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England's Walls Are Tumbling Down : Heritage: Only a few professional dry stone wallers remain to repair the 70,000 miles of fence.

December 17, 1995|KARIN DAVIES | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BIGGIN, England — "Something there is that doesn't love a wall"--the freeze and thaw of winter, the clumsy lurching of cattle and the larcenous urges of souvenir hunters.

What Robert Frost wrote of the stone walls in his native New England holds true in Britain, where hundreds of miles fall to ruins each year.

Because no mortar is used, the stability of a dry stone wall depends on the skill of a builder such as Gordon Wilton. With weather-roughened hands, he tugs at the tons of stones he and his son painstakingly fitted together over the past two years to restore two 300-year-old walls bordering a lane.

He is disappointed. There is a loose stone--only one in 1,300 yards of wall, but that's one too many for the craftsman.

"Jason must have done it," says Wilton, 47, chiding his son, 19.

The pair are among a dwindling number of professional dry stone wallers. Just over 200 are registered today.

Jason Wilton is one of just two young men now training to become master craftsmen.

But there's plenty of work.

More than 70,000 miles of dry stone walls stretch across the English countryside, from intricate lattices across rolling green hills to straight and skeletal borders shooting along village lanes. It's nearly enough to circle the globe three times.

Stretches of wall, some of them centuries old, are falling down. About 2,500 miles' worth tumbled from 1984 to 1990.

Only 13% of England's dry stone walls are in good shape, 60% have seriously deteriorated, and the rest are piles of rocks, according to a survey by the government's Agricultural Development and Advisory Service. Farmers' declining incomes and a reduction in government grants for repairing walls are to blame, said David Gear of the Countryside Commission.

"What is needed is lots and lots and lots of money to give to farmers and landowners to repair walls," he said. "Millions are needed."

For generations, dry stone walls have pleased the eye, fenced animals, sheltered crops and wildlife. Lichens, mosses, ferns and flowering plants find homes on the walls. Nooks and crannies between the stones provide havens for small mammals and birds.

Silvery gray limestone fences formed a web across the hills and valleys of the Peak District, 150 miles northwest of London. Wilton has restored much of it to pristine order in his 12 years as a master craftsman waller.

"I'm building something that will last hundreds of years," Wilton said.

There's a ton to a ton and a half of stone in each yard of a 4 1/2-foot-high wall. In an average day, building a 12-foot stretch of wall, a man will lift six tons of stone.

But Wilton said it isn't brute strength that makes a good waller. "You need a good eye, staying power, determination and rhythm. It's a good tension reliever."

Starting a job, Wilton dons rubber-coated gloves, which will last just three weeks, and dismantles the damaged wall, discovering relics such as clay pipes, bottles and fossils. Then, with pick and shovel, he levels the soil for a foundation.

Using the largest stones as a base, he builds up. Small stones are packed between the large ones to improve stability. Halfway up, he places a row of through stones, long stones that bind the wall together.

The weight of the stones and the friction of their rough surfaces hold the carefully fitted pieces together.

"You need to know stones," said Wilton. "It's like doing a jigsaw puzzle. You have to pick the right piece from the pile. You've got to keep it as tight as you can, really knitted together."

Each stone must cover the join of the two beneath it.

The average height of a wall is 4-foot-6, as high as the base of Wilton's breastbone. With his thumb knuckle pressed to his chest, he scoots along a wall, measuring it for height.

"It's a bit daunting at first, but you just work one stone at a time."

Sometimes decorative or functional touches are added--a stile of jutting stones, a "bee bole" to shelter hives, a "lunkey" for sheep to pass through. Wilton charges 22 pounds ($33) a yard.

Arthur Flowers, owner of the 340-acre Biggin Grange farm, said that without government grants he couldn't have hired the Wiltons to repair 1,100 yards of walls. The national government has cut its contribution from 50% to 20%.

"We'd only do what we had to to keep our stock [in]," and might have to install cheaper, ugly wire fences, Flowers said. "That would be a shame."

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