Updated: Dec 13, 2020
'Views of Cheltenham from Cleeve Common'
A curious title perhaps, but I wonder if you are able to differentiate between First Lift and Second Lift, Foundations and Footings. If so, you will have a sound grasp of dry stone wall construction technique.
The uplands of the United Kingdom are laced with these rugged stone partitions, creating hillside patchworks, defining property and protecting livestock. Aside from their practical utility, these stone structures are intrinsic elements of the landscape and their presence tells us much about the movement, employment and economics of the local communities that have lived, worked and played there. Using materials particular to the local landscape, often uncovered and disturbed by agricultural activity or quarrying, dry stone walls also give us an insight into the landscape's geology. From Scottish hills to Cornish cliff tops these walls have been created with the stone that was immediately available: limestone, granite, schist, slate, shale, sandstone. The beauty of these walls lies in their regional variations; the different techniques and materials employed demonstrating a culture of shared craftsmanship, passed from one generation to the next over hundreds of years. Despite the variety, all wall-builders adhere to one fundamental construction principle - no mortar should be used to bind one stone to another, hence the term 'dry.' In the absence of mortar, the strength and integrity of the wall's construction is the result of a carefully considered structural strategy.
There is much to be admired in an old stone wall - from an aesthetic perspective at least - dishevelled and crumbling en-route to its inevitable return to the ground; escaping the teasing winds to be swallowed up by the warm embrace of the soil from which it was originally extracted. There is a sense that such walls have finished their shifts, and though they might be a little rough around the edges it is worth seeking them out, for they have many interesting social and geographical anecdotes to tell anyone prepared to listen. The wall in 'Views of Cheltenham' is a good example, and it is walls such as this that create the misconception that a dry stone wall is a Thing-of-the-Past. However, construction techniques and skills continue to be passed on to new generations, to the future custodians of this craft, so it is not uncommon to see a recently built wall sitting proudly on the hill top. These new walls are no less charming and are wonderful examples of their makers' skills. Crisp new blocks, some level-bedded, some irregular, interlocking and packed down in a stone-scrummage, envy of the most fearsome forwards that Rugby Union has to offer. The new wall that sits on the ridge at Swyre Head in Dorset is a case in point.
'Lengthening Shadows, Swyre Head'
As a walker, I have always admired dry stone walls. The South West Coast Path in Purbeck would not be the same without their scruffy presence. Such organised randomness sits comfortably in the countryside, where more regular structures would seem entirely out of place. Often found in exposed positions, where soil conditions do not promote healthy hedges as natural boundaries, there is an evident integrity in the repurposing of the landscape's materials; a beneficial reorganisation. Up close, admire the arrangement of the stones, all different shapes and sizes with subtle colour differences contributing to the structural whole. Then allow your eye to follow the wall into the distance, hugging the contours of the land, defining farms, estates, grazing paddocks, arable fields and cliff edges. Stone garlands, draped across the shoulders of the landscape. Perforated by sheep-creeps and stiles, with signposts and saplings on the battlements, these stone boundaries support their own ecosystem and have helped encourage the biodiversity of the landscapes of which they are a part. A home to mice, voles, hedgehogs, beetles and bees; a propagator for lichen, moss, ferns, foxgloves and saxifrage.
These rustic structures are a tremendous help to the landscape artist, providing leading lines toward the focal point of a painting, or creating natural sight-lines that an artist can use to guide the viewer's eye through a composition. I find that they also introduce a level of detail that can act as a welcome counterpoint to a broader, more featureless vista. A common error to avoid is a propensity for walls (and fences for that matter) to block off the sight-line in a painting. In 'Lengthening Shadows' a solid wall across the width of the painting would have been a disaster, preventing the eye from moving from the foreground and into the distance. I wanted to make a feature of the wall, so the open aperture for the stile is critical, a window that helps the eye to make an easy transition from front to back. When I taught myself to paint I followed the instruction in books and videos (VHS....yep, I'm that old) of Alwyn Crawshaw, a popular, talented painter and a brilliant, enthusiastic teacher. At the time I found it rather childish when he exhorted students "If you're painting a tree, think like a tree," although I have come realise that there is much truth in this simple directive and remind myself of it when I paint dry stone walls. I make an initial wash for the wall, dropping in some subtle colour variations as the wash starts to dry, then depending on the patterns that the watercolour has decided to make I identify obvious shapes and start to define individual stones. It becomes a rather enjoyable exercise in building the wall - with minimal reference to the scene itself - by thinking about the next stone's shape that will make sense of the overall structure. In no time at all I have forgotten about the paint and brushes and I'm on top of the hill, breeze tugging at my cap, sifting through a pile of stones and playing countryside Tetris.
"If you're painting a dry stone wall, think like you're building a dry stone wall.' Thank you Alwyn!