Honing the skills that defined the Yorkshire landscape

Trainee Tim Chapman with course leader Tom Handley
Trainee Tim Chapman with course leader Tom Handley
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IN AN era of increasingly sophisticated farming, agricultural colleges are well equipped to turn out new generations of land workers with the skills they need to succeed.

But that is often at the expense of the traditional skills which have helped to define Yorkshire’s landscape for centuries.

Trainee David Wood on the stave horse. Picture by Tony Johnson

Trainee David Wood on the stave horse. Picture by Tony Johnson

Instead of seeing trades such as dry-stone walling, cleft oak fencing and hedge-laying fade towards extinction, three colleagues with a diverse raft of skills and experience in countryside skills have won local authority backing to train those who want to continue those outdoor traditions.

And the Working Walls and Woods group have attracted interest from trainees ranging from the homeless and recovering addicts to retired senior managers and those looking for an escape from ‘dead end’ jobs.

They won a year’s financial support from Barnsley Council, through devolved funding, to set up their enterprise in a stretch of privately owned woodland near the village of High Hoyland, close to Cawthorne, and have seen their first batch of trainees go on to gain qualifications in dry-stone walling skills.

That means they can go on to find jobs or, more likely, set themselves up as self-employed wallers.

Other skills include hedge laying and fence building, using materials which are readily available as well as some landscape gardening skills, drawing on the old techniques as an inspiration.

The ‘school’ was the idea of colleagues Tom Handley, Michael Howard and Lindsey Bielby as a part time venture around their other professional projects.

“I think this is the only organised industrial school where you don’t even need to be able to write your name. It is all about ability,” said Mr Handley.

“People here learn the practical skills they need in life, like being able to get up on time, getting here and then doing the job all day.

“The tools are minimal, a wheelbarrow is handy but you don’t even really need that.

“One of the good things about dry-stone walling is that no-one ever criticises what you have done. People always remark on how good the new walling looks,” he said.

Originally they were given a year’s funding but the project has been so successful that has been extended by another six months.

In the months ahead they will be exploring the opportunities for getting further grants or sourcing income from work, perhaps offering their services to parish councils which have responsibility for areas of land which would benefit from restoration.

As the winter approaches, students will be switching from walling to learn hedge-laying skills and they will also be tree planting. On site there are also plans to open a shop to sell some of the items they produce.

One of the attractions of learning walling skills is a seemingly endless supply of work.

“A survey in the 1990s showed that only five per cent of walls were in good order and I don’t think that will have changed,” said Mr Handley.

“In the old days there were people repairing walls as they went along, but that doesn’t happen any more. After the industrial revolution, barbed wire was available and that allowed people to patch up the holes more cheaply.”

DRY stone walling has been a feature of the English landscape since before the Medieval period.

But it became increasingly popular between the 16th and 19th Centuries and was most commonly used on higher ground, which had been overlooked by earlier generations of farmers who mostly worked lower areas with less harsh weather conditions. In the Yorkshire Dales, dry stone walling is said to be the biggest single man-made feature in the landscape.

While building techniques vary, the most common features a shallow foundation of small stones, with two outer skins, sloping in towards the top which is finished with uprights. The cavity is filled with small stones.