Learning the art of dry-stone walling in the Cotswolds

Luke's dry-stone walling

Luke's dry-stone walling - Credit: Archant

Learning the craft of dry-stone walling requires jigsaw skills – and occasional moments of Zen

Luke's dry-stone walling

Luke's dry-stone walling - Credit: Archant

“I was getting quite pleased with my wonky bit of wall in all its multi-colours. Then Janet came along and, pointing to a particular section, said in a good-natured way: ‘That bit isn’t quite right; you’re going to have to dismantle it.’”

Luke, a civil servant from West Oxfordshire, pauses as he recalls “the moment” last summer during his two-day beginners’ course in dry-stone walling in a quarry near Burford. Overcoming his initial pique, he followed tutor Janet Gaskell’s advice, undid his handiwork and started rebuilding.

“It’s a little bit Zen, learning to manage yourself as well as how to build a dry-stone wall,” Luke laughs wryly. “And by the middle of the second day, I had built something passable. I really enjoyed the experience.”

Novice views

Limestone dry-stone walls, among the special features of the Cotswolds landscape, date back 5,000 years locally to Neolithic long barrows, although most of today’s 4,000-mile-plus network was first constructed during the 18th/19th-century Enclosures of open fields and sheepwalks. In modern times many of these boundaries fell into neglect or disappeared, due in large part to changes in farming and land management practices.

On Cotswolds Rural Skills courses organised by the Cotswolds Conservation Board, ranging from beginners’ sessions to LANTRA accredited training, you can help repair and build walls that should remain landscape features for many decades to come.

Luke decided to try dry-stone walling as an outdoors antidote to commuting and office life, plus he wanted to replace a garden fence at home with something he liked better.

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After a brief introduction to the basics of dry-stone walling, he and his fellow novices began straight away by dismantling an old section of wall that was no longer fit for purpose. “That was really good because you understood what a wall needed to be by doing the building process in reverse.”

With instruction on tools (hammer to tape measure), stone sorting and recycling, laying foundations, building up the wall and adding through-stones for stability, everyone worked at their own pace. Luke was fascinated to learn about different features, from lunky holes at the bottom of walls to allow badgers to pass through, to Cotswold ‘cock-and-hen’ upright copings to top off walls.

“I had thought dry-stone walling might be a bit like adult Lego where [uniform] bricks fit together easily,” he says. “But it isn’t at all. There is a definite knack to getting your eye in and finding the right shape stone to place so that it fits with others, which I found difficult.

“I think we can get dry-stone wall blindness living in the Cotswolds because we’re so used to them. The course has made me look at walls differently, to respect them and the people who made them.

“The kaleidoscopic different colours of stones also struck me: I wasn’t expecting to make something that, to me, was so pretty. I revelled in getting messy and you really had to focus the mind; it was very therapeutic.”

While Luke admits that as yet he doesn’t have the time to replace his garden fence with a dry-stone wall, he enjoys being able to see the wall he helped to rebuild as he drives along the road.

Rewards of experience

Janet Gaskell originally trained in dry-stone walling on a Dry-Stone Walling Association of Great Britain (DSWA) course, as a “needs must” in 1984 when she bought a cottage whose fallen-down boundary walls required re-building. “I have been walling ever since, always in the Cotswolds,” she says.

Chalford Hill-based Janet used to combine walling with her job in higher education. Now retired from the latter she has continued walling to help out friends and family, and has worked for the parish council, as well as instructing Cotswolds Rural Skills courses.

“A lot of hobby people come on courses, but there are also people who want to add another skill to what they do, for example landscape gardeners,” she says. “There are still very few professional women wallers, but women shouldn’t be put off. You do need strength but I always say: if you are good at jigsaws, you will be good at dry-stone walling because it is a 3-D skill to see that a stone, which is a certain length, a certain depth, a certain height will fit into a space.

“It is very rewarding. At the end of even two or three hours you can see what you’ve done and it’s permanent – unless you stand back and decide to take it down because it’s not good enough, which I sometimes did when I first started!” (Luke’s “moment” is clearly a rite of passage shared by many budding wallers.)

Professional wallers today, particularly working on “posh walling” (as opposed to traditional field walls) can make a decent living, Janet says. For her part, she is content accommodating friends and neighbours.

“When I’m walling I watch the wildlife, for example deer when I was recently doing my brother’s wall which bounds a wood and field. Dry-stone walling also keeps me fit. I don’t think people realise just how therapeutic the work is.”

And there’s always that moment of Zen.

Cotswolds Rural Skills

To find out more about dry-stone walling, from beginners’ sessions to LANTRA accredited courses from the Cotswolds Dry-stone Walling Academy (run in partnership with the Cotswolds branch of the DSWA of Great Britain), as well as other Cotswolds Rural Skills opportunities, visit cotswoldsruralskills.org.uk or email ruralskills@cotswoldsaonb.org.uk.

Visit the Cotswolds AONB website here.