Driving through the rolling hills alongside the patchwork fields and muddy edges in the Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire Cotswolds during my recent visit to the UK was both memorable and thought provoking. The unkempt hedgerows, dripping with rose hips and sloes bordered winding roads that lead into quaint hamlets and villages, nestled into misty valleys, and spoke of a time gone by. The honey coloured stone cottages with their mullioned windows and postage stamp gardens dotted around the countryside provide a priceless display of craftsmanship and heritage. Many cottages predate the Industrial revolution and were an opportunity for 18thand 19thcentury artisans to grasp at expression and creativity. These cottages were indeed made by hand; there was simply no competition and these skilled hands continue, post industrialization, as important as ever.
Dry stone walls abound, linking villages to villages, connecting rows of houses and bordering grand estates with their private woodlands. Piles of stones veiled in moss or bracken on the roadside are the only clues that a wall would once have stood proudly, as time and erosion have ravaged these boundaries. While many walls languish in disrepair, dry stone wall training courses and apprenticeships across the four nations (England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland) are currently available ranging from basic construction to high-level craftsmanship, enabling people to acquire the skills to maintain this ancient and valuable tradition. This traditional skill has remained unchanged for centuries and needs preserving. Trained dry stone wallers have many career opportunities today in heritage repair and restoration as well as garden design and conservation. This is far removed from studio craft and yet it is still painstaking work that requires expertise and extensive knowledge about the design, material and tools. Industrialization did not diminish nor make obsolete these skilled craftspeople and they remain just as important today.
Very much a part of the British landscape, the methods vary across different regions. The stones were originally found in the fields as they were cleared for crop farming, but today they are generally quarried locally. Flat stones of specific sizes are selected along with the capstones to be placed atop the completed wall. It is niche work that is greatly valued economically and as a traditional craft it remains part of the rich heritage of rural Britain. Skills such as dry stone walling are a necessity for the present and so we cannot say goodbye to the past but need to carry it forward. Indeed, it is the responsibility of our generation to save this unique skill for the future.