Dry Stone Walling – the world’s most difficult jigsaw puzzle

Earlier today I traveled to Dolebury Warren in North Somerset with Bristol University Conservation Group. The purpose of the trip (the group’s final trip of the academic year) was to rebuild a section of wall to provide habitat for various plants and invertebrate species as well as create a new boundary wall for an incoming flock of sheep.

Although I have tried my hand at dry stone walling (dyking) a couple of times before both in the south west and in Scotland I cannot profess to be any better than I was before I had even tried to have a go at this ancient past time. It could indeed be described as being the world’s most difficult jigsaw puzzle. One is faced with a multitude of possible stones to use and building the wall to some height takes a great deal of skill and patience, something that I do not always have in my possession! Nonetheless, by the time the group packed up in the afternoon, there was indeed more wall at the site than at the beginning and I feel we have at least made some small impact. I should as a side line thank everyone involved in Bristol University Conservation Group for what has been a packed and exciting year.

According to the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain (DSWA), dry stone walling in the country stretches back at least three and a half millennia, to action at the village of Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands, and the Iron Age brochs of northern and western Scotland. However, dry stone walls are found in many areas across the island of Great Britain, principally in places where trees and hedges will not grow easily for reasons of climate, elevation or soil type. Their primary purpose has always been to act as field boundary markers but they are becoming increasingly important for their environmental conservation value, claimed by both botanists and entomologists as furthering the interests of their study.

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So, how does one construct a dry stone wall?

We carried out what is known as the ‘double wall’ technique, although different areas have different ways of doing things, such as in Cornwall where the ‘Cornish Hedge’ – a stone-clad earth bank topped by turf, scrub, or trees and characterised by a strict inward-curved batter (leaning) – is used. The ‘double wall’ consists of building two rows of stones along the boundary of the wall at the desired width (we used twine to ensure the width remained (fairly!) constant through the entire length. Obviously the flatter the stones the better, although it is the nature of the activity that most stones are not regular by any stretch of the imagination.  These two walls are built up course by course (layer by layer) and occasionally tie stones, or through stones are used the bind the wall. Small stones are used within the two walls to tie the whole thing together and to ensure stability. On the top are placed ‘cap’ stones, although we didn’t reach that stage today.

It is truly a great skill and one has to have two things I believe. One, a good eye for recognising a useful stone from a useless stone and two, the time to be able to learn by trial and error which stones are useful and which stones are not! It is a skill and an art that is going through quite a renaissance in the UK, with a growing army of conservation volunteers wishing to learn. However, most do not go as far as those master craftsmen who dedicate themselves to the craft. Indeed, a nationally recognised certification scheme is operated in the UK by the Dry Stone Walling Association, with four grades from Initial to Master Craftsman. I have a great respect for those who follow in this line. I think I have discovered it is most certainly not my own individual calling in life but am pleased that there are people who can be proud to call it theirs.

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One thought on “Dry Stone Walling – the world’s most difficult jigsaw puzzle

  1. Yup, it’s tough! I used to do it, but was far too slow to make a living from it. And it is sooo tough on your back.
    In Wales, we too have hedge bank walls, called cloddiau (plural), or clawdd walls in the Wenglish/Welshlish 🙂

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