I had a very jolly and remarkably sunny weekend on the Mendips on a beginner’s course on dry stone walls, hosted by the South West England Dry Stone Walling Association. Like hedge laying, it turns out the basics of walling are pretty straightforward but the practice is a real art, and there are different regional styles. These reflect local geology and use, from simple Brathay flags (flagstones set vertically into the ground) in Lakeland to the Cornish hedges I wrote about recently. Up on the Mendips the stone is relatively difficult to work with, which produces its own distinctive and irregular look.
I discussed the virtues of dry stone walls in that earlier piece; they combine aesthetic appeal with great habitat for wildlife, and of course they’re completely sustainable. Our group took down a partly collapsed section of wall to rebuild it, in the course of which we came across all manner of fauna, including toads and lizards. I was surprised the wall was “only” a couple of hundred years old, but of course that was just its current incarnation; the stones would have been used for a good deal longer, and repeatedly reworked. It was an odd thought to be leaving our own signature on the landscape in the same way unknown hands had done over many generations.
Sadly dry stone walls are gradually disappearing from the countryside. Our instructor Phil Smith reckoned on building around 3m a day. Us beginners could reckon on 1/2 to 1 metre. In the past, of course, there would be gangs of cheap farmworkers whose entire lives were spent hedging, ditching, and walling. Today a metre of dry stone wall is going to cost you over £40, as opposed to up to £10 to lay a hedge or £5.50 for wire fencing. Although there are grants available to cover some of the cost, and in the long run they are economically sensible, the initial outlay is just too big for most to contemplate and there isn’t the skilled labour on hand to tackle larger lengths. If we remember how to plant or build sustainably for the next generation perhaps there might be again. The farm we were working on is a modest 200 acres but has 4 miles of walls, or something like 6 years construction time if my maths is right.
The Dry Stone Walling Association are doing great things to keep the art alive though. Judging by the weekend, they’re keen, friendly and well organized. Some of us doing the course wanted to build a dry stone wall in their garden – like me – but others wanted to either take it up professionally or wall for pleasure with the Association at weekends. I can well understand the attraction for amateur wallers. It’s an immensely satisfying thing to do and gives you a decent workout (although not recommended for those with back problems!) in lovely surroundings.