There are those who say the art can’t be taught;/you’re born with it or not, like second sight/or a twin clutching your heel….[From ‘Drystone Walling’ by Duncan Chambers]
Our field has a boundary drystone wall, over a quarter mile long, which winds its way to the wooded valley of the north burn, and has been in place for at least 100 years. It’s one of an estimated 125,000 miles of such walling nationwide, and the Pennines are where most are situated. You probably see them as an iconic part of the upland landscape; extracted from the earth they stand on, fashioned by hand, home to invertebrates and amphibians, shelter in a storm, historical boundary markers…Who doesn’t warm to the the sight of a maintained well dressed wall?
The deeds of the Corner House date from 1878 when the property was built as a shepherd’s cottage, along with two adjoining small barns and shippen, part of Southridge farm’s holdings. For the next century or so that’s what it continued to be, until sold and converted. Its large surrounding garden was created at the same time, parcelled up with an extra four acres of rough grazing. The owners would be responsible for maintaining that field’s boundary wall with the farm’s adjacent large meadow. And that’s why we’ve got the wallers in.
The middle section, which Jonny marks out at 50 strides, had worsened since I last walked it with him in the summer. He and younger brother Ben had a lot of work on in our region, and beyond, so we’ve had to patiently wait our turn. They finally rocked up in their 4X4 this back end, working solidly, dawn to dusk over a few weeks in testing weather before and after Storm Arwen. They methodically dismantled, sorted, laid out and reassembled the multi-sized grades of sandstone, supplemented with the odd lump of hard and heavy dolerite whinstone.
I wander across to talk to the brothers and admire their speed in hand and eye understanding what will fit, where and how. It’s a 3D jigsaw puzzle made solvable by the ingrained routine of a working filial relationship. They chat with me whilst carry on working, wielding chisel and lump hammers as they fit and place, with overlapping phrases, or sentences that one will start and the other finish, nuance and meaning enriched through the lilts and phrasing of the accent.
Both wear goggles and gloves. Jonny says he’d previously ended up in hospital A&E with flakes of stone chips in his eyes so sees the need to always wear PPE. They use a stash of plastic tubs that formerly held ovine mineral licks to store the smallest stones or ‘fill’. This they pack in between the outer facing stones that many wallers call ‘heart’ but which they term ‘middle’. The walls in our district are mostly constructed from locally quarried sandstone. Jonny points with some pride at a distant field wall – his first job when starting out as a lad some 25 years ago.
Over time dry stonewalls either move away from their foundations or – as in our case – the foundations move away from the wall. The task on this stretch is to reset the wall to where it was originally, securing it for another century or more. ‘What causes that shift to happen?’ I ask. The pressure of animal bodies (sheep or cattle) can hasten the natural attrition that a range of weather brings in its wake but in our case the main problem is the differing ground levels either side of the structure. Just a matter of inches, but on wet ground that’s enough difference to set the process in train.
On better weather days Ben had brought Daisy, his seven year old tricolour Jack Russell, a rescue dog of cheeky and determined character. (“Meet the Boss” Ben quips). After giving me a thorough bark and sniff going over she follows me as I walk on to cut an overhanging small tree threatening to topple fencing at our field’s end. On the way back, dragging branches for the chipper, she circles me with great excitement in fast flowing loops. Ben says Daisy ran a weasel down the other day when they were working away. He’s not happy about it but accepts that’s what terriers do and there’s not much he can do about it. The next morning Daisy appears in the garden, barking long and loud at the kitchen door…loosely translated as ’Where are you – we’re waiting’. I emerge, togged up for work and weather, and am closely escorted to join her human companions. ‘I told you she’s the boss’ laughs Ben.
I’m curious too to find out what sort of things are uncovered when walls are deconstructed. Presence of animals apart – birds nests, spiders, hibernating toads and so on – they’ve found many bottles and other containers, in whole or part. These range from inter-war ‘Eiffel Tower’ brand lemonade and ‘Beef Oil’ bottles, (a one time popular tonic, extracted from boiled beef) to stout bottled by Collins & Co, Dublin. Lots of local brewers too, soft drink and chemist embossed glassware and the occasional mineral water bottle. (Jonny reckons that the latter, once consumed, was likely to be re-used for other liquids until broken when it would find a final purpose as filling). They’ve also found early 20th century coins, which they believe were most likely placed as date tokens, on completion or repair. In the same tradition the guys have brought in some hardcore rubble to add to the fill mix and will in turn be depositing a bright new penny to date their rebuild.
The lads remain convivial and chatty each time I walk over. They’re much amused by my experience of playing a stonewaller on the radio, contracted by the late Nigel Pargetter in an episode of The Archers back in 2008. The stage manager doing the requisite spot effects in studio as virtual work on the imaginary wall progressed under the dialogue.
I volunteered to help as apprentice, or rather, their goffer. We’re still short of material to finish the stretch so my task is to retrieve as many stones as possible from the remains of our field end wall, long since replaced with fencing, pole and barb. The grass covered mound is situated on the field’s steepest slope so I’m using the kids red plastic sledge to transport the recovered haul up to a gate where the boys can drive down later to load up. I labour slowly to flip any wide big slabs excavated up the grassy incline on to the flat. They’re invaluable as through stones, helping to stabilise and keep the structure tight.
When the work is finally completed and the lads packed and gone I stroll the renewed length and identify with quiet satisfaction the uncovered brown hued rocks I’d contributed set in amongst the existing stock of lichened grey stones.
The brothers are rewilders at heart and comprehend the bigger picture outside their own rural occupations. They’re part of the wider nature friendly generation working for a more coherent sustainable future for UK agriculture. Members of an extensive local farming family both boys grew up on a holding just to the north of Hadrian’s Wall, below the Great Whin Sill ridge on which it stands, at its most remote and highest point. We speculate that might have been a factor in their becoming professional wallers. I ask how they manage working together as brothers and Ben says ‘We get along fine….As long as there’s a wall between us.’
You might like to know that Ben features as a contributor to ‘The Wall,’ a 24 minute long BBC Radio 4 ‘Open Country’ programme first broadcast on Thurs 16th Dec. You can listen or download here: https://ww