longer fertile? Anyway, in keeping with tradition, my hearth used to migrate. It doesn’t any longer, its too hard, especially since the metal plate’s been replace by large rock slabs.
Not wanting to go over the top again, my hearth is more than a source of heat and a way to preparing food. Its a focus, a place to gather, where myths and legends are told and retold, a place where a traveller dreams of arriving. It could also be a place to rest and reflect upon a day’s work, or a life? In fact, its just the spot to rest after building a wall.
I recalled what Gerald had said. So it was. We don’t need to go over the top about this, but my walI connects me to them, especially the early 19th century builders of the enclosure movement. Tired after a hard day’s work on the land. Full of hopes and fears. In my dreamier moments, I try to imagine what they thought about their lives. Did they welcome the new farming methods? Did some of them even recognise that they were part of profound economic progress, the forerunner to industrialisation? Who knows? The truth is often mundane – so, like us, I guess they just built walls. Its making my head ache.
In my, admittedly small, encyclopedia, a wall is a structure of stone, bricks, or earth, of some height, which serves as a rampart, embankment, or defensive enclosure of city or castle. A wall may also be used to enclose or divide off a house, room, field or garden. So how do my efforts compare with these concise factual statements? Well we’ve not had a cow in our garden since.
Back in 1997, at the end a drystone walling course, I wrote about my fellow apprentices,
‘Whilst they learned new skills they had left their real lives on hold. They were tired from the hard physical labour and spiritually refreshed, knocking down and rebuilding a wall being an effective form of self-restoration. And it keeps an ancient craft alive.’
Was it a weekend for stressed executives? Or is this a pompous coded way
of describing how I was?
The thirty metre wall wouldn’t pass Kenneth’s standards, but is good enough for us, hasn’t fallen down yet and keeps the cows out. Its a grand thing to look at on a summer’s eve as the sun sets – and you get best view of it from the hearth.
Your base has to be half the height and your apex has to be half the base, not too hard, is it? Beverly made it look easy. Well, she was
Peter had the size and temperament of a hooker – the rugby variety. He may amply fill an outsize denim shirt, but he could still be competitive. His wife, Jean trained as a hairdresser and had her own business once. One of his regular pleasures, and he claims not to have many, was reminding us of how much money he’s saved over the years as a result of Jean’s talent,
‘Last time I ‘ad an ‘aircut, it cost me half-a-crown.’
To be fair, he’s always well scrubbed and neatly turned out. He’s worked for the same firm for twenty odd years and life is safe, if unspectacular and should have been full of serene contentment. Yet he was restless. He dreamed of balmy, reading, armchair days that never happened. He couldn’t sit still and when he did, he wondered why. For some reason, Beverley’s remarks would hit home.
There is a romantic view which suggests that life before industrialisation was much simpler and in many ways preferable to today. I’d picked this up during my latest spell at college, studying sociology. Stuck in a traffic jam or sat in a meeting at work, I’m inclined to agree. However, less complex, traditional lifestyles were also arduous. How many of us would survive without modern material comforts?