Back in the 1960s Ferlin Husky crooned the lyrics “Hello Walls, How’d things go for you today.” These lines came to mind recently while touring walls in England, Scotland and Ireland.
Through the Dry Stone Walling Association of Canada, a group of 18 from Ontario and the United States took part in a “Walk the Walls” tour overseas. This was not a touristy sight-seeing excursion, nor for the faint of heart or weak in stamina. We hiked through the backwoods and scaled the fells (English mountains). It was all about walls – ancient dry stone walls, walls without mortar, some of which have stood in excess of 500 years.
The on-line itinerary included a pastoral photo of numerous stone walls fencing off various sections of the countryside. My initial reaction was “If I could see that scene, for real, just once, I would be so happy.” Well, I saw it once, and 500 times after that, and we never once got tired of seeing it.
We were a particularly fortunate group as our three hosts were gentlemen who have been to Canada leading dry stone wall construction workshops.
Gavin Rose works for the British National Trust (similar to our Parks Canada). He led us on several hikes through the fells to show us some of the work they have done. One of the more artistic pieces was a sheep fold designed by a world renowned environmental sculptor, Andy Goldsworthy. This square had an eight-foot circle imbedded in each of its four sides. The circles are made of thin flat stones, and each circle slants a different direction (horizontal, vertical, and diagonal).
Dry stone walls are a double-walled construction. This showpiece was unique in that the circle inlay was only on the inside.
Our five mile hikes each day took us to ancient quarries, caves, bridges, and of course walls of every size, shape, and description.
One of our evening speakers was another British professional waller Andy Loudon. He indicated the English are very precise in maintaining uniformity when creating their walls, the Scots are not so meticulous (he refers to their walls as dykes), and then there’s the Irish – they’re “indescribable,” an explanation we would not understand till seeing them a week later.
While in the Langdale Valley district of middle England, Rose showed the group where a storm in 2009 had ravaged the countryside. The flood waters carried rocks and boulders from the waterfall and high stream all the way down the hill. The National Trust workers had to completely modify the area, building dry stone terrace retaining walls and foot paths of deep scree so they wouldn’t become loosened again. We also trekked past the house from the Beatrice Potter movie. Originally there was no fence in front of the house, but the film company wanted one to match the surrounding countryside. The National Trust workers erected a dry stone wall (which of course remained after the movie was completed).
In Scotland we toured the grounds of Balmoral Castle (the summer home of Queen Elizabeth), and the church she attends when there. High in the hills of the estate (some 50,000 acres) is a beehive cairn erected in memory of Princess Beatrice in 1885. On the very top peak overlooking the valley is a stone pyramid. Part of its inscription reads “to the beloved memory of Albert, erected by his broken hearted widow Victoria, 1862”.
Unlike many British tours, ours did not include castle after castle, in fact we only visited two – Balmoral, and an old ruins – Castle Knock. The heritage sign indicated “the traditional home of a Scottish Laird was a Tower House. Many like Knock, built in the 1500s, were small in scale and simply planned. They were usually four stories linked by a spiral stair.” The decorative corner turrets of the ruins remain intact. These formed a protective covering for the shot holes below. Under the window sills were also three gun portals – an interesting arrangement so that in defending their property the men could shoot left, right, or centre.
In Scotland our host was Norm Haddow. Some of us had met Norm during his workshop training visits to Ontario. The exciting thing about Mr. Haddow is that he has been building, redoing, and repairing the stone work on the Balmoral estate for the past 20 years. He’s well acquainted with the queen, and has a few cute personal stories from conversations with her.
Norm’s surprise, and treat, was to take us to Birkhall to rework a section of wall that he had been commissioned to repair. The Birkhall estate was purchased in 1849 by Queen Victoria for 10,000 Pounds Sterling. Prince Charles inherited the estate from the Queen Mother and it has been the summer home for Charles and Camilla since 2005. I believe William and Kate spent part of their honeymoon there last spring.
A small group spent a morning reworking part of a wall on the estate. We were of course hoping that Prince Charles would ride up on his noble steed and tell us what a great job we were doing – but that didn’t happen. However, we will always bask in the memory that not only did we dare to step foot on royal soil, but we also built a wall that will hopefully stand for several centuries.
At a 2009 Workshop in Grand Valley, Norm Haddow was an evening guest speaker as well as daytime instructor. During his slide presentation he showed how he and his men had repaired a wall deep in the woods. His pictures indicated some of the huge rocks they had moved using centuries old traditional methods. He showed where rocks had been taken from, and how they rolled them down the hill hoping they would come to rest at their intended location (some overshot the runway and went thundering on down the hill). It was fascinating, two years later, to be standing on the very turf where his story had taken place.
In Ireland we were joined by one of Dublin’s professional wallers, Patrick McAfee. Patrick had been the instructor for my group in 2009 when we built a structure called the Feidin Wall.
A ferry from the mainland took us to the island of Inis Oirr where we stayed for four days. It was here we saw stone walls of every size and description and, “you have to see it to believe it.” There are walls, high stone walls everywhere. Two depictions come to mind – at first I referred to the landscape as similar to smocking that your grandmother used to do on little girls dresses, but from a high vantage point the island resembled a waffle of walls.
Patrick runs workshops on this island, and is familiar with places where new walls or repairs had to be done. So here too, we reworked a section of wall and left a Canadian trademark on this Gaelic island.
If I have peaked your interest, there are some fine examples of stone walls closer to home. On this trip was a chap whom I had met in 2009. Oliver and Susan McLeod live in Toronto but also have a farm near Dromore. Oliver has constructed a beautiful curving wall using the ordinary fieldstone from his own land.
On the main street of Holstein is a flat stone wall with a beautiful green topping of sedums and hen ‘n chicks. Go straight through Holstein, pass over County Road 9 and turn right at the next sideroad. Less than a kilometre on your right is another magnificent wall made from local fieldstone which incorporates many small rocks. The builder of this wall has also taken courses from the Dry Stone Wall Association and recently travelled to Newfoundland to work with a renowned Vermont professional,
On Louisa Street in Harriston, Bill Van Sickle has constructed a field stone retaining wall for his raised vegetable garden beds.
Walling is a craft requiring total commitment. It’s a slow, exacting process and an abundance of material has to be available and close at hand. Stones “speak” to you as you search for the perfect fit. A hap-hazardly built wall will not be pleasing to the eye, nor will it stand the test of time.
Every Thanksgiving weekend is an event called Rocktoberfest where professionals, learners, active participants and spectators gather. This year it will be held at Hart Farm near Belfountain. Included on the substantial list of professional instructors from around the world are two of our overseas hosts, Gavin Rose and Norm Haddow.
Roctoberfest 2011 is a free event, and a walling extravaganza, planned for the Caledon Hills including an arched entryway to a proposed amphitheatre (plus music, crafts, and tours). It’s a huge undertaking and much of the pre-work, foundations, and stone accumulation, has already been done. When completed it will be a working showpiece for centuries.