The Arctic weather has been bad news for dry stone wallers. But snow does have its uses as Billy Topstone has discovered
There's been a dramatic change in pace in the dry stone walling world. A hard frost throws up an extra challenge in that any stone laying on the ground is soon welded tight to the earth and then, when loosened, has to be cleaned off before the stone can be placed on the wall.
An inch or two of snow is also more of an inconvenience than a project stopping event. A bit of forward planning and the provision of a large sheet can keep the stone both frost and snow free and work can carry on – even if it is a bit chilly.
But the severity of the weather stopped all walling like a train hitting the buffers. Drifting snow buried the raw material on my current job under a great depth and while snowed off I was asked if I could help a friend with a short wall to form an entrance way to a farm.
It was bitterly cold but he assured me he had been to the site and cleaned the snow off. "It's not too bad Billy," Boothy enthused, "There's only a few yards to do so the two of us will fly it up before dark."
I rather doubted this show of eagerness as it was –5C and there was a strong easterly wind blowing which was whipping up the snow and making conditions comparable with a spot in northern Greenland.
However, with nothing better to do than wrap a few presents by the fire with a mince pie and a cup of tea, I stupidly found myself volunteering my services for the day.
Arriving on the scene well wrapped up in multi-layered socks and thermals I realised my first mistake was my failure to bring some fresh gloves with me.
I found a pair in the back of the pickup but they were frozen in a solid lump wrapped around my hammer. I could now remember taking them off wet with snow a few days earlier and leaving them with my tools.
It is not an agreeable task forcing your hands into frozen gloves early in the day, wriggling your fingers to separate the frozen layers. In less than a minute my hands felt like they had been buried overnight under a stack of fish fingers, peas and ice cream at the bottom of the freezer.
"This isn't looking good, Boothy," I shouted over the wind. "The stone's getting buried again and there is no sign of any fillings that I can see."
"Ya soft puddin!" Just get that shovel and scrape a bit more snow off. They're there somewhere." His groundless enthusiasm was as positive as the temperature of my finger ends was negative.
"This bloke's insane," I thought as I scraped snow from the stone pile. "He's either very keen on his work, bored at home, or he owes someone some brass!"
Half an hour later, we were not making much progress at all. I had hit my frozen thumb with the hammer (which strangely did not hurt) and the snow had found its way down my neck.
I was debating throwing in the towel when my mind was made up with the sound of an approaching engine – it was Bobby Linepin, the local walling champion.
He pulled up alongside us lowering the window, studied the job for a moment and then shook his head slowly from side to side before driving off without a word.
I'm sure I heard him still laughing as he went down the hill in the snow.
"That's it Boothy! I'm off home. You are undoubtedly mad enough to chew nails and spit rivets. If I stay here any longer I think I may end up the same."
When I got home I warmed my hands gently and just as they returned to somewhere near blood heat I was reminded sharply about my hammered thumb. This expedition had been a disaster from start to finish. Fancy trying to work in conditions like that.
I put some soup on to heat and thought to myself that, other than its scenic properties, snow and ice had nothing at all to recommend it.
Shortly afterwards, just as I spooned the last of my soup, the phone rang. It was one of my customers.
"Billy, do you think you can come up and give me a quote for the insurance company? A car has just come spinning down the road and knocked me about 10 yards of wall down."
Now what was that I was saying about snow and ice being of no use to man nor beast...?