Ravenstonedale Kirkby Stephen Cumbria

A Nicheworks interview with Richard Staley - Dry Stone Waller

Dry Stone WallerHave you ever wondered who rebuilds, repairs and maintains the miles and miles of stone walls around our parish? Many farmers are more than able to do it themselves and have done for generations, but for Richard Staley and his father it is how they make their living. Covering an area that stretches from Alston, down towards Kendal, as far as Kirkby Lonsdale, Dentdale, Garsdale, Swaledale and Arkengarthdale, the Staleys are kept busy all year round.

It is a job that requires great physical stamina and self-discipline - working hours may not seem terribly long compared to for instance farming, but they are equally, if not more, physically demanding. Starting off from home at 7.30am and returning by 5pm, usually regardless of the weather conditions, the day is spent out on the fells, using basic tools such as crowbar, spade and string line. To reach some of the more remote sites Richard may have to hire a quad bike, or simply walk for miles.

Walls may have fallen down because the foundations have sunken into wet ground, the weight of the snow may have knocked a section out or age may be the single damaging factor. It is quite usual now for a whole length of wall to be rebuilt, perhaps 200-300 metres, regardless of whether it is all fallen down. The wall is rebuilt using the existing stones, but no mortar.

Richard's grandfather was a waller and farmer, his father a waller and farmer, which encouraged him to take a Diploma in Building Studies at Carlisle, his original intention being to go into the construction industry. However, following six months at an architect's firm in Kendal, Richard decided to become a stone waller, initially working for his father. Self-employed since 1990, much of the work is through word-of-mouth and many of the customers are farmers.

When he first started fifteen years ago, farmers could apply for small grants from the Ministry of Agriculture, but even then 60-70% of the work was not grant aided. Farmers just had to maintain the walls themselves, whenever and however they could. Now, with environmental schemes such as the ESA and the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, under which farmers are encouraged to take advantage of grants available to maintain old farm buildings and stone walls and avoid overgrazing, the Staleys very rarely do any work that is not grant aided.

Farmers simply do not have the money themselves now to put into such work. However, although these schemes will probably ensure that our landscape retains its traditional and well loved character, they undoubtedly take away much of the control farmers have over their own land. It is a catch 22 situation - without grants, there would be no walling, because the farmers have run out of money. With grants, walls and barns will be maintained, but who will really own and manage our countryside?

The schemes are linked to the land itself, not the person who owns or farms it - and the restrictions imposed by the schemes have to be adhered to. When commissioned for a job Richard receives specifications for a wall from the ESA, who also provide basic rules and carry out quality checks. He has to be guided by whatever was originally there, and there are strict rules associated with bringing in extra stone to make it stock proof. Priority is given to conservation rather than the practical needs of the farmer. Once the job is complete the farmer can apply for the money from the scheme and a man from the ESA will visit to carry out random checks on the work before granting the money.

On a more personal note, Richard described how he feels about his craft - 'Working in the rain, you have to switch onto automatic pilot, selecting stones becomes second nature and your mind is left free to wander. I often talk to myself, while my hands and body are working.'

Stone walling is a country craft that deserves recognition. It is a skill that will be passed down from father to son and in spite of the farmers' current struggle it will stand the test of time. While the land is still there, walls and buildings will need maintaining - and so long as the buzzword is conservation the money will be supplied by government.

As for future plans and thoughts Richard recognises the need to develop other avenues. He enjoys domestic walling and a certain amount of landscape gardening. For him it makes a pleasant break and is not as physically wearing. He has also considered the possibility of running dry stone walling days through the Tourist Information organisations, giving instruction one or two days a week. One of his hobbies, when he has time aside from walling, acting in the local drama group and enjoying his family, is to create miniature stone walls, which have proved very popular with tourists and locals alike.