Traditionally, Yorkshire men may be considered dour blokes, stoic to a fault, unpredictable, aggressive, arrogantly dogmatic. Take a few moments to visualise a Yorkshire man.
My mind sees a man with shirt sleeves rolled up revealing muscular, hairy forearms. Broad shoulders, tussled dark hair with 2 day stubble, a chiselled face. He is wearing heavy corduroy trousers pinned at the waist with a sturdy leather belt, his booted stance casual yet alert, he seems to have grown out of the earth. His most redeeming features are the brooding eyebrows that shelter a piercing, inquisitive gaze. You may feel attracted toward this kind of person, yet realise it’s wise to tread cautiously in case a heavy boot swings swiftly to displace your front teeth.
It may seem that Yorkshiremen care little for the human race, yet many are incredibly sensitive who understand nature in a deeply instinctive way. They see no need to be demonstrative. To sit and talk with these men is an experience to be treasured. They are wise keepers of our heritage.
Ken is one such man.
The arrangement with Ken was simple. Each Saturday I would toss a chipping hammer, string line, tape measure and A-frame into the car boot, collect him in Windermere then drive over Kirkstone Pass to Patterdale. We had secured an ESA (Environmentally Sensitive Area) contract to rebuild derelict field walls, 650 metres worth of field wall. The pay was nominal, the real reward enormous, restoring dry stone walls.
Dialogue was easy. ‘Morning.’ ‘Morning.’ ‘Ya’ll right?’ ‘Yep’ ‘Let’s go then.’
Ken taught me to build walls using limestone on field walls near Caldbeck, John Peel country. Limestone is so pleasant to handle, easy to shape, looks good and smells good. Our contract at Patterdale was entirely different, more complex.
The stone at Patterdale was a mixture of old quarry slate, river boulders and field clearings. These walls were constructed circa 150 years ago. ESA work requires total re-use of existing stone. Weathered slate in particular can become friable and shatters easily. This entails a high degree of delicacy that isn’t apparent with new walls where fresh slate, usually hand selected at the quarry, is used.
Foundations - Beginning at one end of the existing wall we would demolish a ‘day section’ right down to the foundation and begin walling. Some of the foundation stones were immense, with no need to replace. On other sections, that had suffered significant movement, we would have to excavate the foundation stones by hand, re-trench and relay the boulders. Like all structures, a solid foundation is essential and can’t be skipped. More walls crumble quickly because of shoddy foundations than anything else. Once a wall has been built it begins to settle. If the base isn’t solid the wall will buckle and belly outward as it settles. Over time this weak section will collapse.
Once the foundations were in place Ken would go to the sunny side of the wall in order to work with his back to the sun. Being the novice, I would have to work facing the sun, not a problem on a cloudy day, but squint factor on a sunny day is extreme. There was never any discussion about this, we merely assumed our side and got on with walling.
Stone Selection and Dog ‘Eds - Stone selection is a delight. If you have fiddled with a jigsaw puzzle, you will comprehend how difficult it can be to find the right pieces. Every stone has a place. With experience the eye can tell if a stone is ‘right’, in the early days stone selection is the greatest skill to learn.
Walling in the Patterdale valley was harder than any walling I have ever done. 50% of stones were ‘dog-eds’. The term is descriptive and derived from the shape of the stones, Dog Heads.
The mixture of dog-eds and slate was an awkward one, picture round balancing on flat, or vice versa. It doesn’t work without very careful placement. I wasted many fillers trying to balance these stones. Ken just plonked them down, the dog-eds remained firm.
As he worked Ken would whistle, a tuneless aggravating sussing. In and out, keeping pace with his breathing. Relentless.
‘Give us a break Ken. Your whistling is driving me mental!’
‘Seeessuurrrr sususu suuuuuuser.’
‘I can’t concentrate. Why don’t you go for a sanger?’
‘Suss suss sut…seh suh suh suh suh seh.’
Occasionally he would whistle on a rising tack, then simmer quietly whilst breathing in. Over and over and over.
I never saw him smile. He worked, methodically, carefully, never over extending himself.
Stone Placement - Stone selection and placement is the highlight of walling. Every stone has a place. Skilled wallers can identify the next stone, pick it up smoothly, flick it around in the hand, perhaps make a quick chip with the hammer, then clunk it into place. No further adjustment required.
The sound that a stone makes when placed is critical. Something akin to the difference between a bass drum and a snare drum. When a stone has a solid clunk it is placed correctly, when it has a chinky clinky sound it will need adjustment.
My favourite placement is with two hands on a medium sized stone. When sited there will be no movement at all and no requirement for a backfiller. I used to live for those moments!
Coursing - A ‘course’ is a layer of roughly similar sized stones. It isn’t essential, but most dry stone walls have the larger stones lower down. A well coursed wall will be indestructible.
Until I became more skilled Ken would often be a course or two ahead of me, this was a distinct advantage to him. If he had oddly shaped stones he could push them across toward my side then I would need to fit my stones around his.
‘Ken, you will need to slow down a bit until I get this next course up.’
‘Stop buggering about, you work like an old man!’ End of conversation.
Point made I would plow on whilst Ken ambled over to the car, proceed to lean against it and ‘take stock’. Ken was always ‘taking stock’. He would briefly ‘weigh up the situation’ then act. I would be expected to read his mind and get on with the job.
A hill farmer in that area had up to 20 working dogs. He never trained dogs individually, when pups were old enough they would travel with an experienced dog and learn on the job. During this formative stage I was Ken’s dog, it was up to my powers of observation to copy what he did, he made no allowance for my inferior walling skills.
Ken sighed often in the early days because I was such a numpty waller. When he sighed I knew I wasn’t up to speed, or I had used the wrong stone. He never once told me off, just allowed my part of the wall to fall down. He would then slowly step through the gap, pick up a few stones, place them quickly, step back through the gap and continue walling from his side. No words were ever exchanged during these lessons.
Fillers - When walls were first built gangs of men would wall constantly. Many would sleep near the wall to maximise their return. They were paid by the yard, skilled wallers would use little fill, it was time consuming to pack a wall, and the old adage ‘time is money’ was never more appropriate.
Some sections of wall had almost no fillers. It would have been helpful to bring in a few tons of fill, but we weren’t allowed, so re-cycling was the order of the day.
Consequently a wall with few fillers took more skill with stone placement because we couldn’t backfill the gaps. It was pure chance who got the most fillers. However, Ken never came to my side of the wall to use my fillers. He always made do with his lot. When you’re a Yorkshireman, that is what you do.
Ken loved these empty walls, it was the ultimate challenge to his unerring stone selecting skills.
‘No reason why we can’t rebuild this wall with the stone on the ground. The original wallers did.’
‘There aren’t enough fillers here Ken. I can’t finish this without more fillers.’ My peeved comments would go unheeded.
He was correct of course. Over time I became more skillful at preserving the fillers and only used them sparingly.
Through Stones - Most field walls have two rows of ‘throughs’. One about knee high and another approximately belly button level. Dry stone walls taper toward the top, so the lower ‘through’ stones can be double the size of the higher layer. This means that the lower ‘throughs’ are seriously heavy, requiring two men to manoeuvre the stone into place. I have split my finger many times during this operation.
Weak walls can stem from insufficient good ‘throughs’. These stones tie the whole wall together. Ken always insisted that the ‘throughs’ were placed on a perfectly level line.
Top Stones - Final pieces in the walling jigsaw, and some of the most important.
On fully collapsed walls it was difficult to filter topstones from walling stone. An experienced waller can tell by the mould and lichens, even the shape of a stone can be sufficient to set it to one side for use as a topstone.
Ken was a specialist at ‘capping out’. It took more than 2 years for me to be allowed this honour. Capping out requires a very sure eye and steady placement because the final courses consist of the smallest stones, easily dislodged if the topstone has to be jiggled around.
Ultimate Satisfaction - To step back and admire a well constructed wall is to reach the pinnacle. It does require the palm of a hand to be drawn down the wall before leaving. It is a ritual that remains embedded in my mind as I think of Ken proudly surveying a finished wall. He never left a wall without giving it a pat on the head.
Ken was 83 the last time I walled with him. He now can’t manage walling, but his legacy remains and will be seen by thousands of people for up to 150 years to come. Indeed, if you drive from Hartsop to Patterdale you will pass two of his roadside walls, and several of his field walls.
Of course, Ken is my father.