Hearth and Wall 2000


There is a romantic view which suggests that life before industrialisation was much simpler and in many wayspreferable to today. 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?

Two things happened this year which put me in touch with a slice of this pre-factory life. Our ‘BBQ’ broke and the cows raided the garden in June.

We bought the ‘BBQ’ 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 built a brick hearth at the top of the garden.

The next door farmer’s cows generally hop over into our garden in September. We spend a month or so shooing them out and mopping up the mess, and I vow to repair the stone wall between us and the farmer. It’s been dilapidated since I tried out my drystone walling skills and never completed the job. However, this year the cows came in June and the prospect of mopping 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.

In my, admittedly small, encyclopedia, a hearth is the floor of a fireplace, whilst 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 fanciful notions of hearth and wall compare with these concise factual statements?

Some years ago I went on a drystone walling course, and at the end, 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”. Reading this now, it feels a bit like stressed executives having a weekend jolly.

My wall took three weeks of my spare time. Whilst unfinished, it was there, every day, waiting. I guess I got a tad obsessed with it, perhaps necessarily so to get it done. It’s more or less finished, good in parts, the last section the best technically. And I’m very proud of it, thirty metres long, overlooking all of the top part of our garden. Somewhere I had converted from apprentice to craftsman. And I think of all the walls I’ve seen and marvelled at. There are so many; different styles and those on remote and impossibly steep fellsides. My walI connects me to them, and the hopes and fears of the men who built them.

The best view of my wall is from the hearth. I cobbled it together from discarded bricks and a metal plate and I move it after each fire. The grass recovers, and I see the wall from a different aspect. I read somewhere that traditional societies used their hearths for toilets and so villages regularly migrated, unsurprising and unromantic. Or was it because the fields were no longer fertile? Anyway, in keeping with tradition, my hearth migrates.

So for me, wall and hearth are both practical and symbolic. Yes, a hearth is a source of heat and a way to preparing food. Yes, a wall defines and defends whats ours. But aren’t they something else? Isn’t a hearth a focus, a place to gather, where myths and legends are told and retold, a traveller’s daydream and  destination? Is it also a place to rest and reflect upon a day’s work, or a life? In fact, just the spot to be after building a wall.

Some people have an allotment or a potting-shed. I have a wall and a hearth.