This ancient building technique is being used in a fresh way in gardens, says Louise Curley
Drystone building – constructing without the use of mortar – dates back in Britain to prehistoric times, used to make buildings and to enclose land in places with large quantities of stone lying around, and where strong winds and thin soil meant hedging plants would struggle to survive. The dry stone walls of northern Britain are an iconic feature of the landscape, but the growing interest in creating gardens grounded in their local environment, and the use of dry stone construction on Chelsea show gardens, has seen wallers increasingly using their skills in garden designs.
Richard Clegg regularly works with Landform Consultants at RHS Chelsea on their evocative Welcome to Yorkshire gardens. “Dry stone work is no longer confined to the enclosing of fields,” he says. “My team works throughout the UK and Europe on projects which range from walls with pillars and gates, to garden follies, water features such as waterfalls, ponds and bridges, to art for art’s sake, like a dry stone ‘tree’. Projects range in price from a few hundred pounds to hundreds of thousands.”
Clegg works in both newly quarried and reclaimed stone, which is generally from sources local to him in West Yorkshire, but he will go a long way to find the right stone. “I found stream boulders for a natural-effect waterfall to be built in Surrey in a corner of Wensleydale in North Yorkshire, and I am currently searching for a particular type of stone from Caithness in Scotland for a project in London,” he reveals.
For Sheffield-based designer Phil Hirst MSGD, using dry stone brings a sense of solidity and permanence to a garden, but in a modern way. “It isn’t only relevant to a ‘traditional’ look and feel. Dry stone can be used in quite a contemporary way without it being too stark and clinical,” he explains. “Being from an area where dry grit-stone walling is a common vernacular style, I use it for both free-standing walls and as a facing for retaining walls. In the latter case, they are not strictly dry stone as we would specify use of mortar joints to give more stability to the face work, but this is raked back to give the appearance of traditional dry stone.”
Hirst points out that to get the look, it’s crucial to find skilled craftspeople. “Having had a go at dry stone walling myself, I know that it’s not as easy as it might first appear. It’s also important that the person building the wall is experienced in using the particular type of stone, as the techniques vary for different stone types.”