So,here we are, the middle of August and the weather is more like October and my productivity is more like January – zero !! I am struggling to make inroads into two walls that have been awaiting my attention for over a year ! The one wall is just one of those that needs to be totally ignored, in the sense that it is a little daunting and therefore it’s best not thought too much about. Just turn up (now and then, with an increasing amount of then!) and get on with it. I find the mental aspect of the build has always been one I can conquer more quickly than the building side.
The wall is a mortared retaining wall about 4 metres high and the section is 8 metres long. It is a slate wall built from the waste of the quarry which the estate operated for a century and more during the C18th and C19th. I estimate the wall to have been built during the second half of the C18th when much of thebuilding of the ornamental gardens, the walled garden and house extensions, were carried out. Unfortunately, sometime later, a yew hedge was planted very close to the edge of the bank which the great wall retains – the ground being all ‘made-up’. Whilst most of the roots of the now 3 metre high and 3 metre thick hedge have tracked back into the soil of the raised ground behind, some have worked their way down into the double faced wall and over the years sections have regularly collapsed. The growth of woody roots in the middle of a closely packed wall will force stones in the face to move outward and eventually a bulge occurs. The gap thus formed is prone to filling with water during periods of heavy rainfall and it is usually this factor which causes the ultimate collapse of the section. This particular collapse had been threatening for years as the bulge became increasingly noticeable and acute.
It finally came crashing down the winter before last – yes, in early 2014 ! For various reasons I have not been very good at getting there to begin the rebuild. One of my hopes in delaying was that the yew hedge – the roots of which can be seen amongst the fox-gloves and the overhanging trees are visible on the left – would actually tumble out. It has had 18 months and been subjected to terrible deluges and high winds over much of that time and it hasn’t moved a centimetre. It ain’t going to fall. In essence then, all that is going to collapse out of the earth bank has done so and thus I can happily build the wall back up without having to concern myself that the retained earth is going to come down on me !
As can be seen in the photo, the wall, whilst being a retaining wall, is still built as a ‘double’, which is to say it has two faces and a middle. It is quite common in large retaining walls that such a strong wall is built, at least in previous centuries. It suggests that the wall was built and then the ground was filled in and raised to the required height.
As the mansion is a Grade 2 listed building it therefore means everything (that has been built) within the curtilege is also listed and thus must be restored in a manner that recreates the original. I am fairly sure that the local Listing Officer is supposed to be notified and his agreement sought on the methodology of any restoration but the owners of the estate seem to consider they are above such menial bureaucracy and would be quite happy for me to use a modern cement. That ain’t the way I work I’m afraid but I have compromised on the type of lime mortar. As several sections of the old wall have previously fallen and been rebuilt with total disregard to the historic integrity, even to the point of using horrid concrete blocks, I don’t imagine my contribution will diminish the stature of the old wall. I am using a hydraulic lime (3.5) and a mix with sand of 4:1. On a good day, with the size of the stones and the fact they have to be dug out of the pile into which they were heaped by the digger driver, I’m lucky to get 2 square metres built. But I’m on a schedule and I need to get going, up up and away ! Shortly I will have to erect my scaffold and then the job really slows down as every bucket of mortar and every stone has to be lifted upon to it ! To add to my problems I drove down to the local builder’s merchant to get another six bags of mortar, loaded it into the back of my vehicle, went in to sign for it only to discover the account had been suspended for non payment ! Not just one month, not just two months, oh no, the local gentry in the big mansion had not paid their March, April, May, June nor July bills ! I am more than surprised my signing for materials during the last three months was not stopped sooner. It’s nothing to do with lack of funds, oh no, it’s just a total couldn’t care attitude to such matters. At least the local peasants get to have a laugh at their expense !
The other on-going job is at another grand house in the village of Beulah, in fact it was the original Manor house (and later Vicarage) which dates back probably into the C17th if not earlier. I have done work there before and again lime mortar is required. This time it is at the insistence of the owner who wants to ensure all restoration is carried in out in the best traditional way using conservation techniques and materials. His sympathetic restoration of the Manor house is producing some excellent results. Paradoxically the job I am currently doing for him is a garden wall which is practically a ‘trompe l’oeil’ in that I am cladding a concrete block retaining wall (which he built some years ago but which also was built with a lime-putty mortar !) with old building stone so that it appears to be a much older wall. Again I am using a 3.5 hydraulic lime and sand but in a stronger mix of 2:1. The benefit of hydraulic lime lies in two main areas, firstly it can be easily mixed in a conventional cement-mixer whereas a pure lime putty/aggregate needs to be mixed in a horizontal mill, which is to say it is not tumbled but rather ground together as are the ingredients in a mixing bowl rather than tumbled. Secondly it cures much more quickly than lime-putty – a factor of the chemical processes of production – which facilitates a quicker build time as further courses can be added within 48 hours. I tend to build about 4 courses over the 5 metre length and then leave for a full week before returning. Traditional lime mortar needed much longer to cure, probably over a month and hence is a much slower building material. I am not ‘dubbing-out’ the joints (pointing if you like) but rather just leaving whatever mortar can be seen in between courses and stones to resemble an old wall in which the mortar has begun to fall out. This also encourages more plant growth in the crevices created.
While I’m busy in the garden the owner is diligently dubbing’out the walls of the manor. He is high on a scaffold, up near the barge-boards of the roof. I came back from the garden – some 200 metres or so from the yard – only to see him up on the scaffold dressed in his bee-keepers outfit. Apparently he was working near the entrance to a nest and he was concerned not to be stung as he had recently – after years of keeping bees and many stings – suffered anaphylactic-shock after a sting on the head. It is thought that a build-up occurs within the body after so many stings that eventually, after years of no reaction, triggers such an event. In addition to his ‘space-suit’ he now carries an adrenalin pen with him at all times.
I am going to have to get a move on with both these jobs, lime mortar is especially susceptible to temperature, too hot and it dries out too quickly, too cold and it doesn’t cure effectively. We could get either types of weather in the next month or so !
The other major job has been down in the Ebbw Vale area where the old mountain wall has been slowly being brought back to stock-proof status. As part of the contract I had been asked to run a two day dry stone walling course for volunteers from the Gwent Wildlife Trust and staff members together with some other locals who had expressed an interest, including some ‘white-collar’ workers from the local council, Blaenau-Gwent.
After a morning in the classroom, which luckily was the wet part of the day, we had an afternoon stripping out the several collapses which I had left and preparing the wall for rebuilding the next day. Working in pairs they all did exceptionally well. Not only did they all complete the stints I had given them but they all built in such a good manner that none of the work had to be taken back down again – and that is quite unusual for a walling course !
Two of the participants were school teachers which , in normal circumstances can often prove problematic – “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach” (and those that can’t teach, teach teachers …”), but these two, being men of the valleys, took to it like a clout ’round the head and actually seemed to enjoy it. Giving up days of their hard-earned holidays to come walling …..
The two council folk took some ribbing about their hours of work – they always seemed to have to go off to meetings … ahem – but they did fine and they too seemed to relish the chance to be out in the open having a go at something which they had often been involved in commissioning or grant aiding but had never known anything about.
There were two members of staff of the Wildlife Trust who also performed well and worked very hard, indeed the local based worker, Chris, had been with me man-handling some fifteen tonnes of stone for several days prior to the course and grateful I was to him. The site was impossible to get near with a truck, neither was it possible to get a tractor near the wall and yet, somehow, the stone for the rebuild had to be got to site. The first loads which had been tipped some 300 metres down the slope by the council was brought up using a power barrow borrowed from another Gwent Wildlife site. It served the purpose but was difficult to handle on the steep sloping ground, and the narrow track did not allow for tipping so all the stone had to be handled into the barrow and out again. It also was not particularly well maintained and starting difficulties resulting in a broken pull-cord on more than one occasion ! Nevertheless it did the job and a good job too !
The other ten tonnes came from a quarry down the Swansea valley and came in one tonne dumpy bags. A four-wheel drive dumper was hired in and a competent operator borrowed from another GWT site to transport the bags several hundred metres up a steep and narrow mountain track to a position some thirty metres or so above the wall. From there the stone had to be thrown down the slope to land, or rather be stopped, by a wire fence which runs next to the wall. This Chris did with much aplomb likening it to both scrum-half training and cricket practise.
Luckily every last stone that had been thrown down to the wall was found a place in it; no-one wanted to have to carry it away again. The second day was fine and bright and everyone worked hard and seemed to enjoy themselves. I was more than happy to spend a little time clearing the site at the end of the day and bid farewell to the scenery of the Ebbw valley. I’m to re-visit in October to take part in an open weekend talking and teaching about how important walls are for wildlife and showing folks how to build appropriate birds nests and creep holes and hideaways for critters !
The thing with a mountain wall rebuild, where you put all your skills and effort into doing a good job, is that generally speaking no-one gets to see it, except the animals that live thereabouts. We encountered hundreds of froglets during the two days of the course, they had crawled out of the nearby pond and were making their way upwards, following some unknown call that no doubt generations of frogs before them had followed. The ground was alive with them and at first they looked like flies crawling around so tiny were they. I was interested to see if any actually got through the wall to continue upwards or whether the wall was their final resting place. Sure enough, by the second day, hundreds started to appear on the up side of the wall continuing their upward journey. Lizards were common too and the odd toad made an appearance. Sheep were not very visible but some other interested parties came by most days to see the progress …
I have to say there is something very enjoyable about working with Valleys folk. It’s where I was brought up and even though it’s many years since I moved north, there is always a ‘Welcome in the hillsides’ of the valleys communities and a great sense of humour and joy amongst those that live there.
There has also been a little fun during the last few weeks, Vintage fun that is, some ‘steamy’ afternoons the details of which I will bring you in the next post.
In Flanders, one hundred years ago, my Great Uncle Dick was showing increasing signs of fatigue and frustration. For the week beginning Sunday 15th August right through until the Wednesday of the following week (25th) he was involved in making roads.
On Wednesday 25th they returned to the line and started digging trenches at night in front of the forward positions. This went on for four nights until heavy rain and lightning (which would obviously have silhouetted them to the enemy) made it too impossible to continue.
In the week beginning 29th August 1915 the company were engaged in more road building alongside Engineers. The frustration shows through in the diary until on the Thursday night they marched through the night in full battle order “over very bad roads”. The following night they marched again to their new position near Acheux.