As we launch our Greentraveller's Guide to the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, writer Harriet O'Brien visits a farm near Tetbury in the Cotswolds to learn the craft of dry stone walling on a two-day introductory rural skills course run by the Cotswolds AONB.
‘They’re designed to flex like chain mail,’ said John. ‘Dry stone walls move gently as the land below them moves – mainly due to vibrations and rainfall.’ We looked along the sturdy wall to our right, a model of good construction with larger pieces of limestone at the bottom and an increasing degree of taper towards the top. Then we stared into the gap in front of us where wall building had come to an abrupt stop. We were to fill that gap.
I was one of a group of 11 who had gathered on a farm track near Tetbury to learn the craft of dry stone walling from an expert. John Hepworth runs his own walling business and for the past four or so years has also been teaching dry stone walling to novices, such as our party, on field courses run by the Cotswolds AONB. We were quite an assortment, aged from about 30 to around 75, some resident in the Cotswolds and wanting to learn how to shore up garden walls around their properties, others from further afield and attending simply for the joy of it – there was even one visitor from Australia. We had signed up for a two-day introductory programme, and had met John at a stretch of wall in need of repair.
Part of the appeal of the course is that while you’re learning you’re also making a genuine contribution to the landscape. There are 4,000 miles of dry stone wall in the Cotswolds, John said, and of course at any one time there are stretches in need of reconstruction. We were picking up where another group of beginners had left off, and two huge bags of honey-hued limestone walling material, each weighing a ton, had been newly delivered there for the purpose.
John first talked us through the principles of building a wall without mortar or cement. Effectively you create two interlocking walls, filled with smaller stones and supported at metre intervals by large ‘through’ stones that fit across the width of the entire wall. The top is capped by vertically positioned cope stones, weighing down the stones below and bonding the two faces. Gloves and hammers are supplied, the latter for cutting, or ‘dressing’, the stone where necessary – John pointed out that dressing weakens the stone, particularly given the crumbling nature of Cotswold oolitic limestone.
A reasonably built wall should last at least 80 years, John told us. It becomes a sort of living entity in that it will support diverse wildlife which lives in the gaps: slow worms, field mice, toads, even small birds, hedgehogs and bats.
Having absorbed the theory you start sorting the walling material into groups: large through stones, big stones for footings, general building stone and smaller infill stones. And then you’re taken through the building process, from laying footings to placing the cope stones at the top of the wall. Of course it’s slow going to begin with yet in the two days of the course you do create a dry stone wall. Admittedly it isn’t a very long stretch and it inevitably needs revisions from your tutor here and there. But you leave with some basic new skills – and a huge sense of satisfaction.
Dry stone walling is the largest sector of the Cotswolds AONB’s rural skills programme. Since courses started eight or so years ago walling has proved so popular that in August 2014 a dry stone walling academy opened at the AONB’s headquarters at Northleach. Once you’ve completed the two-day beginners’ course you can gain further skills here, joining other courses that will give you professional dry stone walling qualifications that are recognised by Lantra, the national training organisation for land-based industries.
Yet it’s not only dry stone walling that has been expanding at the AONB. The rural skills programme includes a wide range of courses promoting other traditional crafts that have helped to shape the landscape. You can join a flax-making workshop, learn the techniques of Cotswold tile roofing, take a two-day beginner’s programme in lime mortar restoration on which you’ll renovate the walls of a dilapidated cottage. In 2014 a charcoal making course was introduced on which participants also gain an insight into sustainable woodland management and wildlife conservation. Scything, not only elegant but also a wonderfully effective way to mow vegetation, has been newly added to range; blacksmithing, too – in the form of a taster day course held at the AONB’s base at Northleach with demonstrations from an expert blacksmith and then an opportunity to try your own hand at shaping metals. Joining a course is not only a way of learning new skills, you’ll increase your understanding of the environment of the Cotswolds - and feel involved with the landscape, past and present, too.
The two-day dry stone walling beginners course is part of the Cotswolds AONB's rural skills programme and costs £99 per person.