One of the things I’ve been looking forward to most is learning the traditional practice of dry stone walling; my first lesson came sooner than expected. On Monday afternoon, I strolled down to Claverton Down where our team of volunteer wallers, headed by Kim, are rebuilding a dilapidated farm wall. The wall has fallen into disrepair primarily due to years of unmanaged self-seeded hedging plants, such as hawthorn, taking root too close to the foundations – or even between the stones – and destabilising the contact between the interlocking stones
Kim began by outlining the principles of dry stone walling. The type of wall being built is appropriately called a ‘double wall’ – a fairly typical structure for dry stone walls in the U.K. It is made from two rows of large stones with their flattest sides facing outwards. The spaces between the two rows are filled with smaller stones called hearting. The idea is that, when the stones are placed they have as many points of contact with adjacent stones as possible, fixing them in position by gravitational and frictional forces so there is no potential for movement. The foundation stones are usually set a foot or so into the ground and the stones being added to the outer walls become smaller the higher it’s built so that the wall becomes narrower at the top. All of these factors ensure the stability of the load-bearing structure of the wall – no human or cow should be able to shift as much as a stone in a properly built dry stone wall just by pushing it.
Then it was time for me get my eye in for stone selection and placement. There was a small section of foundation stones that had already been laid, so I started there. Firstly, one needs to locate and take note of the 3-D shape and size of a space that needs to be filled. Then, it’s just a case of glancing over piles of rocks – in this instance, stones recovered from the old wall – and picking the stone-of-best-fit. For those with an untrained eye, this can take some trial and error – and time. For masters of the wall such as Kim, however, the stone-of-best-fit is more often than not the first stone that they choose and if it’s not quite right they will find a better place for it. Ideally, one doesn’t put a stone back once you’ve picked it up. I am quite in awe of the accuracy of eye – it is not at all as easy as it may sound.
Kim and his team of volunteer wallers have been working on this bit of wall for the last 6 months. They’ve built about 40 meters of wall and expect to be working on this stretch for the next 5 years. It is a task that takes a lot of patience and commitment. I only managed to get about an hour out with the wallers, before it started raining and we packed up for the day – by which time I had assisted in placing all of about 4 stones, one outer stone and three bits of hearting. I like to think that my judgment got better as I went, but it’s probably a little early for that; any apparent improvement was likely to be fluke more than anything. We are very fortunate to have such a dedicated group of volunteers that come and work on the wall two days a week – so there will be lots more opportunity for me to work on mastering the art.