Posted on November 5, 2015
When we turned up I wasn't quite sure how it was going to work. One wall gap of about eight metres in length, and around twenty five people, many of us complete novices. Was mending this wall - in fact building it up all the way from its footings - going to be all fingers and thumbs and confusion?
Rob and I have only ever helped out with walling on a small scale - 5 bodies, 10 hands, a gentle pace. Today was a little different. But we soon found out that the proverbial many hands did in fact make for light work.
A general introduction from John, who, as Jan from Friends of the Lake District pointed out, has been walling since he was a baby, set us on our way. Observe the wall. Follow the marking line of the taught string. Stagger the stones, don't step backwards and fall. Pick a buddy, stand on opposite sides and begin.
And that's what we did. Two lines of people standing shoulder to shoulder quickly fell into a rhythm of looking, picking up stones, testing them, placing them. Most times the stones worked, sometimes they didn't. Some stones presented challenges with lumps, bumps and uneven surfaces, others seemed to find their way into gaps almost magnetically.
We worked from piles of stones that came from the original wall, now tumbled and ready for a rebuild. When looking for the right stone you check the space on the wall: the width required to bridge a join between the two stones below, the flatness or lack of flatness, the depth needed. Then you look for the stone, hold a mental 3D space in your mind and transmit this to your hands, so that when they select a stone they have a feeling sense of whether it will work or not. You check for the face of the stone - the bit that will face outwards - and fit it into place. Gradually, the wall grows up, stones in place on either side and the space in between them filled with 'hearting' which is the waller’s mame for the small bits and pieces of split stones.
The wall tapers - this one was 26 inches at its base and needed to be 13 inches at the top (about breast height). To make this incline come about with ease the more experience wallers had set up metal poles angled towards one another and measured carefully so that the required width of 13 inches would come about at the top, and guidelines from string showed us where to lay the faces of the stones.
The rhythm continued. Most chat was about the shape and feel of stones but banter, of course, crept in around subjects as varied as growing vegetables and keeping chickens to Star Trek, Nigella Lawson and James Bond.
I had started the day befuddled and grumpy, having had a few intense computer focused days. I ended the day feeling as light as the clouds that had been drifting over us and skimming the northern Howgills. My mind was emptied of cares, my body was used, a wall was built ... I felt rejuvenated.
It is always revitalising being outside in fresh air, beyond the sound of roads, away from the straight lines or boxing-in of buildings, feeling the change of weather in the air - today a gentle cool from distant mist followed later by soft rain, and then sun. But add some physical, purposeful work with the land itself, hands and feet on earth and stone, and there's an inevitable feeling of wellbeing.
Scientists have begun to find ways of demonstrating a biologically measurable benefit of being outdoors using new developments in mobile electroencephalography (EEG)* but by far the best way to judge the impact is to do it for yourself. And we're lucky in the UK - opportunities for volunteers abound. Today's walling was just one of several work party events being run by Friends of the lake District open to volunteers on a first come first serve basis (others were tree planting, hedge laying, path maintenance, invertebrate surveying, vegetation cutting and stone drain clearing). And there are many other organisations that offer similar opportunities - National Trust, Woodland Trust and The national park authority nearest you.
If you've ever thought about it but not followed your curiosity, or thought you couldn’t make the time, it might be an idea to book way ahead, get it in your diary, and make it happen. Or maybe be spontaneous, and just get out today whether or there’s any work to help with.
hands and feet
earth and stone
fitting in place
Friends of the Lake District events are listed on their website with plenty of notice. Oh, and did I mention, there was enough cake to go round, twice?
Our leader, John works with the Dry Stone Walling Association and is qualified as a trainer in walling. He was one of several people there to guide us novices.
*Richard Dolesh’s article in the Ecologist takes a wander through the benefits of nature and human wellbeing, with references to recent studies.
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