Monday, October 31, 2011

Scary Stonework

Just because a dry stone structure looks different, just because it lacks the extra tight coursing of say Yorkshire style walls, or because it's built in the middle of a pumpkin patch or has strange irregular stones protruding from it , holes running through it or maybe untapered stones suspended together in an arch – that doesn't automatically make it 'scary'. 

A wall may look like it is falling down too, but that may be because it was built to look that way. Case in point the Gothic Victorian ruins  Dan Snow and several others of us in the DSWAC built  at Hill and Dale B and B in Canada back in 2005 which had some stones pushing out from a big hole where other stones appeared to be missing in the foundation. It was actually designed to appear like the whole thing  was coming apart. To this day if I am showing visitors the folly here in Port Hope I have to tell them not worry about the ruined look of the walls and that it was all planned.

Even if a wall is showing obvious signs of wear and has annoying cracks along it, it's likely that it still has years of life in it. Honestly folks, it isn't that scary. It definitely isn't as scary as concrete (no matter how long it lasts) or cement block work, or mortared stonework that doesn't even trying to look beautiful or aesthetic. It isn't as scary as innocuously bland heaps of institutional masonry built without imagination or any respect for the environment. It isn't as scary a torturous gabion cages or ominous military occupations of armour stone

No 'scary' means badly built to the point where it is embarrassing or dangerous. And while it's scary when people try to do it and yet completely fail in terms of how structural or beautiful dry stone work could have been, it's even more 'scary' when those who know they can do better, only criticise and rarely risk trying anything out of the ordinary or whimsical or even remotely scary themselves.  

Now that's scary!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Building Bridges

Something there is in me that loves a dry stone bridge,
That makes my heart swell as I look under it,
To see the upper boulders suspended in an arc,
To form a weightless path where even two can pass abreast over a gully or creek.
It's a work of wonder, it's is another thing altogether!
I have come to stand and stare
Where the voussoirs fit one stone against another stone,
No part of the bridge looks static.
It forms pleasing spaces. Even the gaps, I mean.

Not many have seen one made or heard of anyone still making them.
To see springers dressed on site, where you find them just laying there on the ground.

I let the waller neighbor know beyond the hill we plan to build one;
And on a day we meet that I might show him the line of the bridge we would like to build,
And then I begin to set the stones to span the gap to bring he and I closer once again.
I keep the idea of a friendly bridge in mind as I build.

The boulders that are randomly discarded about the hills will become useful.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
I have to use my wits to make them fit over the arch:
They will stay where they are, even after the form is taken out.
I wear my fingers rough with handling them.

'This is just another kind of out-door game'
(The one on the other side visits to make little of my work)
'Do we need a bridge at all?'

He is all formal and I am rustic.
My ideas may never get across.
I'm glad he does what he does so well, I tell him, I like his walls.
I only say, 'Good bridges make us good natured'.

Fall is the mischief in him, and he wonders
If he could put a notion in my head:
'Why do we have to be good natured or good neighbours? Isn't walling
Just a job. Shouldn't a bridge be something to connect a trail?
But here there is no trail. I see little reason that our lands should be connected .'
Before he built a bridge he'd ask to know
What was the point and what it will cost him.
He builds only to keep things out and make a fence with his stones.

Something there is that doesn't love a bridge,
That wants it not built.' I could say 'sour grapes' to him,
But it's not that exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good bridges don't necessarily make good neighbors."

(The poem Mending Fences by the famous American poet Robert Frost became the inspiration for me when I considered writing a poem about building bridges. It ended up being more of a humble rewrite of his beautiful piece about dry stone walls . I neither presume to have improved upon, nor wish to detract from, what he has written)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

2011 Dryscaping Award

Mike Melo, Brian Bailey and Patrick Callon collaborated on this lovely dry stone structure which was a design of Patrick's. They win the 2011 DSWAC Canadian Dryscaping Award, a competition which was held this year to acknowledge the best design and build in Canada for a dry stone work completed by October 2011, in the category of ' dry stone enclosure'.

This is the fourth year that an award (and a small monetary prize) has been given out by our organization. 

Wallers who win this prize are chosen on the basis of photos of their recent projects submitted by email to the DSWAC. The entries are looked over and the stone project that we feel displays the highest standard of craftsmanship in the category for that year is chosen and is announced the first week in October, at the Canadian Thanksgiving Dry Stone Wall Festival. Congratulations to Mike Brian and Patrick of London Ontario for their fine work. All three men participated in the Rocktoberfest amphitheatre building project this year and Mike Melo accepted the award on behalf of all three wallers.

Next year's 2012 Dryscaping Award category will be posted on the site shortly. 


Friday, October 28, 2011

Lending a hand.

Big thanks to everyone who leant a hand on Little Long Lake Bridge. 

There was invaluable instruction shared with us from Gavin Rose who flew in from England again to be involved. His assistance in building this the fourth bridge he and I have collaborated on in Canada made the whole event another great success. Gavin took extra time to  patiently shape many of those special stones that we needed to make this bridge even more unique than the other 7 DSWAC bridge projects, with its pitched corrying and extended voussoirs and keystones. If the DSWA had pinnacle awards in Canada this surely would be a contender for the prize. 

Another key player was Norman Haddow whose cheeriness, energy and knowhow injected the project with great momentum early in the first week of bridge construction. Thanks Norman for giving up some of your time in Canada after Rocktoberfest and joining us on this project. 

John Scott , heritage masonry professor at Algonquin College dropped by for two days helped with big stones moving and shared some of his valuable masonry knowledge (and humour) with our students. 

Thanks too to Angus who is a qualified mason too and hosted this workshop and carried and shaped a lot the big stones. He did such a great job on the pitching. He and his wife Elaine provided great hearty lunches, and plenty of refreshments and great snacks. 

Thanks to the students who all gave so much to this project. Matt and Dan both from the States became good friends over the two weeks and were really hard workers on this project. They asked all the right questions and hopefully learned a lot too. Alan drove here from Guelph and was a big contributor too and although he had to leave before the bridge was completed he got to see the form pulled out on the eve of his 71st birthday. Happy birthday Alan! 

All in all this was a great experience. The bridge is a sturdy looking, almost Hobbit-like structure, that well suits the mossy wooded 12 acre lot we chose to built it on. It will last a long time and charm everyone who stumbles across it. Interestingly Angus has yet to build a rustic style house on the property . I have to give him credit for having the inspiration and commitment into landscaping his newly bought property before setting about building a house on it instead of having it be just an after thought.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Pictures of pitching

Gavin Rose a National Trust ranger and expert trail maker taught people about the technique of 'pitching' at the close of our two week bridge building workshop .

Pitching creates a cobblestone surface along the walking surface of a bridge or trail.
In this case the anchor stones are dug in and secured at the approaches to the bridge and then stones are set deep into the ground and laid in rows up and over the arc of the top of the structure.

Its a slow process but the finished stone path ends up being a very durable surface providing lots of traction.

The courses of stones all have to have level faces running across the width of the bridge between opposing copes the entire length of the bridge. They are supported by carefully placed hearting packed and shimmed underneath each stone.

Here's a picture of everyone who pitched in, pitching at a feverish pitch, yesterday.

 Here is a pitcher perfect section of completed surface.

Today we finish the bridge and clean up the site.
(Lots of pictures of the completed Little Long Lake Bridge workshop tomorrow.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The upside of bridge building.

The arch was looking pretty sweet in the rain yesterday. It was definitely the high point of our day to see it with the form pulled out in all its glistening wet colours.

On the other hand, the downside of working on the bridge was that we were struggling in the rain and the mud most of yesterday.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Taking careful aim at the bridge

Here are two people taking two very different shots at the bridge.

Hunting season is over in Ontario, but at Little Long Lake north of Kingston Ontario there are more people coming around trying catch a rare shot of the unusual dry stone structure being built  here in the forest  .

Tomorrow I hope to show shots of it taken aimed at its under belly.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Over the hump

You know there is a big difference between being over the hump and being over the hill. 
Yesterday we put all the stones up on the bridge form and completed the arch vault. We all felt exhilarated to be over the hump and a bit tired too but none of us even the older guys felt over the hill.

Johann Sebastian Rock is attempting to orchestrate some of stones into a harmonious arrangement without having to lift them.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


Can you guess what this is?
Can you guess what all the pink and white marks are for?

Can you guess what we are building?
Can you tell us why we are here?

Friday, October 21, 2011


The two Aussies who are participating in 
this ten day bridge course , Gavin and Angus 
stand beside the completed section of 
'corrying' on this our third day into the project.

Before we begin the next stage of bridge construction and start the vaulted arch we must prepare an area directly under the bridge in the actual creek (there is very little water  running this time of year) 

We are doing this because at this bridge site the river bed could wash away and undermine the foundations. I have seen this kind of stone 'roadway' below several old arched stone railway bridges in southern Ontario. The stones are laid to form a kind of cobblestone surface. 

In our application a bed is constructed by 'pitching' medium sized stones which have all been found on the property and fitted together in rows perpendicular to the direction of the stream. 

This kind of stone river-bedding Norman tells us is called 'corrying'.
Does anyone know another proper architectural term for this part of a bridge? 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Rock Hunting

The men have caught this large granite specimen and are loading it in the back of the pickup truck. They have caught their limit now.  John Scott explained that he noticed this one in the bushes, laying perfectly still, very close to where he had been hiding in waiting . "I didn't even notice this big one beside me. It didn't move at all until I started prodding it with my pry bar." The rock immediately tried to get and away bolted down the hill but the men managed to capture it (without hurting it) and now they are taking it back to the bridge site to give it a new home in the vault they are building.

Rosie is a 'Springer Spandrel'. She is specially trained to sniff out suitable stones for the rock hunters to use in the bridge. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Stone Hunters

Are these men just hunters gathered together to have their picture taken before they go off to stalk deer of moose in some wooded Ontario property?
Is this man stalking something unusual and dangerous with that strange weapon?
Is this some kind of big game trap the hunters have constructed and dug all day to be able to hide in the ground?

Tune in tomorrow to find out.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Handing out Compliments

A Scottish waller friend and I were driving back from the States and discussing the problem of being shown a wall (either being taken to see it, or perhaps in a photo) that someone has built which when you see it you realize right away, isn't very good. 

Sure you can politely say.
"That  looks very interesting." or "That's quite different."

Or you could just say "Wow!" 

But there are even better comments to deal with this awkward problem.
My friend told me about a journalist he knew who often had articles submitted to him that weren't that good and began thinking up ways to deal with the problem and eventually accumulated a number of useful replies.

Here are a few of them.

"You certainly have a style all your own."

"You must be really pleased with what you've done."

"You know, I would never thought of doing that ."

And my favorite,

"Has anybody ever told you how good you are?"

We came up with a few others on our drive home, one of which was, 

"Im wondering if this might possibly be you best work?"

Are there any other tactful responses you can think of?
Please feel free to add them as comments on today's post. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Magic went on behind the partition.

This fortress like partition put up by Steve of Sara's Garden Centre protected us from the wind and rain last Saturday and Sunday as students participated in what would have otherwise been a not very dry stone wall workshop in Brockport New York.

The finished walls appeared quite magically when the partition was removed on Sunday afternoon.

A before shot reveals all the awkward big round stones we had to work with and how happy we all were to try to work with them

The finished shot shows us all still in good spirits and in no way defeated by the stones or the weather.

Some us thought Norman was looking pretty cool in his new dark safety sunglasses.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Rock Festivals

So, before there were rock festivals,
before there was even rock and roll music, there were rocks!
And way back then, like now, 
fans and enthusiasts of the Stones – Real Stones – 
in all shapes and sizes,often came together to celebrate how much they liked them by erected some amazing megalithic creations.
These people, moved by rocks,
figured out how to move them.
And shape them
And use them
To build all sorts of wonderful structures.
And so, throughout subsequent civilizations, the tradition of developing and promoting the craft of rock and rolling all over the earth ensued.

We like to think of Rocktoberfest as a continuation of this tradition of celebrating stone here in Canada.

Is this such a crazy idea?
Surely not.
We have ribfests, snakefests, mudfests, UFOfests, cheese rolling fests and a myriad of other strange events.

Two photos (above and below) were taken by Sean Adcock
Our passion is to see people come together and build things with rocks, just rocks; not overly technical, precision, machine-sawn, over-engineered edifices built with heavy machinery and involving complicated modern procedures, but rather informal structures and collaborations that promote a communal effort and a sensible approach to building with stone that combines fun with education and creativity.

The structures may be permanent or fleeting. They may be functional or purely aesthetic. Whatever we assemble to build, it is always a celebration, an event, the pleasure from which is shared equally by participants and onlookers. We believe the process is as important and entertaining as the final result. There will be risks, setbacks, changes in design and many surprises along the way, but this is all part of the attraction of the Rocktoberfest projects.

We are not in competition with modern masonry, but looking back longingly at a time when everyone was a lot more used to being around stone and comfortable with seeing it used in all sorts of aesthetic and practical applications. We are looking ahead to a time when people again will draw their inspiration from being close to stone and work with it structurally, not just decoratively.

Are the collaborative constructions we build at our festivals perfect?
Are they a final statement of combined craftsmanship and knowledge?
Are they designed to be an affront to the work of professionals who spend their working lives building permanent structures

They are celebrations in stone. Hopefully inspiring not only those who give of their time to work on them but the members of the public who watch them being made in addition to those who come in the future to see what we have done here.

The spirit behind Roctoberfest may be difficult to get your head around. Our goal is to create a festive atmosphere and showcase a craft that has for too long been mired by the rampant over use of manmade products in our modern environment.

 We all enjoyed working with people this last Rocktoberfest discovering new and old ways to build walls (and arches) without mortar and meet with DSWAC members and some of the growing ranks of skilled wallers who work with stone in Canada and abroad and hopefully add some much needed beauty and character to our human landscape.

The last four photos were taken by Sean Adcock