From inews.co.uk By Pascale Hughes
With examples dating back to Neolithic times, the Cotswolds are rich with dry stone walling heritage. On a course, Pascale Hughes sees if she can help to restore a pile of stones to its former glory
If you were to lay out in a straight line the 4,000 miles of dry stone walls that cross and divide the gently undulating Cotswolds landscape, they would be longer than the Great Wall of China.
Used for thousands of years to mark boundaries, provide shelter and protect crops and livestock – mortar-free and built by hand using local stone – they blend into the terrain like something that has been there forever, at least as long as the ancient oaks and misty valleys, and certainly longer than the honey-coloured converted barns and fancy cheese shops that make the area so popular among certain classes.
But, of course, the walls haven’t always been there. Every foot and inch of them, each of the millions of stones that make them, was broken up and laid by hand.
Unlike some stone wall courses, where the wall you construct is dismantled afterwards for the next group of hapless newbies, we are rebuilding a real stone wall that will stand in the landscape for the next 200 years – or at least a few, depending on how skilled we turn out to be at building.
Stone walling is undergoing quite a revival at the moment. Gerald Cooper, the 70-year-old dry stone waller who appears on Jeremy Clarkson’s farming programme, Clarkson’s Farm, is one of the stars of the show.
Many courses are booked out months in advance. Some people sign up because they have a wall in their garden that they want to repair, others because they hope to start doing it professionally, and some – supposedly me – do so for fun, as part of a (very) Cotswolds holiday package.
It can be, I am told, quite lucrative, and is as much in demand from people in Chipping Norton wanting walls to surround their pools and tennis courts as it is from those wanting it for more traditional reasons.
Our instructor is Richard Gray, a member of the Dry Stone Walling Association, with more than 30 years of experience in building conservation. He left an office job to spend more time being active outside.
“Dry stone construction requires a different, more complex set of skills than more common forms of building,” he says, “and there are both aesthetic and practical components to a successful structure, whether a restored old one or a newly built project.
“The structural components of dry stone construction have remained largely unchanged since the fifth century BC. It is a zero-maintenance, self-draining form of construction, sustainable, and often uses techniques which vary nationally and regionally. But knowledge about traditional dry stone walling, until recently, was in decline and taken for granted.”
On this course, nothing is to be taken for granted. It is not simply a case of putting one stone on top of another, but something in between completing a giant, perfectly balanced jigsaw puzzle, a piece of engineering, and a work of art, done in a zen-like state of concentration and with graceful movement – particularly vital if you are to avoid back strains.
Building begins by sorting through stones and placing large blocks as foundations, starting at a gateway. At its base, the wall will be about two feet wide, narrowing to fourteen at the top. This narrowing is called a “batter”. As the wall gets taller, it is filled in the middle with small stones and every so often a “bonder” or “througher” is put in to hold the two faces together. They are sometimes left sticking out to serve as a stile.
Each stone is tilted slightly downwards to the outer face of the wall to drain any water that gets inside. When the required height is reached, a row of stones is set upright to complete the wall. No cement or earth is used, so air can permeate the wall and it stays dry. A metre of wall contains roughly a tonne of stone.
As the sun rises then sinks across the dazzling sky, chasing away the mist lingering at the bases of the hills, a silence descends across the group, broken only by the knock of a hammer and the scratch of rock on rock as another layer is arranged.
The limestone in the sunlight is mesmerising, all shades of gold, green, luminous gray and blue, from aging, lichens and mosses. By the end of the day, what was a collapsed jumble when we arrived now looks – thanks to Richard’s watchful eye and patient guidance – like an even wall again, a giant Jenga built in reverse, the satisfying structure of something visibly achieved. I’m beginning to understand where Richard is coming from.
So let me know if you have any dry stone walls that need rebuilding. My rates are low, but I’m not yet offering a longevity guarantee.