Posted 1st Jan 2013
When you think of the Yorkshire Dales you think of dry stone walls. But what you probably don't think of is that they may have been built by a woman. We meet Tracey Blackwell, one of the few female dry stone wallers in the UK, who is keeping this most traditional skill alive and well
A cold wind is whipping across the fields, carrying the first signs of rain which will probably set in for the day. The temperature is cold enough to chill the bones and the slate grey sky broods over the road where Tracey Blackwell bends double by a wall. Wrapped in three thick layers, her back resolutely turned against the elements, she is hacking away at a large, heavy stone, completely oblivious to the world around her.
‘I zone out,' she explains. ‘My entire focus is on the job I am doing at that moment - the shape of the stone, the way it's cutting and the place it will fit. Beyond that, I'm only thinking of the stone that will go in after it.'
The ‘bubble', as she calls it, is her work space, a tranquil state of mind which allows her to concentrate entirely on the task in hand as she painstakingly restores and builds some of the finest dry stone walls in the UK. For Tracey is among just a handful of professional female dry stone wallers in the country, and one of the top in her game - literally just a stone's throw away from becoming only the second female Master Craftsman of her trade.
‘There are quite a lot of women who enjoy it as a hobby, but very few who do it professionally,' said Tracey. ‘It's always tended to be a male domain and it's taken many years for women to consider it as a career.'
But Tracey is still an exception rather than the norm in the time-honoured craft of dry stone walling and she is keen to demonstrate that the ancient tradition is not just a practical necessity but an extraordinary work of art.
‘A lot of people liken it to piecing together a jigsaw, but there is no picture to guide you and the pieces don't come already cut to size,' she says. ‘The skill is in fine tuning your spacial awareness, understanding the nature of the materials, sculpting the stone to create a perfect fit and creating a wall of such a high standard that it will still be there 200 years from now.'
Since Tracey became ‘instantly hooked' during a day-long workshop, she has laid more than two miles of beautifully aligned and gracefully built dry stone walls in the lower parts of the Yorkshire Dales near Harrogate. At first she combined it with a gardening business, but soon decided to turn it into a full-time career working with fellow waller Andy Hudson, a qualified builder and businessman who gave up his office equipment company for a life outdoors. Between them they dismantle crumbling old walls, move the stone from one field to the next and build new walls with the reclaimed material. They spend hours fetching and carrying or bent over the heavy stones as they chip away the edges, honing them down into the shapes that define each section and perfecting the cuts until they fit like a glove.
Read the rest of this feature on p.96 of the January/February 2013 issue...
By Heather Dixon