There’s more to walls — Trevor Wragg — 2nd July 2018

I sup­pose it all depends who you believe – Pam Ayres or Trevor Wragg.

To quote my favour­ite female poet’s odd ode: “I am a dry stone waller, all day I dry stone wall. Of all appalling call­ings, dry stone walling’s worst of all.”

I can’t for a minute ima­gine Trevor Wragg voicing those sen­ti­ments. Trevor lives and breathes dry stone walling, and has been a pro­fes­sional at the job for many years. He was the British cham­pion in 1996, and holds the Dry Stone Walling Association’s Master Craftsman Certificate.

Trevor, who is just coming up his 70th birth­day and lives at Hartington, in the Peak District, is a qual­i­fied instructor and exam­iner with the DSWA, as well as serving on that body’s Skills Committee and being an assessor with the National Proficiency Testing Council and the Dales Agricultural and Rural Training Ltd (DART).

Trevor at work on a length of dry stone wall

He has led assess­ment days for officers from the Department of Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Peak District National Park Authority, advising them on both good and bad work­man­ship for grant aided work.

So he clearly knows his stuff, and was just the man to come and talk to us about a fea­ture of the coun­tryside that most of us see almost every day without really think­ing too much about.

His style of present­a­tion per­haps wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Rather than wait­ing for his audi­ence to ask per­tin­ent ques­tions at the end of the 80 minutes, he squandered some of that time by asking us ques­tions from his slides to which he knew few, if any, of us would know the answers, so there were many preg­nant pauses.

Even so, we learnt a lot during the present­a­tion. Personally, I thought that a dry stone wall was a dry stone wall. But you could take Trevor blind­fold to any part of the coun­try and, by look­ing at the walls, he could tell you in an instant whether he was in Caithness, Cumbria or the Cotswolds, or his native Derbyshire.

Trevor took us on a pictorial tour of the White and Dark Peaks and Staffordshire Moorlands, point­ing out the dif­fer­ent size and shape of fields enclosed by dry stone walling, and explain­ing how these came about, from the per­fectly straight ‘strip’ system of farm­ing to large, gradu­ally curving fields which gave a team of eight oxen enough space to turn round.

One of the few cor­rect answers from the floor was that sphag­num moss, found in abund­ance on dry stone walls, was once used in the pro­duc­tion of babies’ nap­pies, because of its absorb­ent qual­ity. There is more wild­life in a dry stone wall than in a hedgerow, appar­ently. And walls har­bour more than 2,000 vari­et­ies of lichen, often a source of food for the said wild­life and also used in the pro­duc­tion of dyes.

Trevor being inter­viewed by Ade Edmondson on the ITV pro­gramme Ade in Britain

And I now know, though he didn’t ques­tion us on this dir­ectly, that a smoot hole is a gap of appro­pri­ate size built into a dry stone wall to allow the free pas­sage of cer­tain creatures (such as rab­bits) but not others (such as sheep). It cer­tainly isn’t in my OED, and I’ve now found out that it pos­sibly derives from the Old Norse word smátta, mean­ing a narrow lane.

You get shoot­ing smoot holes, usu­ally on a grouse moor, and others for rab­bits, ducks and geese, badgers or, simply, water. South facing walls sur­round­ing a court­yard would some­times con­tain bee holes, and others might incor­por­ate hen nest­ing boxes. A drawer stone is one which might look indis­tin­guish­able to all the others but, if you knew where you were look­ing, could be pulled out by the fin­gers and had a hol­lowed out top to con­tain money or the keys to a gate.

The Royal Cypher seen from the middle dis­tance

One of Trevor’s most pres­ti­gi­ous jobs was to design the con­tro­ver­sial EIIR royal cypher which was erec­ted on the hill­side near Edensor, on the Chatsworth estate, to cel­eb­rate the Queen’s golden jubilee. This con­sisted of 288.5 metres of dry stone walling, but built only to half normal height so that the shad­ows cast by the walls on sunny days did not detract from the over­all ‘look’ when viewed from the best vant­age point a mile or more away.

Trevor’s design for the three-way slop­ing site and, bottom right, how it would appear from the best view­ing point

There was more to design­ing it than met the eye (lit­er­ally), because the land where the cypher was erec­ted fell away in three dir­ec­tions and Trevor prac­tised with straw bales before coming up with the final plan which made the char­ac­ters look askew when viewed from close up but per­fectly reg­u­lar from afar.

I per­son­ally, and I sus­pect many other people felt the same, admired the EIIR royal cypher, but the Peak Park author­ity decreed that it had only tem­por­ary plan­ning per­mis­sion and the walls even­tu­ally had to come down.

But thanks to the skill of Trevor and his fellow dry stone wall­ers, most examples of their work will still be around for our grandchildren’s grand­chil­dren to admire. They have been part of our her­it­age for cen­tur­ies, and will con­tinue to be so.