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Backbone of Britain: Dry stone walling connects generations to rural heritage

A mutual appreciation for cultural heritage and community spirit has helped build the most unlikely friendship between Yorkshire Dales farmer Bill Bland and ex-office worker Rob Thacker. Olivia Midgley finds out more about their incredible efforts.

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Bill Bland (left) and Rob Thacker
Bill Bland (left) and Rob Thacker

Walls may be more associated with driving people apart rather than bringing them together, but Bill Bland and Rob Thacker’s friendship is built to last, and it is all thanks to a dry stone wall. Dry stone walls are synonymous with the Yorkshire Dales, spanning about 5,000 miles and dating back to the late 18th century.

 

A dominant feature of the sweeping landscape, they play a vital role in farming systems; identifying field boundaries, keeping stock where they should be and providing yearround shelter. For Bill, a 76-year-old beef and sheep producer and former professional wrestler, maintaining the walls across his 160 hectares (400 acres) of owned and rented land in Malham, North Yorkshire, is an essential part of farm maintenance. It was when he was about to start rebuilding one of the farm’s longest boundary walls that he met his unlikely apprentice. Rob, 57, had moved to Malham after retiring from his job as sales and marketing director of a large road transport company in Bradford.

 

Rob says: “For more than a year I had been thinking about a new life and what I would do with myself. “It was at a local Women’s Institute barbecue I first met Bill. It was in the early part of May 2016 when he asked if I would help him build a wall. A new challenge, I thought, and a new experience. However, he had failed to tell me it was 6ft high and 650 metres long.”

 

Just a month later, the pair began work on their mammoth task.

Bill Bland and his grandson Will Wildman
Bill Bland and his grandson Will Wildman

Traditional

 

The wall, which is thought to have been built about 250 years ago, was in a bad state of disrepair. While most stones could be re-used, the structure of the wall needed serious attention.

 

Bill says: “Most of these walls were built between 250 and 300 years ago, so over the years, they settle. They sit down, so in some places they are about as wide as they are tall. There is no other way than to take them down and build them back up again.” Originally from Cumbria, Bill was taught to wall by his father, who also wrestled professionally.

 

Bill says: “We had a farm at Arnside which was not in the best of repair. By the time we had squared it up, if I could not wall by then, there would have been a problem. The best way to learn how to wall is have a go. “I can usually tell within half-anhour if someone is going to be any good or not.

 

“Rob started by taking the stones off and watching me put them back on. Eventually he started putting them back on himself and he did a good job. “By the end of it, Rob knew as much as me. People think it is very simple, but they are no better in 12 months than they are at the start.”

 

As a young wrestler competing throughout Cumbria, walling helped Bill maintain his fitness levels and lose weight before a fight.

 

He says: “It definitely keeps you fit and helps keep the weight down. My claim to fame was being able to wall a walking yard in an hour. “I do not think I am that fast now though,” he jokes, adding a good waller ‘never has a bad stone’.

 

“With two of us, we could take down and put back up between eight and 10 yards of wall a day. This depended on what the foundations were like though.

 

“I would say 90 per cent of the foundations had to come out as they had caused the problem in the first place. It could take an hour to move a stone.

 

“We had to move some of the biggest with a tractor and loader.”

 

Detail

 

Each yard of wall equates to about a tonne of stone, making walling back-breaking work.

 

Rob says: “It is the most physical job I have ever done. It is certainly a lot different to working behind a desk in an office and it takes some skill.” Wall tops are usually laid using a piece of string to ensure the plains are straight, but Bill prefers to use his eye.

 

Rob says: “The walls are 6ft and Bill is 5ft-nowt. Instead of using string to get it level, he just told me ‘up a bit, down a bit’. I have to say it is beautifully straight though.

 

” Over the summer, Bill and Rob were joined by various friends and family members, including Bill’s grandson Will, his brother John and friend Peter Hayhurst and Rob’s son-in-law Matt, who all helped when they could.

 

Rob says: “It was a great summer. We all had our dogs in the field and it was great because at first they were all quite wary of each other and by the end they got on brilliantly.”

 

Rob and Bill’s friendship grew as they passed the time with conversation.

 

Rob says: “We chatted while we walled. We used to listen to the politics from the comfort of the tractor bucket; the referendum and its outcome, the effect and uncertainty facing farmers, the Olympics in Rio, and all the debatable subjects discussed on the radio. “Bill used to tell his stories from his wrestling career, stories from yesteryear and the basics of farming.

 

“We had the occasional RAF plane fly past and the occasional honk of the horn from people watching us slowly, but surely, building.”

Unsurprisingly, passing tourists who flock to Malham to take in its magnificent scenery were equally enthralled. Bill says: “We had tourists from the US who stopped to chat and a Dutch couple who stood and chatted to us for an hour and took pictures.

 

“They were all very interested in what we were doing and we were happy to tell them about it.”

 

The wall gained notoriety in the having a topping out party on the Friday of the week, but on the Wednesday before, the weather was really nice.

 

“Bill’s brothers came over from Cumbria, and my son-in-law, and together we finished it. We were burned, but very happy.”

 

The comrades toasted their efforts with a bottle of whisky supped from plastic cups. Rob says: “I remember being sat on the bucket and reflecting at what I had achieved.

 

“My time with Bill has meant a lot to me and my family. He introduced me to a new skill, new people and a new way of life. I have learned what area and was soon dubbed The Great Wall of Malham.

 

Rob says: “People would stop us in the pub and ask us how we were doing. Even farmers at the local auction mart in Skipton were asking.

 

“I think they thought we were mad, especially when we continued through the driving rain and snow.

 

"On the Moor, it can be pretty bleak at times. Bill always stood on the right side of the wall to be sheltered, while as the rookie, I got hammered with it.”

 

It took 170 days, but on a hot and sunny day in May 2017, the last stone was laid and the wall was completed. Rob says: “We were planning on community and rural life is like for an ‘offcumden’ and by embracing this type of life it has enabled me to start enjoying the rest of my life.”

 

With his new-found skillset, Rob decided to build his own mini Wall of Malham around his family home and drafted in Bill to help.

 

Bill says: “I purposefully walled the outer side, so when Rob looked out of his window at the wall, he could sit back and be proud of what he had achieved.”

Next generation of dry stone wallers

 

Bill Bland’s grandson Will Wildman is closely following in his family’s footsteps and keeping the walling tradition alive. Will, 22, runs the farm’s 600 ewes and 120 cattle, but sees walling as a means of supplementing his income. He can earn £25/yard of wall as a contractor. With the help of local farmers Colin and Nathan Booth, he has just completed his own wall.

 

He says: “We worked seven days a week, sometimes 5am to 9pm. It is difficult to commit to something like that when you have the farm to run and other jobs to be doing, so I can see why farmers don’t bother.” He believes the new agricultural policy and environmental land management scheme provide a chance to incentivise maintenance of features such as dry stone walls.

 

He says: “There used to be a grant in the 1980s which paid 50 per cent of the cost, but it only lasted three or four years. The only grants available now are in Higher Level Stewardship, so if you are not in one of those, you do not get anything.

 

“People will not be able to pay for them, so we could end up losing them forever. I think it is something the national parks should invest in. After all, they are part of our culture and heritage and form an important part of our scenery and landscape.”

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