Once upon a time, a short time ago (Thanksgiving) an energetic group of stone gremlins met in a fairytale place, and constructed an engineering phenomenon that would rival any glass slipper.
Fairyland was the Hart House Farm, deep in the magical woods of the Caledon Hills near Belfountain. This 150-acre tutorial farm was purchased 60 years ago by the University of Toronto and among other venues is used for student short stays, workshops, conventions and conferences. The ‘glass slipper’ was a figment of someone’s imagination.
Now let’s back up many moons ago (to May), when a group of stone wallers met at the farm’s dormitory for a planning meeting. As they sat around the board room table (picnic benches) many an idea was hatched, and like many good renderings, the original drawings were probably done on the back of a paper napkin. But all that put the plan in motion. From that napkin drawing, mental schematics were envisioned for a three-level amphitheatre with a curved and arched entryway.
The plan was accepted by the U of T, and it was all systems go for a four-day Thanksgiving “Rocktoberfest 2011” weekend. Rocktoberfest is an annual Ontario event sponsored by Dry Stone Walling Across Canada. According to John Shaw-Rimmington, President of the DSWAC, “The structures may be permanent or fleeting. They may be functional or purely aesthetic. Whenever we assemble it’s always a celebration, an event, the pleasure from which is shared equally by participants and onlookers. We believe the process is as important and entertaining as the final result. There will be risks, setbacks, changes in design, and many surprises along the way, but this is all part of the attraction of the Rocktoberfest projects.”
Fast forward to September when a work session was held with our illustrious leader Santa Claus, aka John Shaw-Rimmington (same jovial smile, same organizational ability, same white hair and beard – just a couple of hundred pounds lighter.)
Enter Hart House Farm manager Steve Warn, who was our fairy godfather all the way along. Steve, along with his tractor and various buckets and wagons, was instrumental in digging out the hillside to the tiered shape required for the amphitheatre seating. He also brought up numerous loads of rock from the abandoned on-site quarry. Even with all that rock it was still necessary to have a few extra loads of stone trucked in.
But hey, fairy tales stretch to the limit and so does the dry stack stone tale. The amphitheatre was to be built into a hill on the front lawn of the farm. Running alongside the driveway was an ancient dilapidated, well weathered stone wall. Every annual Rocktoberfest sponsored by the DSWAC runs a workshop for new students to learn the dying art. To rebuild this wall would be the perfect complement to the work of the professionals and growing ranks of skilled wallers.
A month prior to Thanksgiving a group of energetic elves (both male and female) gathered at the site to lay down the preliminary stone work. Santa explained exactly what was to take place and how it was to happen. Meanwhile another group of gremlins was tearing down the old wall, sorting the stones, and making way for the upcoming students. The projects planned for October were just too labour intensive for a mere four days, especially with the crowd of visitors who come to watch and ask questions. By the end of the second day the first seating tier, and the foundation for the “Venus” arch, were both well underway.
Following a week of cold, wet, and muddy weather, October 7 – 10 was sunny and unseasonably warm. With Friday, the first day of Rocktoberfest, came nearly 40 new elves and gremlins, and Santa’s workshop spanned the world. A couple more white haired and bearded professional instructors flew over from Scotland, and in addition more skilled craftsmen from Scotland, England, Wales, and the United States as well as points all over Ontario.
As at any festival, there were vendor booths and the DSW area which had pictures, books, t-shirts, cds and tons of information to entice a willing learner to a new hobby.
The Caledon Hills/Forks of the Credit area is a Mecca for dry laid walls, so there were maps and pamphlets for visitors to tour the roads and find these magnificent structures plus the red Cheltenham Badlands.
Saturday brought 24 new students anxious to learn the principles of constructing a double-skinned, dry stone wall. Dry stacked walls are simply ‘walls without mortar’ which are held together by gravity, friction, and the properly executed techniques of placing well chosen stones.
Another fairy who appeared was a bouncing brunette Cinderella from Vermont. Thea Alvin has the eye of a transit level, and on the top of the hill, overlooking the amphitheatre and pointing towards the Venus arch opening, she had plans for a telescope. The schematics to complete this structure took a little more than a paper napkin rendering, but in her head she had it all figured out. The six foot telescope incorporated a seating slab on one side.
As the hours toiled on – the wall rose, the amphitheatre benches became higher, the archway narrowed to the top, the telescope captured attention, and the “plinth” was started.
A plinth is a freestanding structure of any material. In this case the plinth was to be a mock door for the archway. It was the identical tear-drop shape to the Venus arch opening, but it was placed about six feet in front of the arch. It was also formed in the dry stacked method of matching stone. From inside the amphitheatre it looks as though Sampson came along and with outstretched palm pushed the door straight through and back from the arch.
To entertain the troops, a Guelph stone balancer poised stone upon stone. Some of these stones only rested on the one below by a thumbprint, yet they stood as statues. Imagination dictated whether they were man, bird or beast, but they made an impressive welcoming for visitors to the site.
Long hours of hard work were done to the beat of live music. In the evening there were films and presentations by renowned wallers and artists as well as social entertainment. It was during one of these social times, fuelled in part by great weather, good food and friends, and the odd pint of Rock Hammer Ale, that leader John had an architectural revelation. If the stone door was a Plinth, then the Venus Archway must be the Plinthess!
Everything had been planned to the nth degree. The climax was to occur Monday, October 10 at 2 p.m. when the structures would be completed, the area cleared and sod laid, the audience assembled, and a live concert ready to start.
After eight months of planning we were late! But by 2:20 p.m., Shaw-Rimmington gave congratulatory remarks and his thanks to everyone who had helped to make the weekend such a success… and a Celtic band started to play for the first concert to be held in the amphitheatre.
And that my friends, is a true story of how a Plinth and a Plinthess came to reside at Hart House Farm where they’ll live happily ever after.