First some background info
Dry stone walling has been practised for thousands of years in our upland areas and it’s still possible to see the faint remains of those early walls. These would be smaller in area and would probably be around an early farmstead. We have the earliest examples of these here in Wales dating from at least the Iron Age around 2000 years ago. Perhaps even earlier.
Stone wall building obviously continued into the middle ages on a small scale however when we get to the late 18th century and early 19th century there was an explosion of wall building following the “Enclosure Acts” of Parliament. Basically an excuse for the land grab of areas which before this had been regarded as common land.
Here in North Wales, as in England, much of the land was grabbed by the wealthy or even the Crown. This resulted in the walls being built across the mountains, sometimes in the most bizarre and difficult terrain.
This gives us an idea of the age of the walls whereas before this it was very difficult to know just when the walls were built. The other interesting point was that much of the building was undertaken by French Napoleonic prisoners of war. This also coincides with the Industrial Revolution and the opening up of commercial slate mines which brought people from the land into urban villages and towns and in times of unemployment these men would turn their hands to building these stone walls for farmers.
Most dry stone walling today, apart from ornamental work, is the rebuilding of existing walls which have become dilapidated as farmers have given up trying to repair the stone work which can be time consuming. Instead of repairing they just stick up a wire fence which is much quicker and less labour intensive. Not only did this lead to losing the walls it also led to losing the skilled people to work in stone.
As with many old crafts, there were still people trying to keep the old skills alive, especially through Stone walling associations. However about 25 years ago upland farms were given the opportunity to go onto farm management schemes part of which were grants to rebuild old stone walls as these were felt to be part and parcel of the traditional landscape. Mainly as a result of this “new work” people have found it beneficial to relearn these old skills. So instead of losing these skills more people, and even younger people, have been attracted to becoming professional stone wallers
Into this picture step Mr and Mrs Baavet, alias Roger and Lesley.
We took over our farm in Baavet land 20 years ago. It was a traditional hill farm which had been sadly neglected for many years before our arrival. I had always had an interest in dry stonewalling, which was good really because we have numerous small fields which had miles of walls in a sorry state. In fact there were hardly any fields which were stock proof.
I went on a 2 day stone walling course there then followed some months of practice! But then we had plenty to practice on. Lesley and I enjoyed the art. I call it an art because the nature of the randomness of natural stone leads to a large element of “artistic skill” involved in the work. It’s not just brute strength.
As we worked around the farm our walls became better and better, well we think so. Not only did we hone our skills we also adapted our way of building. There are many different designs of walls and use of stone around the British Isles and some of the designs are the result of the nature of the natural stone. I won’t go into this at the moment. Let’s just say where we are there are some of the most difficult rounded stones to deal with.
When building a wall with 2 people its common practice to work either side of the wall, since both sides have to be faced. But this led to fisticuffs between us as to who had more of the wall, very much like, “Heh, you have got more of the bed than me”
So we developed a way of working where I work ahead laying the heavier base stones and several layers up while Lesley follows along finishing the upper layers. She also has a real artistic eye for finishing the top of the wall. In fact Lesley won a stone walling competition a few years ago.
Since starting Baavet we no longer have the time to do great stretches of walls by the 100 metres as we used to. We now do short stretches of repairs or more ornamental garden walls as per the photos.
So that’s briefly our stone wall journey..... so how do you set about stone walling? Well go on a course is a good start. But if you have any walls at home here’s a few basic pointers to try out.
First, if it’s a rebuild take your wall down. That sounds simple but you really need to lay the stones down and away from the wall so you leave a path to work in. In a perfect world you should lay your wall out flat on the ground working away from the wall so you can see most of the stones. But we don’t always work “perfectly.” I also like to make piles of small stones which will come in handy for pinning bigger stones in position.
In the picture below some of the wall has already fallen down.
Next, prepare the ground base by levelling off the soil ready to take the base stones which should be your largest stones to support the wall.
This is an extreme example of preparing the ground with a digger. We usually do this with just a spade!
Some people make a wooden frame the shape of the wall at either end then run a line between to work to. Then they move the cord up the frame as the wall levels go up. We tend to use a base line to get the wall straight and then move the line up the wall much as a brick layer does to get his line.
The picture below shows the string we use as a base line and also the large stones put in to form the base. You can also see that the stones on the floor have been set back from the wall, leaving a clear area to work.
All the outside facing stones from the base up should wherever possible have good “faces” that’s to say sloping down and out. This is important as it leads to rain running off the wall and not into it. Hence the term “dry stone wall.” This will lengthen the life of the wall stopping water lubricating the stones which would otherwise possibly begin to slip. It’s also very eco friendly since a “dry stone” wall will support a great deal of wildlife, including small rodents, many toads and even nesting for small birds.
Now it’s not always possible to get an outward, downward facing stone by just placing it on the wall you may have to pin the stone with a wedge stone from behind or under at the back. They should further be supported by packing stones in the middle of the wall.
Packing stone in the middle of the wall needs to fill it as completely as possible avoiding gaps, otherwise the structure will move as it begins to settle. This is a good place to put all that irregular shaped stone that you can’t use on the outer facing. The ugly stones, we call them.
This picture shows the facing stone and the pack stones in the middle of the wall.
The next important thing, and this is very important, as you go along the next level from the base upwards, always try to cover joints, just as a builder does with bricks or blocks.
This picture shows stone work covering joints above and below each level.
Wherever you can, build outside stones to go well into the wall and where possible completely across the wall otherwise there is nothing on the outer wall to bind it into the body of the wall.
When your wall is the correct height the last level to finish the wall will be with capping or coping stone. These are either laid flat or stones on their edges. This does two things. It protects the top of the wall from being knocked off and in the case of sheep it makes it harder for them to jump onto the wall!
You can see the capping stones running along the top of the wall in an upright manner.
This is an ornamental way of using slabs to top the wall.
And who knows in time you can build a wall like this.