Tuesday 28th April was an exciting day because, along with my friend and fellow Full Time Volunteer Zoe Caals, I got to try my hand at dry stone walling. We had been invited along by Heddon Valley Ranger (and resident dry stone walling expert) Dan Cameron to join his Working Holiday group (http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/holidays/working-holidays/), and I really couldn’t wait.
Now, you could be forgiven for not sharing my enthusiasm – I understand that patiently aligning broken rocks, as if some giant puzzle that had long lost its guiding picture, is not everybody’s cuppa! But it is something that I had wanted to learn more about for a couple of reasons:
Firstly, it is a traditional method of building walls without cement or mortar, which dates back at least three and a half millennia (according to the Dry Stone Walling Association http://www.dswa.org.uk/about-the-dswa.asp) – and I do enjoy a bit of tradition.
But secondly, it’s a pretty sustainable method of building, which uses materials from within the local vicinity and (if done well) can last for many hundreds of years. Consequently, I was really intrigued to understand how the National Trust is engaging with such practices to help maintain the health of local landscapes.
So, with shovel and mattock in hand off we hi-ho’ed – volunteers on a mission to reinforce tradition and develop sustainable practice within the North Devon countryside!
Yes readers, you have guessed it correctly… I started my journey with a totally romanticised and pretty unrealistic (although I am assured quite normal) ideal of dry stone- walling, which was very soon to change…
To give you some idea, this is what we were met with…
Just a muddy bank… No artistically aligning stones in the sun whilst bunny rabbits skipped merrily around our feet… just lots of digging!
And some more digging… In fact a whole morning of digging, until we had removed all the earth that had caused the wall to collapse and uncovered the massive foundation rocks. I never thought I would love the sight of a foundation rock so much in all my life!
The members of the working holiday (some of whom were old stone walling hands) were very encouraging and provided us with lots of support, and by lunchtime Zoe and I had managed to dig back, level with the rest of the wall…
So that afternoon we were in a position to begin the giant stone puzzle, slowly building up our courses (or rows of rock) – rebuilding the wall.
Dan – who has the patience of a Saint – helped us out with our first two courses and then let us loose on the third. It took us nearly an hour, balancing and cajoling, selecting and placing and then replacing… until: “Dan, Dan come and check it out”. We were so proud of our third course, expectantly buzzing around our mentor for approval… but his silence and the slightly amused expression on his face said it all… maybe a little more practice needed before our wall stands for the next 100 years!
Exhausted by the end, I had a really fantastic day. It’s a method of building that I hope to get more experienced at in the future, and for anybody who wants a taster of this kind of work the National Trust holidays are a great experience. Sadly, though I wasn’t able to help finish off our section of wall, but my intrepid partner Zoe limbered up for day two and shares with us her experience and the finished article…
I returned to West Lyn on Thursday with the working holiday group to complete the walling that we had started earlier in the week. I was paired up with Richard who had quite a bit of stone-walling experience prior to the holiday which gave me some confidence.
First, we finished off the section of wall that he had been working on before. It quickly took shape and we found some large rocks to use as cap-stones to finish it off. Hopefully this will give it sufficient stability to stay put and cope with any disturbance from animals. We also replaced some of the turf on top of the wall which should also help to hold it together.
We then picked up where Josey and I had left off on Tuesday. It still needed several courses and we were starting to use up our ‘good’ stones. We collected stones which had been left over from other completed sections, and got to work piecing it all together.
Some of the key things to remember were to line up each course with the one below and to have the front edges of the stones sloping down so that you aren’t accidentally creating footholds in the wall for animals. We found it also helped to stand back regularly to check that the course is straight and that the stones look well aligned. Perhaps the most important thing is to have patience as it’s a slow process (especially for beginners!).
Stone by stone we rebuilt the wall, packing the gaps with earth as we finished each course. Our huge heap of soil from the initial digging on day 1 didn’t seem to diminish though and there was plenty left over! It was satisfying to complete the wall and we then had the chance to go and admire everyone else’s work. Dan calculated that between us we had done 36 metres of walling – good work, team!
Words by Josey and Zoe; Photographs by Zoe