Tag Archive: Yorkshire

Dry Stone Walling with Ken

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.

Ken and Luke

Ken walling with his grandson Luke in fields near Patterdale, The Lake District, Cumbria, UK

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.


Lakeland wallers made best use of boulders.
These walls were originally built circa 150 years ago.
Near Stonethwaite, Lake District, Cumbria, UK

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.

Internal Wall

Lots of Dog-Eds
Mid Section
random dry stone wall
Windermere, Cumbria, UK

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.

Short Wall

Recycled slate and random dry stone wall
Kirkstone Pass Road, Windermere, Cumbria, UK

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.

Wall End

Intake Wall End
Lake District, Cumbria, UK

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.


Ubiquitous Foxgloves
Dry Stone Walls
Lake District, Cumbria, UK

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.


Viola Sold Bread

Occasionally, as my mind veers toward a random moment, vivid images from my past rear up and I allow myself to luxuriate in the memory. I have noticed that sense of smell has played an enormous part in the strongest of memories. In fact, as I mull this over, sense of smell has been fundamental in all intense events of my life.


Viola Sold Bread

A few months ago I took one of my children, Rachel, back to the village where I was raised. A hamlet near Skipton in what was the West Riding of Yorkshire. With a tiny population of 700 it was impossible to be a recluse, a number of families, including mine, had lived in the village since the end of the last Ice Age, so I was told. The family had always lived in Plum Tree Cottage, a delightful place which seemed to me, an enormous property, always full of relatives, friends, dogs and the aroma of the ‘hanging pot’.

The ‘hanging pot’ was essentially a witches cauldron, left permanently hanging on a large swinging hook  by the fireplace. Any surplus food that came into the cottage was lobbed into the pot to stew, anyone who felt hungry would dip into the pot and eat. Whenever I walked through the door I could tell what was in the pot, the smell of rabbit or chicken, onions or carrots, simmering seductively and always a temptation. If I visited after school I was always given a bowl to fill and a lump of fresh bread to sop up the juices whilst sitting on a stool by the fire. Great Auntie Lilian was the matriarch, she had several sisters, Edith, Monica, Cissie, Sally and, youngest by far, Viola who were frequently in the house. I can distinctly remember one occasion when Monica and  Cissie were visiting, the three ladies were preparing afternoon tea, chattering and gossiping as they milled around the kitchen. I was playing under a table and they asked me if I wanted to share their sandwiches, precise crustless triangles! Amazingly I just couldn’t eat the darn things because of the smell, cucumber? I mean who eats cucumber sandwiches? I took out the cucumber, slipped it into my pocket in my den under the table and gobbled up the freshly buttered bread.

My daughter and I roamed around the village, visiting all my old haunts. I droned on about happenings at each place. ‘Here is the Tythe Barn where I first went to school.’ ‘This is the gate where I threw a snowball at Philip and smashed his specs.’ ‘This is the place where my brother was buried.’ It went on for an age, Rachel was sweet and polite enough to let me babble on, realising it was something that I needed to tell her for my satisfaction rather than hers. We ambled down The Wend where several family members used to live in small terraced mill cottages then on toward the Beck where I spent hours playing, or tickling for trout. Arriving at the final properties of The Wend my senses suddenly kicked into top gear and the smell of freshly baked bread was real. The memory of Great Auntie Viola’s bread shop came flooding back. Viola lived with another lady, they baked bread and cakes in their kitchen, then sold directly to the villagers from the kitchen.

Auntie Vi Bread Shop

Viola weeding under her ‘shop’ window

I remember well being given a thrupenny bit and told to go to Auntie Vi’s and buy some teacakes or bread. Teacakes the like of which can’t be found any more, teacakes fit for giants, bread that had a proper crust and smelled of, well, freshly baked bread. I would run down the lanes to the footbridge over the beck, through the snicket and up to the kitchen window. When bread was for sale the kitchen window would be open and the bread sitting on a table inside. If Auntie Vi was there she would take the order, otherwise I would call for her and she would appear. Running this errand was worth it for the reward, Auntie Vi always gave me a fresh scone with currents, they were often warm, she would split the scone with a bone handled butter knife, smear it with a great dollop of butter from the local farm. As I walked back to the house with the teacakes in a bag I would nibble on the scone, savouring the currents as if they were fruits made in heaven.

We stood at a distance admiring the old house, me engrossed in the story. Rachel nudged me and pointed to an elderly lady who had appeared and was weeding in a garden underneath the ‘shop’ window. She wore an old hat tied under her chin with a floral ribbon and a pale blue shirt. Could this be Viola? I couldn’t resist and walked up the path to where she was working. The lady had turned, now with her back to us and was carefully weeding with intense concentration. I called out a ‘Hello’, but she didn’t turn. I called again with the same result. She must have been deaf, so we left her in peace and walked away hoping this was Great Auntie Viola.

Our final stop was Plum Tree Cottage across the beck. We stood by the garden wall, resting our arms on the rounded top stones. I noticed somebody stand up inside and frown at us, clearly wondering why we were staring at the house. The lady came to the door and we engaged her in conversation. Nearly 40 years on I found I was talking to one of my second cousins, Deborah. Her mother had inherited the cottage when Lilian died and Deborah was now happily continuing the family traditions. She said that Auntie Vi had died many years ago, but the memories didn’t die with her. How satisfying to rekindle the origin of such a  fond memory.