'Stress release through dry stone walling' had sounded just what I needed, and the previous evening Peter Fish, who runs the Yorkshire Dales Field Centre, had explained what it meant. 'We had two executives here last year. After six months with hardly a day off, they were suffering headaches and tension; they had too many minor ailments and took too much drink. Two days here and they were starting to relax. Sometimes you simply need to get away.'
There was a more scientific explanation, too: 'Stress releases adrenalin into the body, creating chemicals such as cortisol, and glucose which can only be burnt off by exercise.' So why dry stone walling rather than, say, running? 'It's not competitive. You set realistic goals and work as a team. You enjoy both the doing and the sense of achievement.'
Stress was 'the response of our body to threat or anxiety': and looking around I could see that if people hadn't been anxious before, they were now. My own anxieties had been fuelled by a female friend who had asked whether the course was exclusively for men. 'I hope not,' I had replied, but she had unnerved me by suggesting it sounded like one of those 'wild man' gatherings, with male bonding and a search for the hunter-gatherer within.
In fact, our group comprised seven men and two women, ages ranging from 28 to 70, and our reasons for being there were as varied as our backgrounds. My room-mate, Mark, a wine dealer, got up at five every morning to commute from Salisbury to London: very stressful. Gary and another Mark were two brothers from Halifax, hoping to pick up tips for their work in the building trade. Jeff had recently been made redundant after 30 years in computing, while Bernard, the oldest, was a retired airline pilot with a garden wall in need of repair.
Most of us had left spouses behind. 'We give you a certificate to prove you haven't been on a dirty weekend,' said Peter. 'It's also something concrete to take away - the only concrete you'll get your hands on all weekend . . .'
We were based in Giggleswick, a mile from Settle at the foot of the Dales' Three Peaks. The hills all around are a patchwork of craggy fields neatly divided by walls. There are 5,000 miles of walling in the Yorkshire Dales, but the amount is diminishing each year due to erosion, theft and the activities of walkers and livestock. Then there's also the rural economy: a good wall will last hundreds of years, but in the short term it is much cheaper to put up a fence.
Our tutor was Steve Harrison, a dairy farmer and master waller. By the time we reached the farm at 9.30 on Saturday morning he had already calved one of his cows and milked the others. The cows provide his bread and butter, so to speak, but walling is his passion. 'I've been walling since I was 14,' he told us, 'and I'm 40-something now.' On a good day he can manage a 12-metre stretch.
We were divided into pairs and each given a short section of wall to work on. The first task was to strip the existing wall, which had stood for perhaps 200 years. To me this sounded like vandalism but Steve insisted it was necessary. 'This is my farm and I need these walls,' he reminded us. 'I wouldn't get you doing something if it wasn't worthwhile.'
Our two metres of wall contained at least two tons of stone, the heaviest pieces weighing as much as a hundredweight. By the time we had laid them out on the grass, my back was ready to give up. Then we had to put them all back, fitting irregular shapes into impossible gaps, like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
The tools needed were minimal: hammer, crowbar, spade, tape measure, string, pegs - but strictly no mortar or cement. The stickiest substance I encountered was cow dung, which was stuck to one of the stones. With sun and wind on our faces and muck on our hands, we were really getting back to basics and beginning to understand the theories about stress release. 'I haven't thought about my job since I've been here,' my room-mate said, and indeed it was hard to associate fine wine and cowpats.
Labouring out of doors was hungry work. By lunchtime, just four hours after a compulsory cooked breakfast, we were ravenous. Alcohol featured strongly on the weekend menu, with brandy in the lunchtime coffee, wine with the enormous Saturday evening meal and late nights drinking Theakston's bitter in the pub. Perhaps headaches and minor ailments were meant to be a feature of the course after all. A quick check at breakfast on Sunday revealed at least two sore heads and numerous stiff joints.
Throughout Sunday the wall gradually took shape and by the afternoon we were ready for the final layer, the row of slanted stones on top known as 'copestones'. 'We're coping at last,' I shouted to Steve as he came to inspect our work. He took each of us aside for an individual tutorial, encouraging self-criticism before ending on a positive note. 'Your wall's structurally sound,' he told me.
'How long will it stay up?' I asked. 'It will still be there when you are gone,' he replied. 'With a dry stone wall you are building your own
It was a thoroughly enjoyable weekend in a beautiful part of the country, but did it achieve its aim? Did we return to work on Monday with our cares eased and our tension released? Steve was in no doubt. 'You all look a lot more relaxed,' he told us as he waved goodbye. 'It's because you're absolutely knackered.'
Weekend courses at the Yorkshire Dales Field Centre are very popular, and the next one with vacancies is in May 1995: pounds 120 all in, details on 0729 822965. For courses elsewhere contact the Dry Stone Walling Association, National Agricultural Centre, Stoneleigh Park, Kenilworth, Warwicks CV8 2LG (021-378 0493).
(Photographs omitted)Reuse content