Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bridge Hands

It was about 8 years ago that I saw my first dry stone bridge. My friend and colleague Norman Haddow took me to see this bridge which he had built using local stone in what seemed like quite a remote part of Scotland. It was based on the bridge at Glenn Lion which he had visited with his family many times as a boy. He had built this bridge barely two years before he showed me it and yet it looked as old as the hills.

I had a bit of an epiphany when I saw it. I couldn't remember ever seeing anything built of stone that looked so right, so beautiful, and so structural. I was pretty sure that we didn't have any bridges like it anywhere in Canada and yet it was plain to see as far as adding character it would be a wonderful thing to introduce into the Canadian garden landscapes.

A year later and with Norman's help we organized the first DSWAC 'pack horse' dry stone bridge building workshop in Canada. A handful of enthusiastic stone aficionados signed up for the course and together tried their 'hand' at building a bridge in Port Hope, Ontario at the first Canadian Dry Stone Wall Festival. Norman was a fantastic teacher.The footbridge we built and the whole idea of the festival too was a tremendous success.

The rest is history. Five Canadian bridges later and another one planned for this October at our 'Rocktoberfest' in Gananoque, Ontario (which Norman will be attending again, as he has done for the last seven years) we have now returned to Britain to tour the Lake District visiting the many beautiful stone bridges that can be found all through this part of the country.

I am particularly fascinated with one in little Langdale called Slater's Bridge, made of, you guessed it, slate. It has a very uneven walking surface consisting of the rounded-down well-worn tops of the long slate voussoirs. It has an unusual rugged look created by even longer voussoirs forming what may have been the original handrail posts which have since been replaced with metal ones. I suspect it was the bridge the quarry men used every day when they went to and from the local quarry.

Ironically they don't build dry stone bridges here anymore in the Lake District. They build new ones and replace the old stone bridges using wood or metal. This is a great shame because so much of the countryside and architecture here has been maintained and preserved so well. Perhaps we can bring dry stone bridge building back to this part of the world some day, like reintroducing some endangered species to its native habitat.

A dry stone bridge perhaps represents all that is good in this craft. Where the idea of someone 'putting up walls' can sometimes have a negative connotation, the analogy that is suggested by describing someone as a 'builder of bridges' is a very positive one. Of the people I have worked with on stone projects, those who have worked on bridges with me have demonstrated a fairly unique strength of character. While a person might build a 'wall' out of selfish or guarded motives, a bridge by definition requires a cooperative and accommodating nature. If a waller loves his craft and he is good at it, and more importantly, has integrity, then he will have no trouble making and maintaining 'bridges' in all areas of his life.

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