Dry stone wall is champion piece of farm work

For Andrew Gammell, the last wall he built on the family farm was more than just a routine repair job. It was a kind of memorial for his father, who started to teach him the art when he was eight.

This week the care he put into it, assisted by his son and apprentice, Sam, was recognised with first prize in the Yorkshire Dry Stone Wall Competition of 2010 – the sixth in a biannual series started by the Country Land & Business Association (CLA) in the Millennium year, to recognise real-life walling, as opposed to competition walls put up and taken down to a timetable.

Five years ago, Mr Gammell, 47, lost his father, Philip, a lorry driver, while recently his mother Anne sold and moved out of Hey End Farm, the 10-acre smallholding where she and her husband brought up their children.

Before completing the sale, she wanted a 33-yard stretch of wall rebuilt. Her son, a builder, took on the job knowing it would probably be the last time he worked on the place.

He and Sam, now 17, spent a month on the job, using the mainly thin stones they had to work with from the wreckage of the old wall, feeling pleased if they managed two yards a day.

The judges from the Yorkshire Dry Stone Walling Guild would normally be impressed by features like lunkey holes, for dogs or sheep or shepherds to squeeze through, as permitted, or beeboles – shelters for old-fashioned woven hives – but in this case they chose an outstanding piece of plain work as best of more than 30 entries.

They noted the way the Gammells had kept the courses horizontal when stepping up the hillside, rather than simply following the contours of the land – which is an easier but weaker solution.

They loved the way the end-post came precisely vertically out of sloping ground and the wall butted up against it at 90 degrees, with no daylight showing through the join.

And they appreciated the hours of hammer work which had gone into making the outer faces flush and the joints tight throughout.

"A spectacularly good wall," pronounced Michael Booth, former chairman of the guild, on the ceremonial visit to the construction after presentation of the trophy – a crystal rock – in the Rose and Crown in Cop Hill, near Slaithwaite, on a wet and windy Monday morning in one of Yorkshire's dourest corners, where Huddersfield peters out into the Pennine moors.

Mr Booth, for the walling guild, said he was pleased to see a sandstone winner, after a run of three honours for limestone – which is generally harder to work, because it tends to come as rounded boulders.

Sandstone is more easily split into squarish blocks and trimmed as necessary but Mr Booth cautioned: "There are a thousand types of limestone and another thousand of sandstone. The job is always different."

Second prize went to Michael Coggins, of Ingleton, for a limestone wall in the Lakeland style.

Stan Bergh, an Ingleton farmer who has won the competition twice, was also among the runners-up but could not attend the presentation.

But half a dozen turned up, curious to see what their competitors had achieved and to talk technicalities.

Among them were Andrew Fordham-Brown and Chris Fray, who work together in the Pickering area, and were commended for a limestone wall which included a motif in the shape of a pig's curly tail.

They had news of a revolutionary invention which had changed their lives – a portable shelter. Mr Gammell and Sam had, however, completed their wall the old way, which meant wearing waterproofs in the open for most of the first fortnight last April.

Christopher Bourne-Arton, Yorkshire president of the CLA, said: "After 200-300 years, the walls around here are not all needed any more. But the skills that created them still are."

Enclosures date back 3,000 years

Dry stone walls come next to hedgerows as the oldest form of enclosure. Some walls date back 3,000 years to the Iron Age, when farmers first marked the edges of their territory with lines of stones and then built them up to contain stock. But the most intensive building was in the 1700s and 1800s, when common land was privatised in the interests of larger-scale farming – and landowners wanted to mark their territory and control stock breeding and grazing for better results. Now the European Union pays to stop the walls being replaced by wire.