Champion efforts to preserve countryside heritage

Lee Jones is building a huge drystone wall at Beacon House Farm which has provided plenty of challenges.  Pictures: Jonathan Gawthorpe
Lee Jones is building a huge drystone wall at Beacon House Farm which has provided plenty of challenges. Pictures: Jonathan Gawthorpe
Have your say

WHEN WORLD class cycling came to Yorkshire it wasn’t just the blur of fast-pedalling riders who stole the show, but the beautiful landscapes; the patchwork fields and meadows among rolling hills and lush green fields.

It was a glorious setting which portrayed the distinctiveness of what makes this region, at its finest, so picture-postcard perfect, and few, if any, other features quite evoke that essence of Yorkshire than the criss-crossing network of drystone walls.

This traditional method of enclosing fields dates at least as far back as the Iron Age and the practice really came into its own during the medieval period, as more people settled in the hills and ran livestock.

A good drystone wall can last hundreds of years but there’s always work to be done to keep them in fine shape. Over the years many crumble from frost damage caused by in-growing vegetation, disturbance from tree roots and walls being driven into and climbed over, and this is where a hardy group of professionals come in.

The drystone waller has a precise task that takes careful planning and judgement, considerable time and physical endurance.

Forty-year-old Lee Jones of Shipley has been a drystone waller for the last 20 years and his feats with local stone last year won him a prestigious award. Lee was named the Country Land and Business Association’s (CLA) Yorkshire drystone walling champion 2014, going one better than he did in the biennial competition in 2012 when he was runner up. He landed the title for building a 4.5ft corner section on a steep slope at a 20-acre small holding on top of Otley Chevin.

Despite the incredibly testing geology at Beacon House Farm, Lee, whose unorthodox style of building only from one side of the wall - the inside - surprises many admirers of his work, kept the wall extremely tight and level.

He can be rightly proud, on close inspection it is remarkable just how tidy the job is when you consider the steep gradient of the land.

Lee said: “There are two serious slopes running into a point at different angles and I worked on the inside of the field so I was facing down the slope. Hundreds of people walk along the path that runs along this section of the wall and Keith (the landowner) had told me he wanted it to be a nice feature. It was a great feeling to finish it.”

This section of wall is just one part of a much larger project for Lee at Beacon House, where landowner Keith Willis runs a small flock of sheep, and so he divides his time with working here and on other jobs within a 25-mile radius of Shipley.

When Keith moved to the farm, the land lay derelict and in 2010 he commissioned Lee to rebuild the perimeter walls which lay in ruin.

A drystone waller works with local stone and Lee sourced the materials he needed, in part, from reclaimed Yorkshire gritstone and boulders dotted around the smallholding.

His first job was enormous in scale. The wall facing the road on the approach to Beacon House Farm needed rebuilding and so Lee spent much of the next two years erecting a 845ft long stretch of wall - his biggest single project to date - and the quality of his craftsmanship is clear to see.

Continuing on another section he eventually reached the award-winning corner and he’s now approaching his next real challenge - to build a wall around the curve of a mysterious sunken bowl in the farmland; thought to have been a small quarry years ago.

Lee explained what’s involved in his craft: “I get a 20-ton wagon to lift the stone and drop it behind me and wall from it as I go with a bucket and a hammer.

“It’s a job that requires a lot of patience and plenty of physical stamina and strength. It’s a very physically demanding job.

“The most I do in a day is five metres which means I’m handling five-ton of stone on a day like that.”

The profession has taken its toll, although you wouldn’t know it from his demeanour and work ethic.

“Six years ago I was really struggling with a bad back and the doctors failed to diagnose it. They kept saying I had pulled a muscle but I had an MRI scan last year and found that I had two slipped discs.”

Drystone walling is an arduous career path but it was one which Lee has felt drawn towards despite his other passion - wildlife.

“When I left school I worked in a factory doing plastic injection moulding - making plastic bottles, basically. It was a 7am start and a 7pm finish so it was dark on my way in and dark on my way home so I decided to do something outdoors instead.

“I went to Craven College and took a BTEC Diploma in upland resource management. One of the modules was countryside skills and involved hedge laying, farming skills and drystone walling and afterwards the first person to accept my CV was a dry stone waller, David Hill of Keighley. After eight years of working for David I left to go it alone.

“My ambition and dream used to be to work for the RSPB but I just love being outdoors, and I see a lot of birds here, there are skylarks, lapwings, and curlews to be heard.

“I record what I see, including the red kites that fly over from the Harewood estate, I always have my binoculars out here with me when I’m working.”

See drystone walling in action

Drystone walling isn’t just reserved for the professionals and a lot of people have taken it up as a hobby.

Both Lee Jones and Keith Willis are members of the Otley and Yorkshire Dales branch of the Dry Stone Walling Association (DSWA). The Branch has around 140 members of every trade and profession, who have found the ancient craft a fascinating outdoor hobby.

While Lee has been rebuilding the perimeter wall at Beacon House Farm, many members of the club have been running training courses enabling new members not only from Yorkshire but from around the world, to rebuild the drystone walls and to gain recognised qualifications.

On Sunday, September 27 the club will be holding their third annual national drystone walling competition on top of Otley Chevin in order to further public enthusiasm.

All these features can be seen from ‘Surprise View’, a short walk from ‘Surprise View’ car park, opposite the Royalty, Otley Chevin’s famous public house overlooking the airport.

Drystone walling is definitely not easy. There is much to consider. First, big blocks or footings are laid, larger stones are then layered horizontally - known as courses - with each consecutive layer involving smaller stones.

An inside and outside section are built and the central void packed with small ‘heart stones’.

Large ‘through’ stones straddle the width of the wall at one metre intervals on a lower course and a higher course to add strength.

The wall should be as half as wide at the base as it is tall and tapers in gradually as the courses are laid taller.

Top stones or coppings crown the wall and throughout it all the straight line of the wall is maintained by using a string line - a length of string tied at each end to a metal rod. Each rod is nestled beneath the top course to guide the waller along.

Drystone walling is one of many traditional rural crafts which will be showcased at the CLA Game Fair at Harewood House on July 31-August 2. For tickets, see