Dry Stone Walling: Nice work if you can find it
- Credit: Kerstin Rodgers
People in the Cotswolds like to remain mysterious - they don't want you to find them.
Twice I struggled to find addresses: the cottage where I was staying, and the dry stone walling course I was to attend. I ended up parked in a country lane, squinting at my phone with half a bar of signal, while desperately trying to find someone local to ask directions.
Most walkers are tourists and haven't the foggiest where they are either. In Hawling village looking for the Coach House, I finally spotted a local who pointed at a stone gate with the words faintly chiselled - Old Rectory. The gate opened and inside was a complex of houses, all honeyed limestone and yellow daffodils against unfeasibly green grass.
But which was the Coach House? I found one with keys in the door and ventured inside, Goldilocks style. It was beautiful. Huge arched windows, a log fire, a tiny stained glass window with sheep painted on, cosy bedrooms with fluffy cloud duvets, a green-painted ships' desk.
Struggling to light the log fire on the first night, we found a black crow hanging upside down in the chimney which added an Edgar Allen Poe vibe to the evening. "It must have been blown down by the recent storm," explained the housekeeper.
Dead crows aside, the Cotswolds is chocolate-box charming. No wonder Americans think England is a theme park. Everywhere you turn there is an Instagram-worthy view. At the end of the garden, two horses wearing fluffy coats wandered past a shepherd's hut reminiscent of the £25,000 rustic shed/office where David Cameron famously wrote his post-Brexit autobiography.
It snowed every day - possibly not the best weather for a two-day course designed to hone rural skills.
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A dry stone wall is like a jigsaw of stone, held up by architecture and engineering. "To put cement in a dry stone wall is a mortal sin," grumbled our teacher Richard Gray. A mortar sin even, I pondered. "The stone can't breathe with cement. The wall won't last."
"It's the most expensive boundary in the world; £300 a square metre."
I'm in the best place to learn; Cotswolds stone is a gorgeous pale gold colour and since the 18th century, dry-stone walls have carved the region into a patchwork of enclosures. But reaching the lesson was an obstacle course. The location, Notgrove Estate, didn't exist on Google maps. I noticed the postcode was slightly different, so I drove there. Nothing, nada, no sign. So I downloaded the app What3words, which took me down a dirt track, fearing for the underside of my Fiat 500. Some dog walkers told me another guy was also barrelling around looking for the course. Further up the lane, I saw a car backing up.
"'Yes I'm on the course too, I've had to reverse for a mile," said the driver. What3words led us to a field with a very long dry stone wall and several fields along, we found our group, who were taking down the old broken wall and sorting the rocks into piles. Face stones have one green side and are used for the front or the back. Pin stones are smaller and go in the middle of the wall. Foundation stones go at the bottom, spread over the two foot width. Coping stones are large and poke vertically from the top.
After several hours of moving stones in biting cold, I started to feel a little like I was on a prison-chain gang.
'And people pay to do this?' I muttered to myself.
A plumb line was strung up denoting the front, back and height. There were too many of us for the short length. When it came to building it, I found every time I put a stone in place, someone else would move it. I felt disheartened and in the end stuck to pouring the rubble in the middle.
Miraculously a wall was beginning to form, layer by layer. Sorting out flat stones and laying them (tilting slightly forwards, with pinning stones wedged in at the back)created a strong wall. If the stone had a bump which prevented it from fitting the puzzle, you use a hammer to gently tap along the grain to smooth it out.
Dry-stone walling isn't about brute strength, Richard explained, women are very good at it. You want to treat the stone like glass. When you know what you are doing, you don't need gloves.
"But I want you to wear gloves because creatures live within the wall: frogs, snails, stoats, lizards and they leave residue and excrement. If you get that on your hands then eat your sandwich you'd be very ill."
At lunch time I was grateful I'd driven through the field. All of us sat in our cars and ate our sandwiches. It was very cold and we were glad to sit out of the wind. Have you ever taught a celebrity? I asked Richard. He thought deeply: " I did do a quote for Kylie Minogue, she wanted a wall around her house."
On the second day I wrapped up even warmer and tried the What3words app which led me to somewhere completely unrecognisable. I simply couldn't find the course. As I said, people in the Cotswolds are enigmatic. Instead I spent the day wandering around the picturesque villages of Lower and Upper Slaughter, and Bourton on the Water. Top tip: don't expect Sunday lunch anywhere without booking, it's impossible.
The Coach House in Hawling can be rented from Cotswold's Hideaways. Visit www.cotswoldshideaways.co.uk/cheltenham-surrounding-villages/hawling-holiday-cottages/coach-house-hawling
The UK has over 70,000 miles of dry stone walls. Book courses via the Dry Stone Walling Association. Visit www.dswa.org.uk/training-education/