Words Jossy Smalley
Photographs Alan Clarke
What drove former dancer Ann Stewart to the backbreaking, cold, unyielding work of dry stone walling, despite being ‘the wrong age, wrong sex, and wrong shape?’
Dry stone walls are in my blood. Where I grew up, in Swaledale, the walls were as much a part of the landscape as the heather and the grass, the little black-stockinged sheep and the peat-brown water of the river Swale that swirled past the bottom of our garden. The miles and miles of neatly constructed walls – low, greyish black, built without any visible means of support – that snake around the fields and up the sides of the moors, punctuated by the odd small stone barn, seemed to me to be as rooted in the ground as the grass and wind-bent trees themselves.
Of course, they weren’t always there, but the walls are now the survivors of a harsh way of life, backbreaking, cold and unyielding, that was the lot of a hill farmer in the Yorkshire Dales – the tireless, weatherbeaten Dalesmen who lugged the huge stones across the valley bottoms and up the hills and placed them, one by one, in position, to safeguard their livestock and crops.
Although the origins of dry stone walls are a bit hazy, building with dry stone is one of man’s earliest skills – for thousands of years we have been building shelters, fortifications, burial structures, animal enclosures and so on. However, most of the incredible pattern of dry stone walls still standing now – North Yorkshire has the most with 12,500 miles, that’s an incredible half of the earth’s circumference – date from the 16th century. Around the villages and homesteads, the walled enclosures are small and irregular, becoming straighter and more rectangular but still long and narrow the further they stretch. Further out again, the walls run straighter, enclosing large parcels of land, and embracing natural obstructions such as huge boulders and limestone outcrops without interruption.
Nowadays, far from being the dying art it is often rather whimsically described as, the essential work required to maintain and rebuild these miles of walls is being continued by a small but thriving band of dedicated craftsmen – and women, it turns out. Scrolling down the list of Dry Stone Wall Association members, Ann Stewart’s name jumped out – mainly because she was a woman. She turned out to be more and more intriguing as her story unfolded.
When we first meet, rather unusually for Stewart, at a private garden in London’s Hampstead where she is rebuilding a wall around a raised flowerbed, the first thing you think is, Ann Stewart doesn’t look much like a waller. Or at least, not what you’d expect someone who builds dry stone walls out of big lumps of limestone in the Yorkshire Dales – or even Hampstead – to look like. In her late sixties and small, with her silver hair cut short and enviably perfect skin, she looks as if she might have been a dancer. All the more delightfully, that turns out to be exactly what she was.
So how did a former dancer come to be building dry stone walls in North Yorkshire? The first clue comes early on in Stewart’s life. When you meet Ann Stewart in person, you soon become aware of an aura of strength and determination about her. At the age of 14, the headmistress of the small school of dance that she attended discovered that Stewart was strong enough to push a grand piano across the floor, so she was called upon to shift the piano from its evening location to the daytime position for dance classes, and back, without having to bother the caretaker.
‘At the time,’ says Stewart, ‘I didn’t know that I would move many, many more studio pianos in my lifetime, not to mention huge lumps of limestone.’
Stewart continued her classical dance training for two years at the Royal Ballet School, but just at the point of her graduation, she cracked a bone in her right foot. She soldiered on, with that characteristic determination, and then, while auditioning for the National Ballet of Canada, disaster struck – she broke the bone that she had cracked a few months earlier. Back then, she says, health and rehabilitation services for injured dancers were nothing like they are now, and it seemed that her dancing career might be over before it had begun.
Dejectedly returning home, she decided to take a different path in the same fi eld, and enrolled in the newly opened Benesh Institute of Choreology in London. Benesh Movement Notation, invented by Rudolf Benesh, is a way of plotting the movements of a body in sign language on the five-line musical stave. ‘We were taught Benesh Movement Notation at the RBS,’ says Ann, and while most of the students loathed it, she loved it. To put a complex technical process very simply, a choreologist, or notator, works closely with the choreographer of the dance to record the movements of the performers, correlating these with the music to produce a notated movement document.
So what, you might ask, does this have to do with dry stone walling? To answer this we have to go back to basics: how is a dry stone wall built? Stewart gives me a slight insight at our first meeting in Hampstead, when I marvel at how she knows where to put all the pieces. With most of her walling being repair work, the answer lies in the wall itself. ‘Taking the wall apart is an important familiarisation process,’ she explains, ‘recognising the nature and shapes of the stones, whether it’s a sliver of slate, or a misshapen limestone hulk, as you lay them out on the ground.’
The stones, to Stewart, are the characters in a production: ‘I find similarities between a mass of stones on the ground and the challenge of the first day of a crowded rehearsal – every stone, every performer, has to go somewhere, and stone has characteristics, if not personality!’ Or, as one of her own customers put it, ‘It’s about pattern recognition.’
‘I’m sure that a love of recycling and sewing skills helps with my approach to dry stone walling…’
A methodical approach is also vitally important. ‘As a notator, you have to be incredibly detailed in your approach and in your writing to avoid ambiguity. If you have to find the right male dancer for this, and the right elderly singer for that, you have to make quick decisions about their potential, suitability, support, quirkiness… the sea of stones makes similar demands. Getting from Monday to Friday with a production is just so like Monday to Friday with a wall.’
But why walling, of all things? After a long and distinguished career in choreology, initially with the Rambert Dance Company, and then freelance, having been made a Fellow of the Benesh Institute, Ann and her husband (a retired theatre lighting designer) decided in 1999 to move to Yorkshire, initially to be nearer Ann’s ageing parents in Oban. Her interest in walling, however, was sparked much earlier. Back in the 1980s, on a holiday on the Shropshire Union Canal, she picked up a leaflet on dry stone walls and, as she puts it, ‘something clicked.’
Despite being, in her words, the ‘wrong age, wrong sex and wrong shape,’ as soon as the opportunity arose, she took herself off on a dry stone walling course in Derbyshire. Throughout the 1990s, she went on various courses for ‘beginners and improvers’ in Derbyshire and Yorkshire, setting up her own semi-supervised work-experience projects to test her own stamina and strength, as well as her capacity for working with different types of stone, and in all weathers. Over the years Stewart has met and worked with some of the best DSWA master craftsmen, including Stephen Harrison of Ingleton (‘he can wall with anything,’ she says), thus building her experience and contacts along with her own not inconsiderable strength and stamina.
But there must have been something, a passion smouldering deep down inside, that led her to pursue this unusual occupation? It’s hardly a soft option.
‘I’ve always liked making things, and in particular, making one thing into something else that is useful and lasting. I think I must have inherited this from my mother. She once made an old chair cover into an Elizabethan costume, for a school play. I’m sure that a love of recycling and sewing skills helps my approach to dry stone walling.’
As well as her everyday walling work, Ann undertakes special smaller projects, such as the garden wall in Hampstead, boundary walls, new gateways, raised flowerbeds, as well as less glamorous assignments such as concealment walls for domestic fuel tanks – ‘making something good’ as she puts it, out of seemingly waste material. And then of course, there is the sheer enjoyment and satisfaction she derives from the process: ‘What I most love is a quiet location in a beautiful landscape in the drier weather, dismantling the anatomy of an ancient fallen wall and rebuilding it with itself.’
Reading the DSWA’s leaflet Walls & the Landscape, it’s obvious that, like most things that look simple, this is a very complex process. Walls are not inanimate objects, they are organic beings that shift and change and have a life of their own, as well as providing a habitat for plants, birds, insects (and sometimes, as Ann says, for unwelcome detritus such as ‘bottles and cans, and the ubiquitous Snickers wrappers – what is it about Snickers’ eaters?’).
These ancient walls are still essential to the ecosystem and the work of the hill farmers, so much of the existing dry stone wallers’ work is maintenance, and repair of damage by weathering, as well as people, vehicles and animals. And, of course, most of the sites are not conveniently placed beside a road with a handy parking space. So how does she manage, this small, seemingly fragile figure, out there in the Dales and the bad weather?
Once again, it comes down to dance training, and her trusty van, which serves as her mobile workshop and refuge – ‘My van is my gritty dressing room. I can at least crouch in the back and change my clothes. When a major part of your life has revolved around touring from town to town, in and out of theatre dressing rooms and B&Bs, you learn to pack your belongings with special attention to survive in the face of adversity.’
That and a few wheelbarrow-loads of stones, strength and stamina.
The Dry Stone Walling Association; dswa.org.uk