It's all quite simple, really. You start with a wall that needs fixing. Most likely it looks a little like this, but perhaps a little more dilapidated:
Then you take it apart, stone by stone, until it looks a little like this:
Welcome to the weekend dry-stone walling course. It was my idea - a birthday present for my partner. (I am relieved to say she was delighted.) The courses are run by the Otley and Yorkshire Dales Branch of the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain (http://www.otleyyorksdalesdswa.org/), and they're very reasonably priced.
You start by taking the wall apart, laying all the stones out in rows for future reference. I should mention that we were dealing with millstone grit, a coarse and quite crumbly rock.
The problems begin when you try to re-assemble your wall. Number one, those rocks are heavy, especially the foundations. (You start with the big ones, and progress to smaller ones as you work your way up the wall.) Number two, you can't always figure out which way up the stones go - and in any case, that's always open to debate. And number three, there are rules. For example, you mustn't have wobbly rocks. You can't have one vertical joint above another. And you try to make sure that a fair percentage of the stones go deep into the wall - which is slimmer at the top than it is at the bottom (in our case the base was four feet wide, the top two).
However, you can modify a stone - mostly by grabbing a hammer and knocking lumps out of it. As you bang away you may see the odd spark, and smell a whiff of sulphur. You'll be glad they provided safety goggles. The lumps you chip off will come in useful as 'hearting' or in-fill. The shards or wedge-shaped bits are useful for 'pinning' a rock that might otherwise be unstable.
Fitting the stones together taxes the brain. I should imagine our group of twenty-odd folk could have mustered several degrees between us, but we did an awful lot of humming and hah-ing, deliberating at length over the best position for each and every stone.
Eventually, lunchtime arrived. I had prepared one of my favourite outdoor meals, a simple blend of grease, salt, and sugar: a pork pie, an Eccles cake, and a tomato for balance. It's a menu that has re-energised me on many a hike or bike-ride.
Slowly, course by course, we built up our wall. During a break on day 2 we were invited to stroll across a neighbouring field to take a look at what we might achieve if we were true masters of the craft. We managed not to be too disheartened.
Finally, sometime on the afternoon of the second day, our walled reached the desired height. We knew we'd got there because we'd used up most of the stones we'd laid out on the first morning - although there was still a remarkable number of bits and pieces scattered over the grass.
|Our new wall, ready for capping|
For the final stage we formed an orderly line, grabbed a capstone apiece and placed it on top of our impressively level structure:
As we stood and admired our work, I had to ask the course instructor the question that a few of us had voiced already. 'So I guess the next course participants take this down and re-built it, do they?' We were assured that this was not the case. It seems that the re-construction of walls on this particular farm was ongoing, and our work was expected to stand for many decades.
We thoroughly enjoyed the course, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants a different sort of weekend away. I have an unsettling feeling that we may have caught a bug. There was talk this morning of investigating a weekend in Malham, where we would be working on limestone. We shall see.