Someone There Is Who Loves a Wall

Tighter, neater, faster -- Steven Allen may be the best wall builder in the world

STEVEN Allen does not philosophize about stone walls. Plenty of other people do, but not Allen. He is generally a quiet person -- a result, perhaps, of spending much of his time alone, in the countryside, sorting through piles of rock. About the closest he'll come to proffering large thoughts is to say something vaguely Zenlike, such as "A stone is a stone." As with many of the things Allen says, more can be read into this than is at first evident.

The majority of wall builders will tell you that a stone, professionally speaking, is not always a stone. Wallers tend to specialize in a single kind of rock, typically the one found in their home county. Slate might be a stone, and limestone might be a stone, but granite represents little more than a series of frustrations. Allen, however, is a Cumbrian waller. People who are familiar with wall building in Great Britain know that Cumbria, a rural county in northwestern England, is something of a melting pot rockwise. "There's slate where I live," Allen says. "Two miles that way is limestone. Ten miles this way it's all sandstone, and ten miles the other way it's nothing but granite. I don't differentiate. They all make fine walls."

Allen is thirty-nine years old. His hair is brown and curly and responsive to neither comb nor brush. He has a squarish jaw, thickly callused hands, and forearms apt to make an observer wonder whether Allen's diet consists chiefly of spinach. He is six feet three inches tall. He has never had so much as a day of formal training, and he can't recall a time when he did not know how to build a wall. As a child, growing up on his family's sheep farm, Allen spent much of his playtime piling stones: "My father used to say to me, 'Put a few boulders on a wall if you want to do something useful.'" Allen attended school until age sixteen and then became a farmhand, working on his family's land and at larger operations. Wall repair was a never-finished task -- one that most workers loathed but that he found strangely satisfying. He decided to specialize.

Since 1988 Allen has worked full-time as a dry-stone waller. He walls nine hours a day, six days a week, every week of the year. On Sundays, instead of resting, he often returns to the family farm and walls there, too. Allen can safely be described as the best dry-stone waller in Great Britain. By extension, he may well be the best wall builder in the world.

A dry-stone wall is constructed without cement or mortar. It is held together solely by its own weight. Such walls were being built prior to recorded history; in Ireland the remains of field walls have been dated to the late Neolithic period, about 1750 B.C. Construction methods have remained essentially unchanged for centuries.

A well-built dry-stone wall can stand intact, without needing repair, for 200 years or more -- several times the lifespan of a cemented wall. Dry-stone walls shift and bend in order to conform to the natural movements of the land -- the frost heaves, the sinkholes, the settlings in the rainy season. A dry wall that is distorted and bellied and yet still fairly sturdy has reached what Allen calls "old age." Cement walls do not reach old age. Cement walls do not move. They crack, and then they fall. "Cement," Allen says, "is a sin."

On the other hand, a poorly built dry wall -- a "cowboy wall" -- sometimes does not last a single winter. The stones in a cowboy wall may not all tilt slightly downward, like roof tiles, so that water can drain out of the wall. The pebbles and rock chips placed in the wall's center -- the "hearting" -- may not be packed tightly enough in a cowboy wall, robbing the structure of critical strength. Allen's walls generate no such concern.

Wall building does not sound like an activity in which one can determine a best. Is there a best chimney sweep? A best horseshoer? Surely some in each of these fields are more skilled than others, but selecting a champion seems an exercise in arbitrary judgment. Walling, though, has had an unusual evolution compared with most other professions -- one that has transformed it from an industry to a relic to an art form to a sport.

THE Parliamentary Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which were intended to promote more-efficient farming methods, sparked a wall-building frenzy in Great Britain. Scores of men (walling was, and still is, an almost exclusively male occupation) left farms and mines to become wallers. By 1850 virtually every field in the nation had been enclosed. Some 70,000 miles of stone walls were built in England alone.

Ironically, the exceptional durability of dry-stone walls almost killed the profession. Once all the walls had been finished, wallers had little to do. When the enclosure-era walls finally began to tumble, in the mid-1900s, almost no one alive was capable of expertly repairing them. Barbed wire became the fencing method of choice. At the time, some historians predicted that by the twenty-first century the famous walls of the British farmlands would have vanished forever.

This has not happened. Though it is estimated that only four percent of England's walls are in pristine condition, and repairs to save the rest might cost as much as $4.8 billion, the dry-stone walls of Great Britain will apparently endure. Two developments helped to save them. The first was the founding, in 1968, of the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of walls and the walling profession. Thirty years ago the association had scarcely a hundred members. Now it has more than a thousand, including 250 professionals -- still a tiny number, considering the extent of needed repairs.

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