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Clearly, though, he is not only passionate about his work but also fiercely competitive. We had left at sunrise so that Allen could be the first to arrive at the contest site, as always, giving him maximum time to study the task at hand. Nearly every flat surface in his house supports a walling trophy. When I asked about his accomplishments, soon after I met him, he handed me four scrapbooks fat with newspaper clippings and then retired to the living room to watch soccer on television. Allen, I learned from the clippings, had entered his first contest in 1984 -- the Derbyshire Limestone Championships. He was awarded first prize in the amateur division. In 1991 he won six of the eight Grand Prix contests he entered; in 1994 he won six of nine and announced his retirement from competition. Like a number of sports celebrities, he promptly unretired at the start of the next season. Going into the Yorkshire Open, he had lost only one contest (he finished second at the 1998 Eden Valley competition) in the past two years.
The Yorkshire Open was staged on a bluff overlooking the rest of the fair. A length of decrepit wall had been roped off; the competitors would have to tear it down and then build a fresh wall in its place. Wooden stakes demarcated individual sections. Allen was indeed the first competitor there. He pulled on his leather work boots and paced the length of the wall, seemingly lost in thought. Soon a stocky man with a bristly red moustache, wearing deeply stained overalls, arrived. He was David Griffiths -- the author of Allen's biography. He had come from the nearby city of Leeds, where he worked as a playwright and a teacher. Griffiths was a classic wall-building philosopher. "I find walling therapeutic," he said. "It clears my mind of clutter; it's meditation to me. Walling and writing complement each other nicely. Walls tend to be in peaceful settings, in the country. Once I get a wall going, it sort of goes by itself, and it's then I'm able to do my best creative thinking."
I asked Griffiths if he considered wall building to be an art form. "In some cases, yes," he said. He lifted his chin in Allen's direction. "I think Steven has a particular eye for the way stone assembles, the way it looks. He is clearly the best waller in the land. No matter the stone, his walls are tighter, and neater. He works faster than anyone else, and at a higher level."
Fifteen wallers -- fourteen men, one woman -- eventually showed up, along with four judges, a referee, a chief steward, and a clutch of onlookers. Numbers were drawn from a hat, and the competitors moved to the corresponding segments of wall. A whistle was blown, and the contest began.
I saw immediately that walling is hard physical labor. A standard four-and-a-half-foot-high stone wall weighs approximately 1.75 tons per yard of length; competitors in the professional class had to build two and a half yards -- to lift more than four tons of rock in the eight hours of the competition. In his book, Drystone Dyking (Scottish walls are called dykes), the longtime waller Robert Cairns described an old wall builder as walking "half shut, bent from the hips with constant stooping." Cairns's conclusion about walling seemed apt: "This is art and brute force combined."
The day started with an exercise in brute force -- the removal of the old wall, a process called stripping out. Everyone had a slightly different method. Some tore haphazardly at the wall, grabbing two or three rocks at a time and tossing them down. Others laid their stones in neat piles, one by one, organized by size. Allen worked more quickly than most, though he paused for an instant as he gripped each stone, as if memorizing its form, before tossing it behind him into a loose semicircle of larger rocks to his left, smaller to his right.
When the space before them was reduced to bare earth, the competitors began to build. In Great Britain there are as many walling styles as there are counties. These include Galloway dykes, Devon chip-and-blocks, Cornish hedges, Welsh cloddiau, Cotswolds cock-and-hens, Dartmoor singles, and Cornwall Jack-and-Jills. Walling aficionados can study a dozen books dense with technical specifications and confounding with regional vocabulary. An example: a small passage built into a wall to allow sheep but not cattle to pass through is called, depending on one's location, a cripple hole, a sheep creep, a hogg hole, a lunky, a lonky, a smout, a smoot, a smoose, a thirl, or a thawl.
At the Yorkshire Open the task was to build a common sort of wall, known as a double. Yorkshire double walls have two faces of stone with hearting packed between; halfway up is a layer of "throughs" -- large, heavy rocks that bridge the two sides and help tie the wall together. The wall features a "batter," or taper, of 1:12 -- that is, it becomes an inch narrower for every foot it rises -- and it is capped with a ridge of triangular stones, called copes. Judging takes account of, among other things, the soundness of one's foundation, the effectiveness of one's throughs, the tightness of one's copes, and the exactness of one's batter.
I watched Allen work. He'd stand stock-still for a moment and stare at his wall with a calculating look on his face. Then he would swiftly turn around and bend down and select a stone. He'd twist it and jiggle it and flip it over and back, as if fiddling with prayer beads. Then he'd pick up his hammer, hold the stone to his thigh, and chip off pieces with a few sharp taps. One of the qualities that sets Allen apart from other wallers is his feel for the hidden seams snaking through a rock. He can't quite explain how he knows where it will break; he just knows. When Allen hit a rock, it invariably fractured along a plane as smooth as a sail. He'd flip the rock one or two more times, perhaps tap it again with his hammer, and then place it on the wall with a pat from his palm. If he was setting it into a space between two others, the rock would literally click into place, wedged between its neighbors as tightly and neatly as if Allen were building with Lego bricks. He'd nod, reach down and sweep up the chips he'd broken off, and pack them into the center of the wall. Then he'd study the next gap for a second or two, spin around, and pick up another stone.
Within an hour I could see that Allen faced only two real contenders for the trophy: a ponytailed, chain-smoking thirty-eight-year-old Welshman named Sean Adcock, who had been a runner-up for the 1997 Grand Prix; and a fifty-one-year-old from Derbyshire named Trevor Wragg, who had won the Grand Prix in 1996. Most of the other wallers were struggling with the stone, a sharp, coarse-grained variety called gritstone. "Horrible stone," one mumbled; "Pure rubbish," another said. Several competitors, unaccustomed to building Yorkshire-style walls, appeared bewildered at times, incapable of coaxing their stones into alignment. Judges paced back and forth, conferring and pointing and jotting notes. Allen worked like a machine, breaking his rhythm only to sip his sports drink, toiling in silence save for the clink of hammer against rock.
The crowd was small (walling is not much of a spectator sport), but those who watched seemed knowledgeable, muttering about weak-looking foundation stones and misaligned rows. "People will bicker for years over one stone placed in the wrong spot," said Bill Noble, an onlooker who was studying Allen's work. Noble described himself as a "folk-singing waller." He'd been building walls, he said, for twenty-seven years. In 1997 he was Grand Prix champion; today, though, he didn't feel like competing.
AS the event progressed, a drizzle stopping and starting, it became apparent that Allen was in for a challenge. It was not his best walling day. One rock low in his wall was slightly crooked; another had an annoying bulge. As his stock of remaining stones started to thin, Allen began having trouble finding the right one for the job. He'd pick up five, six, seven stones, and toss each one down, seemingly disgusted. For the first time all day he began to sweat. Noble pointed out a place where Allen had made a mistake: two rocks, one above the other, ended at the same point instead of overlapping, creating what is known as a running joint. Ideally, the gap between every pair of rocks in a wall is covered top and bottom. Both Sean Adcock and Trevor Wragg were keeping pace. "When the stone isn't going right," David Griffiths had told me, "you look at the wall and your head is just screaming. You know that one stone wrongly placed changes the effect of the whole." The closest Allen came to airing his irritation, though, was when a spectator asked him what he thought of the Yorkshire stone. "I've seen better," he said, and continued building.
Eventually Allen worked through his problems and was back to building a superior wall. In competition each waller is responsible for making sure that his section ties securely into his neighbors' sections. The result, at the end of the day, is one unbroken stretch of wall, though of widely varying quality. Allen took his time with the cope stones, making sure the triangular tops formed an even line; then he cleaned up his site. His wall looked simple and beautiful and solid, worthy of a two-century run.
Soon the competition was over. The wallers, abruptly released from their labors, wandered about looking lost. I spoke with one of the judges, an elderly man named Bryan Hough, who was recently named the national president of the Dry Stone Walling Association. Hough let me in on a secret: Allen had won. "That running joint nearly did him in," he said. "Take that away and nobody else would be close. But Sean laid a poor foundation stone, and it showed throughout his wall. And Trevor had to hurry to beat the cutoff time, and his copes are loose."
Once the official announcement was made and Allen had collected his trophy and token prize money, he stuffed his belongings into the car and we swiftly departed. "You have to concentrate the whole time," he said, critiquing himself aloud. "One slip and it can be over. I slipped, and I'm lucky I won. If I were the judge, I'd have given it to Trevor."
As Allen spoke, we passed through the city of Huddersfield. The stone walls suddenly ended, and everything turned to brick. After staring at stone walls all day, I found that the brick seemed garish and artificial, like a cheap toy. I was reminded of one of Allen's sayings: "Everything is more or less in wall building," meaning that no matter how neat a wall appears, each stone is still in some small way slightly imperfect. I repeated his aphorism out loud.
Allen glanced at me and looked out the windshield and understood what I'd been thinking. "Laying bricks," he said, "is the most boring thing I can imagine."
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2000; Someone There Is Who Loves a Wall - 00.05 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 5; page 112-116.