For half a century, Bernard Titterton has painstakingly helped to shape Derbyshire.
Working through summer heatwaves and subzero winters, Bernard has lifted hundreds of tonnes of stone to build miles of dry stone wall across the regions rolling hills.
First built hundreds of years ago, stone walls are a famous part of the Peak District landscape, helping attract thousands of visitors to the region every year.
But they also play a vital role in Derbyshire’s agriculture, providing shelter for stock, separating animals and preventing overgrazing on a landscape which is home to a rich variety of plants and wildflowers.
Walls come tumbling down
Over the centuries, most of the walls have needed attention after cattle or winds have dislodged stones and caused stretches of the wall to fall down.
After being neglected by the government for some time, 30 years ago grants were introduced to help farmers pay for their repair and upkeep, which is where the skills of wallers such as Bernard came in.
During that time Bernard and his team built about 4,000m every year, keeping wallers and farmers happy.
But fast-forward to 2015 and many walls are back in a poor state once again, thanks in part to lack of government funding, but mainly because there aren’t enough young people coming into the sector.
Bernard learned the trade as a child while he was working on his father’s hill farm near near Leek, Staffordshire.
“From the age of 10, I was building walls after school and during holidays, and it just went from there,” he says.
Fact file: Dry stone walls
- The only tools needed are a hammer, shovel, a pair of gloves and string to ensure the walls are straight.
- Traditional walls should be 4ft 6in high, with 18in of footings.
- The majority in the Derbyshire Dales’ walls are made from limestone. Most are rebuilt using existing stone from the walls, but where they are too damaged it will be brought from a local quarry.
- Funding for stone walls is administered by Natural England within mid-tier and higher-tier applications, or through the Boundaries Capital Grants scheme. Under the stone wall restoration grant, farmers can be paid £25/m up to £100/unit each year.
- The money can only be used on walls where at least one-third of the original height has to be dismantled and rebuilt in order to complete the restoration.
- Farmers can receive up to £44/m for new stone to repair walls, up to £100/unit a year.
“I started getting work through word-of-mouth, and I’ve been working for 50 years. I really enjoy doing it.”
It’s a job, he admits, that wouldn’t suit everyone. Rebuilding a wall involves clearing tonnes of rock, relaying the foundations and then rebuilding the structure, entirely by hand.
To understand the enormity of such a job, every metre of wall is made up of about 1t of rock. Those doing it get paid per metre, with the fastest building about 4m/day, for which they receive about £100.
As one of the region’s most prolific wallers, Bernard builds about 200m of wall a year.
On top of the laborious work, wallers also have to contend with working in all conditions, from scorching hot to freezing cold, biting winds to driving rain – and everything inbetween.
Tough weather conditions
“It gets to -10C in the winter up on the hills, but you have to keep going because that’s how you earn a living,” says Bernard, who reckons the Job Centre stopped sending recruits some years back because they said it was too inclement for workers.
“It’s never warm until the end of May.”
Despite the conditions, in the past he did not have any shortage of workers.
He worked with a team of three wallers, while he would receive payment to teach four YTS trainees on the job.
The problem came when the scheme was replaced by apprenticeships 15 years ago, and Bernard was forced to stop taking on recruits.
“With an apprentice, we have to pay them £100/week,” he says.
“When you’re teaching someone it takes time, and if we spend time teaching them then we’re not building and we lose money.
“If we put the prices of the walls up then farmers can’t afford to hire us, so we’re left with no choice – we can’t afford to take on trainees.
“The problem is as more and more people are retiring there’s no one left to take on the work,” he says.
“There are so few of us building walls around here that we just can’t keep up with the repair work and we’re getting to the point where the walls are in a really bad state.
“No other country has this and it’s what tourists expect to see when they visit the English countryside, but we’re at a tipping point.
“If we don’t start looking at this seriously now then they’ll fall down completely and will be lost.”
To try to reverse the decline, Bernard and another local waller, Glynn, have decided to set up their own training scheme which will ensure recruits are given the appropriate skills, while the financial side makes sense for farmers and wallers alike.
“It takes two years to learn how to do the job properly, but the courses on offer at the moment don’t give people the skills to be able to be a full-time waller,” he says.
“The Dry Stone Walling Association’s courses might give them an understanding of the basics, but if they give anyone a certificate after a couple of days it makes the job look silly and takes the mastery out of what we do.
“Plus if they can’t work fast enough to earn money after they get a certificate they may as well forget it.
Great wall builders
“We want to teach walling on the job like we used to.
“By teaching them on-farm we can work with them to show them how to do it, while paying them a wage and offering the farmer a reduced fee for building the wall. Everyone wins that way.”
As Bernard and Glynn are well-known in Derbyshire and Staffordshire, he hopes wallers accredited under their own scheme will be recognised by farmers as having the skills to build excellent walls.
“This year alone I’ve been on about 30 farms where the walls are just falling down; at the moment we’re firefighting and rebuilding short stretches where time and money allow,” he says.
“We’re hoping by doing this we’ll be able to make a difference, and that in hundreds of years’ time people will still be looking at the walls that we helped build.”