DRY STONE WALLER
Neil Read is scanning a pile of old stones. He’s repairing a dry-stone wall above Herston; one that’s really showing its age. Gnarled ivy roots have undermined its structure. It’s sagging and bulging as if it’s lost its muscle tone. Metre by metre, Neil is giving it a face-lift. Where he works, the wall is in pieces, but he treats each stone as if it’s part of an elaborate 3-D jigsaw.
It takes a particular mind to be able to fit it all back together again. He tells me: You get a memory for the stones as you take the wall apart, and an instinct for which stone you need next. Sometimes it just flows, he says, and the pieces just come together perfectly. Now and then, Neil can’t find the best fit: ‘stone blind’, he calls it. A cup of tea and a break usually provide a flash of inspiration, and the problem is solved. It seems more like creating a poem in stone than a jigsaw.
It’s easy to take dry-stone walls for granted. They’ve marked out fields in Purbeck for centuries and they blend beautifully into the landscape. No mortar is required. The stones’ natural weight, together with through-stones, or ‘ties’, keep the wall stable. Their elegance is in the fit: the stones seem to lie at ease - in harmony - with each other and make the wall somehow stronger than the sum of its parts.
Neil learned his craft on the job. He fees easy doing it, he says. He likes independence; once he’s into his rhythm, he is completely absorbed. Neil wonders whether most people don’t think much about the walls until they see him working. They seem surprised, he says. Usually, they admire his work and want to know more. It’s as if they’ve made a sudden connection between the wall and the sedimentary limestone layers beneath their feet. This is the ultimate sustainable fencing; the raw material comes from nearby, and they are built to last. Well-constructed and maintained dry-stone walls can last for a hundred plus years.
Over time, nooks and cracks in the wall become sanctuaries for small mammals and insects or a perch for a skylark. Eventually, ground movements, livestock sheltering from the wind, creeping ivy, and the weather itself, wears it down. In one sense, nothing has changed; all the parts are still there waiting to be built back up again. There’s something timeless about a dry-stone wall.