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Sport Someone There Is Who Loves a Wall

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

by Michael Finkel

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

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."

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Dry Stone Walling
A collection of photographs of dry stone walls being built. Posted at the Lancaster University, U.K. Web site.

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.

The second development was entirely unplanned. As in the United States, in Britain of recent years people have tended to move away from urban centers and into suburbs and smaller towns. One of the results of this population shift has been a renewed appreciation for the aesthetic appeal of dry-stone walls. Over the past decade walling has come to be regarded by those who have left the city as a kind of rural artistry -- comparable, perhaps, to the way fly-fishing is regarded in the United States. Wall-building classes and even corporate wall-building retreats now exist. An environmental group has published a booklet that teaches weekend wall ecologists to identify the eleven species of lichens, fifteen species of birds, eighty-four species of vascular plants, ten species of snails, and six species of woodlice that live on walls. Not long ago Allen was commissioned to construct a stone wall in an art gallery at the University of Hertfordshire. Walling, in short, has become hip.

For many years county fairs in rural Britain have featured, amid the stock shows and bake-offs, wall-building contests. In these, wallers construct or repair sections of wall, and judges determine who displays the finest craftsmanship. Until recently these were low-key affairs, little more than social gatherings aimed at countering the solitary nature of the profession. Since 1991, though, the Dry Stone Walling Association has organized the better-established competitions into what it calls a Grand Prix. Grand Prix contests are held throughout the country, in regions with widely varying stone types and building styles. Participating wallers are awarded points according to finishing position. The person with the most points at the end of the summer is declared the national champion, and is generally regarded as the top waller in Britain.

Allen has dominated these contests. He won the inaugural Grand Prix and has since won four more, including the past two. No one else has won more than two. As walling has increased in popularity, so, too, have the contests; they are now regularly covered in newspapers and on television. Allen's victories and burgeoning reputation have led to walling commissions in the United States and Europe. He has helped to construct several dry-stone installations for the sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. Once, for an advertising campaign, he built a thirteen-foot-high dry-stone rendering of a Johnny Walker Scotch bottle. A writer and part-time waller named David Griffiths recently published a biography of Allen. Within the British wall-building community Allen has become a celebrity.

LAST June, at the peak of the competitive wall-building season, Allen agreed to let me accompany him to a Grand Prix event. He lives with his wife, Susan, their twelve-year-old daughter, Hannah, and their infant daughter, Megan, in the Cumbrian village of Tebay, two hours' drive north of Manchester. Tebay, population 700, sits in the heart of British sheep-farming country. Allen's family has lived here for generations. Walls are everywhere, splotched with lichen, by turns twisted and plumb, bracketing the country roads and running like skipping stones over the dark-green fells direct to the feet of the mountains -- the Cumbrians to the west, the Pennines to the east. Allen's home, a stuccoed townhouse, is modest -- wall building is no path to riches -- and constructed with nary a rock ("Thank goodness," he says).

Competitions are typically held on Saturdays. We left in Allen's car for the Yorkshire Open just after sunrise -- or at least just after the sun was scheduled to appear. The skies over Cumbria, as far as I could tell, have two moods: mostly cloudy and entirely cloudy. "I work in the rain so often," Allen told me, "that I don't even notice anymore when it's raining." A few years ago, while building a wall on the Isle of Mull, he labored in a rainstorm that persisted without pause for a week.

For the Yorkshire Open, held in conjunction with a county fair in Honley, a small town on the east side of the Pennines, Allen was wearing clothing a half step dressier than his usual work attire. Instead of muddied blue jeans he wore clean ones; for a tattered T-shirt he had substituted a bright polo shirt. His supplies and provisions were stuffed into a plastic bucket: gardening gloves, a bottle of sports drink, a few cheese-and-tomato sandwiches, and two well-worn hammers, one of which he'd kept in water overnight in order to tighten up the head.

We spent much of the ride in silence. Allen seemed to find this comfortable. One might almost say he is shy; certainly he is unprepossessing and free of pretense. The previous evening, when I'd insisted on taking him to dinner, he had chosen a fish-and-chips shop; we ate on a park bench and wiped our hands on our pants. He doesn't easily speak about himself, and when coerced into doing so he has a tendency to downplay his skills. "I don't want to be called an artist," he says. "I'm a dry-stone waller. It's a job."

Continued...

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)


Michael Finkel is the author of Alpine Circus: A Skier's Adventures at the Snowy Edge of the World (1999).

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2000; Someone There Is Who Loves a Wall - 00.05; Volume 285, No. 5; page 112-116.