Gloves on for a soggy awayday in the suburbs

Traditional dry stonewaller Billy Topstone explains the art of mud wrestling with 'through stones'.

"Well that's all your gaps up for now, Ronald. No doubt there will be a few more when you go to the auction and buy those wild gimmer lambs that you like to have around the place."

I had wound up my line band and packed away my hammer at the end of one of my rural dry stone walling jobs. Tomorrow morning would see me in a more genteel, suburban setting where my next customer required a wall building to separate two gardens.

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We had previously determined the line and height of the wall and what style of topstones were required. Buck and doe were required as they are deemed to be fashionable in this locality. Buck and doe tops give the wall a castellated look with alternating high and low topstones.

Most farm jobs have plenty of stone around for repairs and rebuilds but a new wall with no stone on site is a different prospect. Blackie, my usual source of stone, did not have enough matching material to do the job, so I have had to resort to "new" stone. "New" stone is a bit of a misnomer as it is the same age as "second-hand, pre-used" stone.

Most of the millstone grit in the Pennines was laid down in the Carboniferous period (more specifically the Silesian series) and dates to roughly 300 million years ago and therefore the term "new" does not really apply. The obvious option in this case was to acquire 50 tons of newly quarried stone from a local quarry.

The first load arrives and Malc negotiates the narrow driveway with difficulty but positions his eight wheels with precision and 18 tons of good, flat-bedded, clean stone slide out of the back of the wagon in a neat heap just where it is wanted.

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The cab door opens and a dusty rigger boot appears on the top step as Malc climbs down with the paperwork. He is wearing a shirt open to his belly button, three days growth of beard, and a red bandana on his head. He is a cheery character with a permanent grin and a positive outlook on life. But his main identifiable features are his teeth – they are a miniature dental version of a buck and doe row of tops.

"How's that for a bit of quality stone then, Billy?"

"It looks okay to me but your delivery sheet says here that I have to sign to say the load is received in good condition. But I'm sure I saw one come out with a chip out of it. I suppose there will be some discount for faulty goods?"

"Ha! Daft beggar!" – Malc flashes his castellated teeth – "and I bet there's another one over there with a crack in it!"

After a short discussion about the state of the haulage industry in Yorkshire and relieving me of several hundred pounds, Malc climbs back into his cab and departs for his next job.

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As the wall progresses, it rains and then rains some more, and I realise that I am going to be short of "bottom throughs". These are long stones which are put in the wall about three courses up and bridge across the two outer wall faces: they are essential to give the wall its strength.

I shelter in a garden hut with my phone and arrange to go to the quarry the next day with Boothy's little tipper.

Twenty four hours later and it is still raining as Boothy's wagon squelches into the quarry yard.

"They could use this place as a First World War film set," he says as the wheels spin in the mud. He is correct – sepia images of Passchendaele or Ypres spring to mind as we gaze on acres of mud and rutted tracks leading to mounds of rubble or deep water-filled holes. It was difficult to imagine that my delivery of good clean stone originated from such a desolate looking spot.

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We spy a lone 360 degree digger filling a dump truck with what looks like sludge and wade towards the machines through claggy mud which grabs at our wellie tops. In my ignorance I had thought that perhaps there may be a large heap of stone ready to be loaded into our wagon.

"Throughs is over there" the lad shouts from his digger above the revving engine, pointing wildly at a soggy hillock of rubble, "Tha'll 'av' t'help thissen."

After half an hour of rummaging, Boothy and I have amassed six suitable throughs, two wellies full of mud, a crushed finger, and a wagon down to its axles in porridge-like slop. Jeans and coats are caked in the stuff after manhandling the stones to the wagon when we hear the dump truck draw up beside us.

"Tha'll not find much in this 'eap," he bellows. "Over there!" He directs us to a pile of stone at the other side of no-man's land where, thankfully, we quickly find 30 or so suitable stones.

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"Let's get back to civilisation." A mud-spattered, Boothy is well fed-up with his day out chuntering to himself about working conditions, dry clothes and the state of his wagon.

And as we head back home, I sit quietly and ponder on the realisation that a new wall in suburbia can be every bit as difficult to build as a repair to a moorland wall in the middle of a peat bog.

CW 4/9/10

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