I like a bit of craft. I’ve been on dry stone walling and hedge laying courses, and afterwards really enjoyed trying to impersonate someone who knew what they were doing. I suppose I had the same kind of idea in mind when I signed up to a blacksmithing course in Devon over the weekend.

Blacksmithing 2
Blacksmith Manns

Earlier Manns were blacksmiths in the East End for at least three generations in the 19th century. I wondered if it might be a genetic thing. It turns out it’s not. Even if they were twice as naturally talented as I am at it, they would still have been as hopelessly impoverished as they were.

Predictably, for someone whose last formal instruction in this kind of thing was being banned from doing O Level woodwork, I was pretty er… average. It turns out you don’t just heat lumps of metal up and give them a good bashing. There’s measuring and precision involved in blacksmithing, for a start. Then artistic interpretation. All things I am comfortably an E for.

Having said that, I had a lovely time, made some twirly and functional artefacts, and was made to feel like someone who could make a very good blacksmith if only I had the time. My delightful fellow students all looked like they would make very good blacksmiths.

BlacksmithingOur teacher was John Bellamy, a bluff but kind and patient Northerner. This makes sense; I always thought Moria was somewhere under Yorkshire. John wouldn’t mind me describing him as apparently completely physically square. He would be more embarrassed to be described as one of the country’s leading blacksmiths.

These crafts are fascinating – they are a real bridge to our common past. Medieval apprentices would have been taught to use the same tools as my great great grandfather used in Cable Street, and which I now have a passing acquaintance with. I’ve laid hedges in the style used hereabouts since – goodness knows – the Iron Age? We too often lose that sense of continuity .




Newsletter No.25: September 2012

Run Fat Boy Run
September already. The seasons seem so messed up it has taken me by surprise, especially as we fled the chaos of our new house build to spend a couple of weeks in Italy, where it has been super scorchio. The wine was cheaper than ever and the food fantastic. I’m now like a brown whale.
Inspired by the Olympics I’ve decided the best way to lose some weight is to run, and the best way to do that is to enter an event. I’ve been staggering around the lanes hereabouts for the last few weeks, and am so emboldened I’ve entered the “Bath Half” marathon. It’s also a great opportunity to raise some money for a lovely little charity, Bees Abroard, who work with and supply African villages with beekeeping equipment. Sponsorship page to follow.

Rattle and Hum
We cut our meadow in between showers before we went on holiday, and I’m aiming to cut it again this weekend to tidy it up. If I were seeding any new areas I’d be making final preparations prior to sowing in October. We’re already selling a lot of seed, particularly Rattle, which folk are using as part of their meadow creation projects.

I want to incorporate some dry stone wall features into the landscape at Hookgate Cottage next year, so before our vacanza took myself off on a dry stone walling course on the Mendips. Like hedge laying, dry stone walls are as attractive as they are functional, with the further benefit of providing great habitat for a wide range of fauna. It’s the sort of feature we should all think about for our gardens.

Dry Stone Walls

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.

Dry Stone Walls

I’m off on a dry stone walling course in a bit, hosted up on the Mendips. Dry stones walls are an important part of the landscape design at Hookgate Cottage, and I want to build them myself, using stone recycled from the gable end of the old cottage. We’ll be using them to retain our meadow area as well as to create a modernistic undulating raised bed in the formal garden. Designer Phil Brown is a keen dry stone waller himself, and he’s quick to point out their practical, aesthetic and ecological virtues. They’re not just shelter for fauna large and small, but also great basking areas for cold blooded animals like butterflies and reptiles.
I’ve walked past this ancient section of stone wall many times over the years, on Pentire Point on Cornwall, and if I can create anything like this I will be ecstatic.
It has a very Cornish feel, of course, whereas ours will definitely look local to our bit of Somerset, but it’s southwest facing, as one side of the structure of our wavy bed will be, and I hope we can establish some of the same flora. The Birdsfoot Trefoil and Wild Thyme were particularly striking in this section, which explains why it was heaving with bumblebees and butterflies.