Dry-stone walling 22.9.97 revised 25.5.02.
‘Morning, are you the three gentlemen from Honley? I’m Alison, the local secretary.’
We paused, turned and looked at a petite young lady cuddling a clipboard. Oh no, not here as well, I thought.
Peter took pity on her and replied for us all,’You could say so’.
I think he was trying to be ironic, but Alison didn’t seem to notice as she ticked us off her list. Crossing the road, we joined nine other bemused arrivals 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.
‘I think he’s angry about something,’ replied no one in particular.
‘E’ll ‘ave a stroke if ‘e’s not careful,’ said Geoffrey, getting a cigar going. We sighed, folded our arms and turned our backs on road rage, at least for the weekend. Safely on the grass verge, nodding wisely and feeling just a bit silly, we faced ‘the wall’ for the first time.
The blurb from the association suggested we needed no prior knowledge and no tools; just bring lots of old clothes 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 their ensembles were more thoughtful and coordinated and certainly more fragrant.
‘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. 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.’
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.
‘First thing is to knock it down.’
Right. We hesitated.
‘Get on with it then.’
So we did. Ten minutes later we had a twenty yard gap and a shallow trench. Not long to demolish something so old. Simultaneously, 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 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 southerner. Several pairs of male eyes glazed over. Beverly carried on working, but did she grin? Soon we were hauling and cursing the same as we began the painful process of learning under the watchful eyes of the instructors. We’d become apprentices.
Next, whilst the rest of us looked on, Beverly took charge of the maths, the design and the final fabrication of a framework of iron poles and wooden brackets. It stood over the trench like something you’d grow sweet peas on, only with a broad base and a narrow apex. 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
a professional. Lengths of string hung between the poles. What were they for?
With students either side, we then built two walls, connected by rubble, bucketsfuls of the stuff, discovered lying about or manufactured with a hammer. Great care was needed when positioning each new stone. First, to overlay the stone joints of the course below, and second, to show a nice ‘face’ to the outside world. Ah, that’s what the string was for. Its important that each stone fills up to half the width of the gap between the two walls, otherwise a nice ‘face’ is all it is.
‘Oh, and don’t forget to think of your next course above,’ directed Joan, a more mature lady waller. Everyone knows odd-shaped stones can play havoc with your next course. As we built, so the string rose up the frame and our two walls came closer together, each with an inward lean or ‘batter’.
‘Who put that stone there?’ Beverly enquired, rather loudly, within four feet or so of Peter’s right ear. She didn’t really expect a reply, did she? A description of the stone’s inadequacies shortly followed. Had she time for her students just then, Peter in particular, she would have noted the hallmarks of guilt. A slight down and out glance and a certain pursing of the lips.
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.
The instructors were good with stones though. They all 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?’
Strange how people can get possessive over a boulder,
‘I was keeping that for later.’
‘Were you, what for, its an ugly brute?’
Apparently in competitions, wall builders have been known to come to blows. There are however ugly stones which don’t seem to fit anywhere. You can either knock lumps off them to get the shape you want – not the purists favoured tactic – or smash them up for the bucket.
Taking a rest was allowed. Searching, bending, lifting, placing once, then the other way, then back the first way again before finally throwing it is a tiring business, mentally as well. You needed a break from the thing to get some perspective.
‘Cool it Peter, its not important. She’s a bossy boots, that’s all.’
Peter was admiring his work from a different angle,
‘Not bad, maybe that first stone was a bit naff.’
At two feet we put on the ‘throughs’, which looked like flattish foundation stones to me. Ample packing underneath to prevent later breakage, and placement right across the width of the wall were the two key skills. The rule about being flush with the string wasn’t necessary, but, if too much stone does stick out from the wall, sheep have been known to use them as steps and do a runner. A case of woolly jumpers becoming high jumpers – ha, ha. The ‘throughs’ were the signal to end the first day.
There were some changes in the instructor line-up for the Sunday. Lawrence had gone to a harvest-festival. Was he vicar? He must have been something in that line, because I overheard him discussing church politics with the lady who signed us in the day before. Come to think of it, dry-stone walling has a quasi-religious, feely-touchy quality. I put it down to exercise and concentration – you get too tired to think. Beverly and Joan were still with us and Kenneth, the chairman of the local wallers was there too. When Kenneth came to your section of the wall, you felt you were in the presence of a headmaster. ‘He frightens me,’ confided Joan, and she was English champion.
We pressed on building over the ‘throughs’, raising the height of the wall to about four and a half feet. I worked next to Barry most of the day. Why did he keep putting crappy flakes of stone on my bit? He built too quickly anyway; couldn’t possibly be doing it right. I was becoming a tad precious. Was this part of the walling culture? Mm, probably.
Whilst Kenneth was an instructor, he also stood off a lot to get the total view. His was a strategic role, ensuring our efforts fitted the grand plan. Indeed, all the instructors were stirred by benevolent and noble motives, ranging from environmental preservation through to effective stock control. We apprentices were just trying to build a wall.
Kenneth took the lead for the last lap and showed us how to finish off with flat ‘cover’ stones topped by a layer of vertical ‘coping’ stones. The hammers worked overtime on awkward shapes and sizes – acceptable at this stage, even by the purists. Kenneth gave it a final 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, unaware,
‘He can stuff that.’ Yes, Barry I think he can.
At the end we’d done well and we were pleased. We’d completed our apprenticeship and it was time for us to become practitioners. Lawrence, back from church duties, gave a short complimentary speech, following which, everyone lingered at the wall-side. They didn’t want to go. Had they not had enough?
W’ed gelled, as strangers often do. You didn’t know them well enough to fall out and there hadn’t been enough time to get too sensitive about someone doing your bit of wall for you, Barry. Even I had to admit to being refreshed. It’d been time out, doing something new.
August 2000 revised May 2002
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?
Three years after the dry-stone walling course, a couple of things happened which put me in touch with a slice of this pre-factory life. First, cows came calling one morning in June at 6 am, announcing their arrival by mooing right under our bedroom window.
Our next door neighbour is a dairy farmer. His herd generally hops over into our garden in September. We spend a month or so shooing them out and mopping up the mess, and I vow to put my training into action and repair the stone wall between us. However, this year, the prospect of clearing up for four months was too much. I constructed a barbed-wire fence and rebuilt the wall, in the lee of the fence’s prickly protection.
We bought the fencing material at a specialist retailer on the other side of town.
‘Twenty five metres of barbed wire please.’
‘The sort that’ll keep cows out of our garden.’
‘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 now have a two hundred metre roll of barbed wire gathering dust up in the shed. We could fence fifty gardens.
Andrew and Chris had a great time helping me erect it. We’d borrowed a 50lb hammer from Babbins, the future limping moutain bike rider. I was surprised by how easily they both managed the thing and how accurate they were. I even held the last few posts with my eyes open.
I completed the wall in three weeks. Having started, you’ve to keep going. Every day, its still there waiting, unfinished. Because of the fence, I couldn’t keep swapping sides, so I did the outside wall ‘overhand’ and I didn’t construct a frame. Its good in parts, the last section being the best technically. And I’m very proud of it, thirty metres long, overlooking all of the top part of our garden. At some time I’d converted from apprentice to practitioner; we’ll draw the line at craftsman. Craftsmen built all those other walls I marvel at. There are so many, the different styles and those on remote and impossibly steep fellsides. How did they do that? There’s a chapter on walling in Marie Hartley and Joan 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 . . . In winter they earned a living doing odd jobs.’
So it was a hard job for long summer days. 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.
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.
There’s one unanswered question; why had it taken three years to get down to rebuilding the wall, and then, only after a crisis? After all, I’d retired in 1997. Should’ve had loads of time. Inertia maybe. Geoffrey came for a while when his wife sadly passed away. We completed the dismantling stage together, but never really got beyond the builder’s yard stage. He’d look doleful when lack of progress was discussed, muttering about the stones being non-regulation size. They weren’t what we’d got used on the course – large and flat. These were small, lumpy, awkward and disheartening. The most potent reason remains however. The wall had dropped out of my priority list, until the cows came that is, because I’d gone back to work part-time and started a university course.
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.