Men and midges wreck idyll

PICTURE PERFECT: But the drystone waller's view of the job may be less than rosy.  Picture:Mike Cowling
PICTURE PERFECT: But the drystone waller's view of the job may be less than rosy. Picture:Mike Cowling
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LARGE steel teeth and hungry insects. Drystone waller Billy Topstone finds it’s all part of the job.

I have recently completed a new retaining wall in a forested region of a picturesque Dales valley.

The wall was required as part of an entrance widening scheme to allow access for heavy traffic from the narrow public road.

The works entailed the excavation of hundreds of tons of soil and rock from the hillside, the levelling of the newly exposed ground and, finally, the construction of the wall which would then be backfilled from the higher ground behind.

On my first trip to the site I was amazed at the scale of the equipment imported into this quiet valley to move the earth.

A sunshine yellow articulated heavy transporter, complete with very shiny wheel trims, air horns and enough spotlights to light up Elland Road, was blocking the country lane.

Its precious cargo, a 21-tonne digger, was easing itself onto the ground like some sort of giant snail.

The bucket on this monster was as big as a sofa with teeth which would not look out of place in the jaws of Tyrannosaurus rex.

The other half of the double act arrived next – the sort of Tonka toy every six year old boy dreams of.

Bright yellow, six wheels big enough to stand in and a tipper on the back to take 24 tonnes of whatever you cared to put in there.

I could quickly see that my part of this grand project, was very much the poor relation.

How could my 2lb walling hammer, pick, shovel, and line band compare with this set up?

Dangerous Dave the digger driver soon got to work and a dozen scoops of earth and rock had the Tonka loaded to the gunnels.

It was quickly apparent how Dave had acquired the “Dangerous” tag by his work colleagues.

The laden steel bucket swept through the air at an alarming rate, missing trees, wagon cabs, and pickups by the smallest of margins.

Well, generally by the smallest of margins, but occasionally Dave would misjudge the distance to an odd tree stump, a pile of stone or the flashing orange lamp on a cab roof.

In confrontations like these, the digger bucket invariably turned out the victor.

Within a few days, the site had been levelled, and my walling stone had been tipped in neat piles.

The peace of the valley was restored once again and the roar of high powered diesel engines was replaced by birdsong, bleating lambs and the occasional sound of my hammer trimming a stone to size.

On a bright, still, sunny morning I sought out the heaviest of the available stones as footings and set to the task.

What an idyllic place to work I was thinking as I eased the first of the stones into place.

It was lovely mature woodland, with woodpigeons cooing in the trees and the beck down below complaining to itself as it wound its way around the rocks in its path.

Two minutes later I had been bitten by my first midge who had then returned to base to tell his mates about the new food source he had found.

Within seconds I was surrounded by squadrons of the blighters all diving in at once for a mouthful of Billy.

I had no option but to seek refuge in my motor, scrubbing my scalp with my fingernails to dislodge the attackers.

I could feel my lips and eyelids swelling up and large lumps were developing on my neck and wrists.

This was not going to be a fun place to work after all.

Luckily, I remembered I had a bucket of oddments containing old gloves, chisels, tape measures and at the bottom..... some insect repellent.

“Ah well! That’s the insects sorted out” I was thinking as I ventured out again.

Suddenly, I heard a loud buzzing and became conscious of a mini helicopter hovering close to my face. This yellow and black flying bug was about three inches long and looked to be well armed with all sorts of projections.

It was not many seconds before I was safely ensconced in my pickup for a second time.

After a few minutes I bravely disembarked again and noticed the creature had lodged on a rotting tree stump a few yards away. Later enquiries seemed to identify the beast as a Greater Wood Wasp which inhabits mature coniferous plantations and despite its apparent aggressive behaviour it appears to be unable to sting.

Apart from rescuing numerous small frogs from my stone pile the rest of the job has gone to plan and the wall has been constructed on time for the return of Dangerous Dave to pull the loose earth down behind the wall.

I have just heard that he is due to do the job tomorrow – I do hope he maintains a healthy distance between his digger bucket and my newly placed topstones.