Ancient craft of dry-stone walling lives again in US

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The Independent Online

The art of dry-stone walling is one of Britain's oldest and most traditional crafts. But this timeless skill is again finding favour in America, where hundreds of dry-stone walls, relics from the days when Britain was the colonial master, desperately need renovation.

The art of dry-stone walling is one of Britain's oldest and most traditional crafts. But this timeless skill is again finding favour in America, where hundreds of dry-stone walls, relics from the days when Britain was the colonial master, desperately need renovation.

The roots of dry-stone walling to enclose fields lie at least as far back as the Iron Age, but many of the skills needed to build and repair them have been lost to all but a few dedicated craftsmen. Now, one obscure dry-stone waller's life is about to transformed as he is begins a lucrative new career exporting his craft to America.

Mike Helmsing has been hired by a wealthy American businessman to help restore the relics of the past crumbling in the landscape of Vermont, which was once a British colony. Due largely to the British influence, much of the limited heritage of the United States was built upon a dry-stone foundation.

As agriculture, industry, and roadways developed over the past 200 years, farmers used dry-stone methods to build their houses, barns, slave quarters, spring houses, smoke houses, and ice houses.

Towns which sprang up in colonial times have stone court houses, clerk's offices, banks, shops, inns, and churches, and dry-stone mills, dams, bridges, stream and pond borders, iron furnaces, lime kilns, and distilleries are scattered throughout the landscape. But with few people having the skills to repair and renovate these early structures, there are opportunities for the remaining British craftsmen to go west and seek their fortunes.

Mr Helmsing, 35, of Westgate, Weardale, Co Durham, is among the first to take up the challenge and he plans to live in the US for six months of the year.

It all started with a chance encounter with an American businessman, Cameron T Chalmers. While surfing the internet looking for work, Mr Helmsing found an appeal looking for a British waller to work in the US with marble extracted from two quarries. "I was surprised at first that anyone in the States knew much about dry-stone walling, but Mr Chalmers was so interested he came over here to see my work at first hand," Mr Helmsing said.

"From what I have learnt so far, there are very few dry-stone wallers in America, but there are a lot of walls, many of them a legacy from the old British colonial days. A lot of them are in need of repair."

Mr Helmsing, who started his own business three-and-a-half years ago after he lost his previous job as a sub-contractor at Blue Circle cement works in Co Durham when it closed, believes the dying art of dry-stone walling could make him a wealthy man.

"If this American venture works out and leads to more work there, I hope to spend six months of the year in the States. I could leave my two apprentices back home to run the business.''

Hedgerows are most common in the Lowlands and dry-stone walling is most often found in the Highlands, or upland zone (roughly the South-west, the Pennines, the Lake District and the North-east). Most of Wales and Scotland can be included in the Highland zone.

Although dry-stone walling fell out of favour during the Dark Ages in southern Britain, where hedge-rows are more commonly used as field and land dividers, the art continued for some time in upland areas such as the Pennines, the Lake District, the North-east, Scotland and the South-west.

There are minor differences in various regions but the common practice was to cut a narrow trench, and lay a base of small stones within it, then build up the wall in progressive layers, each narrowing slightly towards the centre of the structure. Eventually, the centre is filled with rubble and at a height of two feet a layer of through stones is laid across the entire width to "tie it together".

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