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Spend Your Holiday "Mending Fences"!

by Liz Hearn

When one thinks of the National Trust, one tends to think of buildings -- manors, museums, and simple cottages and town buildings that one can explore to learn more about Britain's past. However, the National Trust also owns the lands around many of those buildings -- including hundreds of miles of dry stone walls that surround those lands, marking property lines and fields. The Trust is committed to repairing, replacing, and rebuilding those walls to the old standards, so that they continue to fit the landscape.

Good Walls Make Good Vacations

Dartmoor Stone Wall If you're looking for a holiday that includes more than just sight-seeing, you can become part of this effort. The National Trust Working Holidays Program has a broad spectrum of countryside management work. The National Trust recognizes the value of the old styles of field boundaries and encourages volunteers to learn a new skill and share the experience of replacing and conserving old hedges and walls using the old ways. To build a new wall or replace an old one is to be part of the future heritage of Britain by honoring the old traditions. Plus, a week of volunteering will earn you a chance to experience Trust properties behind the scenes, along with an Annual Free Entry Pass.

Many of the old hedges and walls resulted from the Enclosures Acts of the 1750's onwards. The Acts encouraged land owners to farm strips of land in one place by joining together with neighboring strips of land, bringing efficiency to grain production. The General Enclosures Acts of 1801 and 1836 simplified the process of enclosure and allowed farmers to enclose common land or waste land previously unfarmed. Ironically the fences, ditches, walls and hedges defining the new enclosures are likely to have been built by poor tenant farmers who were dispossessed of their lands by the process.

The different regions of the UK use different styles most suited to the kind of stone or regional techniques handed down from one generation to the next. You'll learn a whole new language for dry stone walling. In Scotland they are 'dry stane dykes' and in Cornwall in the far south west, though made of stone, the walls are called 'Cornish hedges'. There are stones at the bottom called 'footers', stones that run through the wall called 'throughs', little stones to fill the middle called 'heartings' and 'coping' stones to finish off the top.

Cheshire Stone Wall

The different styles used in each region result from the different kinds of stone found in each area. Stone is expensive to move very far, so local field pickings are used first, followed by locally quarried stone. In areas where only large boulders can be found, the walls are thick and look rather jumbled up and chaotic. In areas where the most common stone is slate (which is thin and falls apart easily), you're likely to see the herringbone pattern of stacking plates of stone diagonally. This type of wall is seen most often in Devon and Cornwall. If the slate is more robust then walls are more regular, with the flat slate sitting horizontally. This is often used in the Lake District. In the beautiful Cotswolds area and parts of Yorkshire the stone is limestone, where the golden yellow color of a new built wall ages to a wonderful golden grey color. The regular-shaped stone makes regular-looking walls with even layers throughout. In some areas, there are not enough large stones to place at the top as coping stones, so different methods of keeping the water out of the top of the wall are used. Some regions use a layer of turf grass to keep out the water, which might otherwise freeze within the wall during the winter, and cause the wall to break apart.

The cross section shape of the wall is another regional design features. A dry stone wall is nearly always a combination of two walls standing back to back and interlocking with each other. Before starting a section of wall, special 'A' frames, usually made from wood, are positioned at each end of the section being built. Between the two frames on each side of the wall a string is stretched. This ensures that the wall does not deviate along its length but remains straight and that each course remains level as well. It also gives the taper width, or 'batter', of the wall as it gets higher.

Mending a Dry Stone Wall

A good wall has courses of stone that run horizontal rather than parallel to the hillside. This is best seen in the Welsh slate walls or Lake District walls, where walls can run straight up a steep hillside. The height of the wall remains the same but the stones are all horizontal, each layer stepping into the hillside a bit further as the wall goes up the hill. You always start this kind of wall at the bottom of the hill and work upwards.

There are some simple principles in building a wall using stones and no mortar. The bigger rocks go at the bottom and that the stones become gradually smaller as you move towards the top. The footers must be as firm and rigid as possible in the bottom of the foundation trench. This can be the hardest part of the job. Any slight wobble in the bottom of the wall translates to a big wobble at the top, which can bring the whole wall tumbling down. Stones can be wedged from the back to stop wobble as you work up the wall. This is preferable to pinning stones underneath the front, as these can be pushed out by frost. Each stone should try to cross the joints of the layer of stones below. If a tapered wall is being built, each stone should have a nice front face that slopes nicely with the wall. If you are using old stone, the facing side should be the one with all the moss or lichen, as this is the side that has previously seen sunlight and it makes for a nicer looking wall. You also need to keep the top of each layer as flat and even as possible, as this makes the next layer much easier to lay. A well built wall can stand firm for several hundred years.

Hedge-laying Hedge laying is an activity carried out in winter months when the trees in a mature hedge are dormant. The trunks of the small trees in the hedge line are cut almost through and the trunk pushed over so that it lies on its side along the length of the hedge. It is then passed in a weaving pattern left and right through upright stakes, making a basket weave. Each tree is laid on top of the next along the hedge. In spring when the new growth comes, the severe pruning the trees received causes new branches and shoots to fill in all the gaps with a thick, bushy, impenetrable hedge.

The primary tool for hedge-laying is the "billhook," a type of hand-axe. Each region has its own special shape and style of billhook. A Yorkshire Billhook has two cutting edges with long blades and a long handle, whereas a Staffordshire has a shorter handle and blade and a Southern Counties Billhook has only one blade. By the end of a week of hedge-laying, you will be able to wield a billhook with skill.

Choosing a Working Holiday

Working Holidays are a great way to experience an old estate from the inside. A week's volunteer holiday costs about 60. In some regions long weekends are also available. You stay in basic dormitory style bunk house accommodation in what is often a converted stable block or barn on the estate. Facilities vary depending upon location. In the colder months the communal lounge area often has a cozy fire or wood-burning stove.

The types of holidays are coded to allow you to choose the best project for you. You can choose which age group you would feel most comfortable with, or choose your preferred type of task, such as 'construction' or 'archeaolgical' projects. Task-related skills are always appreciated but not always necessary so novices are also welcomed.

A work team usually consists of up to twelve people, including a trained volunteer leader, who organizes the food and an evening social program. Most people attend a Working Holiday on their own or as a couple. This means everyone has to learn to work together to achieve the weeks task. You share cooking and cleaning chores with the group. Working outdoors and doing physical work builds up a great appetite so the food is basic and plentiful -- so don't plan on losing weight with all that extra exercise.

Lake District Dry Stone

The working day is usually from 9am until 5pm with a break for lunch and regular tea breaks. Tasks like dry stone walling and hedging are skilled, so there are expert National Trust staff to teach you the skills you need and then coach you as you try them out for yourself. The week is not all work, though. A half day off in the middle of the week often enables you to visit the local town and sights. There is also usually an opportunity during the week to visit the 'Big House' on the estate. Local National Trust staff members are very knowledgeable about their little corner of England. There are some interesting characters to be met with stories to tell if you have time to listen.

There is a huge sense of achievement to be gained in making an active contribution to conservation work. Working Holidays are a great opportunity to meet new people in a more interactive way. They are certainly a great way to make a connection with a place. At the end of the week you will have made some good new friends, learned a new skill and helped to maintain part of England's future environmental heritage.

Getting Started

The National Trust is one of the largest landowners in the United Kingdom. It owns and operates more than 300 historic houses and 612,000 acres of land including 600 miles of coastline. An annual membership costs 36 pounds for adults and is economic if you are planning on seeing 6 or more properties during your UK visit. If you join a Working Holiday for a week, however, you will receive a free Annual Entry Pass.

National Trust Working Holidays

The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers also offers a holiday program that provides opportunities to learn dry stone walling or hedge laying. They also publish books offering more information on this topic.

BTCV Volunteer Opportunities

BTCV Handbooks

Related Articles:

Holidays that Restore You -- and the Past, by Louise Simmons

Conservation Holidays in the UK, by Tracy Kramer

Conserve Your Cash and Preserve the Past: English Heritage and the National Trust, by Dawn Copeman

More Information:

Dry Stone Wall (Wikipedia)

Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain
A charitable organisation committed to the preservation of dry stone walls throughout Great Britain and to the training of people in the craft of dry stone walling.

Hedge-Laying (Wikipedia)
This article gives an interesting overview of different regional styles of hedge-laying.

National Hedge-Laying Society

Hedges and Hedge Laying in the South East of England

Liz Hearn is a British freelance writer from the Wirral. She writes children's articles and travel articles. Her articles have been published in Transitions Abroad and Highlights for Children. She lives overseas with her husband and small daughter and currently lives in Beijing, China. She has volunteered for the National Trust for 15 years as a volunteer leader of Working Holidays and has learned a new respect for the British rural landscape through active participation in its conservation.

Article © 2005 Liz Hearn Dartmoor wall © Moira Allen; hedge photos courtesy of Wikipedia.org; additional photos © John Bews.


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