Dry Stone Walling 101

A couple of weekends back (yes, I’m a bit behind with my blog posts), I went on a two-day introduction to dry stone walling, run by the fantastic people at the South West England Dry Stone Walling Association. I’d been nurturing a vague interest in dry stone walling for some time, so when I saw that there was a course on (quite literally) just down the road, I felt that it was some kind of sign – so signed up!

In case you haven’t come across dry stone walling before, it’s the craft of (as the name suggests) building a wall from stones, but without using any mortar. Dry stone walls are common in many parts of England, particularly in agricultural areas. Because the geology of each area is different, the style of walling varies to take account of the characteristics of the local stone.

Our task on the course was to dismantle an old wall (i.e. the one built by the people on the previous course a few months ago) and rebuild it from scratch. The first job was to take down the old wall down and to dig out the large foundation stones. It’s important to build directly onto the inert subsoil, as the topsoil is still breaking down and does not, therefore, provide a stable base. This means lots of digging.

At the end of which we were left with a satisfyingly large pile of stones, each sorted vaguely according to size…

…as well as a very nice trench. We used a frame and some string to mark where we wanted the wall to be. The wall is made up of two separate vertical layers, interlocking with each other, and with smaller stones filling the gaps in the middle. And the two layers slope inwards in a 1:6 ratio, providing additional stability. (I bet you didn’t think you’d be learning this when you started surfing the internet today…)

With our trench all marked out, we started relaying the foundation stones. We each worked on one section of one side of the wall, so we soon got to know each other quite well. And the agony of lugging massive stones around created an odd kind of bond in seemingly record time.

Thankfully, it was soon time for lunch. The course instructors were well prepared, with a gas stove to boil water for tea and a converted horse box with a toilet. (Yes, you read that correctly. It’s behind the white partition in the photo below.) To be honest, after weeks and weeks of doing ‘work’ work, I was really enjoying just being outside and doing some manual labour. I don’t know why, but it just feels more honest, somehow.

Inevitably, we were soon back at work. By this stage, the wall was starting to appear above ground level (always helpful in a wall) and we had to make sure that all of the stones were well fixed and didn’t move around. (The trick is to insert smaller stones from behind to get a solid fit.) While some parts of the country have lovely, uniform chunks of stone, the local pennant sandstone around here appears to be somewhat random. But if you look hard enough, I found, there’s almost always a stone to fit the gap you’re struggling with.

By the end of day one, our wall was almost certainly recognisable as such. Admittedly, it wouldn’t yet keep the cows in (I forgot to mention that we were working in a cow field, with the cows paying particular attention to our activities), but it was most definitely getting there.

You can see in the photo below how the stones overlap to create a solid structure. The mantra, apparently, is ‘one on two, two on one’, to make sure you don’t get any weak points. Admittedly, there are some fairly sizeable gaps between some of the stones, but please don’t forget that we were beginners, and so should be permitted a certain amount of leeway in such matters.

We were also fairly mucky by this stage, as the wind had been blowing the dirt around in little dust devils. I didn’t realise until I’d walked home quite how much like a vagrant I looked. Which explained why the wedding party I’d passed at the church had given me such a wide berth. In fact, I didn’t really get properly clean until about three days later.

On day two, we soon got cracking in adding height to our wall. By lunch time, it was already approaching the correct height – about 1.2 metres. And it hadn’t yet fallen over, which is always a good sign.

Next step was to add stones along the top, each tilted at 45 degrees. These help to stop the stones along the top from falling off, but mostly just look pretty.

With this final task done, we stepped back and admired our handiwork. We were, to be honest, all feeling a little bit pleased with ourselves. All except the chap in the camouflage jacket in the photo below. He’s Jon and he was our chief instructor. And he’s clearly wondering how he’s going to explain to the farmer why his perfectly good wall has been demolished and replaced with this rather wonky one.

In all fairness, I think our wall looked fairly good. Well made dry stone walls can last for millennia, so hopefully ours will survive at least until the next course comes along and rebuilds it.

A weekend in Dublin (Part 3)

This will be the last Dublin-related post, I promise. It’s just that I don’t get out as much as I would like, so a weekend away gives me plenty to write about. Well, I guess I always have plenty to write about, so perhaps what I should have said is that a weekend away gives me something interesting to write about.

Anyway, I wanted to tell you a little bit about our visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which is the National Cathedral of the Church of Ireland (part of the Anglican communion, if you’re interested). There’s also a catholic cathedral, Christ Church, up the road. I did mean to visit that, too, in the interests of balance and general comparison, but got distracted by the opportunity for some last minute book shopping. Sorry.

I won’t go into the history of the cathedral, as you can read about that on its official website or on Wikipedia. What I wanted to tell you about, though, is the thing that I love about all churches and cathedrals. And that is how they make me feel. Because while I’m not a particularly religious person, places of worship like St. Patrick’s fill me with a deep sense of serenity that stays with me for days afterwards.

I don’t know whether it’s the cavernous size of the building, or the striking architecture or the sheer mass of stone that makes up the place. It might be the profound silence. Or perhaps it’s the sense of history, a reflection of all those who have gone before. Whatever it is, it gives me the ability to shut out my everyday worries and to think more clearly about the things that matter.

Before I risk sliding into some kind of spiritual epiphany, lets look at some photos. I only had a little camera with me, I’m afraid, and no tripod, so the pictures are a little grainy. But hopefully they’ll help you to get some sense of the place. Here’s the nave leading towards the altar.

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And here’s the altar itself. The seats to either side are where the choir sits. I guess it’s deliberate, but I really liked the way the altar was lit up so brightly while the rest of the cathedral was in comparative darkness. Like a beacon on a distant hill top or a lighthouse shining out over stormy seas. (OK, that’s perhaps too much, now…)

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The choir stalls used to serve as a chapel for the ‘Most Illustrious Order of the Knights of Saint Patrick’. Now that’s what I call a name. The flags are those of the families of the Knights of the Order. Apparently, the order still exists, though the last surviving Knight died in 1974.

(This lack of new members might be because they’d have to swear an oath to the Queen of England, which – for entirely understandable reasons – Irish people tend to be a bit funny about. The other question, of course, is why my family doesn’t have a flag. I don’t have an answer for that, though, I’m afraid.)

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Here’s one of the smaller transepts. I think that’s the right name, but don’t quote me on it. I loved the window, but what especially caught my attention was the vacuum cleaner in the corner. I really wouldn’t want to be the one who has to do the dusting here.

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And here’s the view back down the nave. You can’t really see the colours very well on the photo, but it was like standing under a multicoloured tree with the late autumn sun shining through the leaves. Which is, again, no doubt entirely deliberate.

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There were a great many memorials around the edge of the cathedral and I nearly wandered straight past this one. But I stopped to read it for some reason and it instantly made me very sad.

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Over a hundred and fifty years ago and we still haven’t learned the lesson. Perhaps we could all do with thinking a little more clearly about the things that really matter.

An unexpected day out

I had an unexpected day out in London last Wednesday. I don’t mean that someone grabbed me and Fedex’d me to Charing Cross or anything like that. I mean, that only happened to me that one time. But I had a really great day. It was the first time for ages that I’ve been to London and actually had some time to look around.

I’d planned to go to the capital for a couple of work meetings and had saved money by booking my train tickets a couple of weeks in advance. Typically, no sooner had I booked my (non-refundable) tickets than one of my two meetings got postponed. And then, while I was actually on the train out of Bristol, the other one got pushed to a later date, too. But what the hell. All the more time for sightseeing…

I started off with the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. I thought at first that it wasn’t that impressive, but then realised that I’d come in through the back door by mistake. But as I made my way around to the front entrance, I was struck by how well everything had been put together. They had, for example, made some fantastic use of visual artwork to set a nautical tone. Here’s my favourite…

The writing on the wall

The other thing that impressed me was the scale of the place. Being in a rather large old building with a three-storey roofed courtyard in the middle, there was plenty of scope for larger exhibits and displays that really showed the majesty of some of our maritime heritage. Here’s a rather imposing display of figureheads…

Figureheads

There was also a particularly emotive exhibition about some of the people who have featured prominently in Britain’s seafaring heritage, with the stories behind them and displays of some of their possessions. Some of the stories were rather profound. And others were, quite simply, heartbreaking. The sea and untimely death, it appears, go hand in hand. There was also some more brilliant artwork…

More writing on the wall

I then wandered up the hill to the Royal Observatory, home of the Astronomers Royal, Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian. It’s funny, really, how something of such prominence in the history of the world should consist of such a modest, understated collection of buildings (if you ignore the massive dome housing a 28-inch refracting telescope). But as a keen physicist and astronomer myself, I was, to be honest, a little overawed.

Royal Observatory

There are also some great views from the hill on which the observatory is sited, looking north over the whole expanse of London. Here, for example, is Canary Wharf. (A sign, perhaps, that the era of understatement is over.)

Canary Wharf

And here’s the charming Millennium Dome, or whatever it’s called now. Which, apparently, you can see from space. But not, luckily, from Bristol.

The Dome

And here, far away in the distance, is the Gherkin. If you’re not sure which building I’m talking about, the Gherkin is the one with the diagonal stripes and a black lid. And no, I don’t know why it’s called the Gherkin. It looks more like a goth’s lipstick.

The Gherkin

Yes, I couldn’t resist. Here’s me standing over the prime meridian. My right foot is in the eastern hemisphere and my left foot is in the west. Zero degrees of longitude. The world starts here. I’m glad I thought to wear some smart shoes.

Me on the meridian

While at the observatory, I stopped in to look at the Astronomy Photographer of the Year exhibition. And, quite simply, wow. I mean, wow. Some of the images just took my breath away. Clearly, the organisers will go nuts if I stick any of the photos up here, so check out their website and see what I mean. Or even better, catch the exhibition while it’s on (it’s there until 17th February next year – and entry is free) and learn more about the photos and the people who took them.

An my way back to the station to catch the train home, and after a mad dash to check out the flagship Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road, I stopped in to see my little sister and her new baby, Otto. He’s only about a month old, so he’s still really teeny. Here’s the little fella. As you can tell, he was absolutely delighted to see me…

Otto

And then, after a rather tiring but absolutely fantastic day, it was time for home… and bed.

And a positive (though slightly odd) museum experience

Having been perhaps a little negative in my review of the Römisch-Germanisches Museum in my previous post, I wanted to tell you about the other museum that I went to during my recent stay in Germany. Because this one was pretty fantastic and was a much better example of what a museum should be like. But the story of how I came to be there is a little odd, so I’ll start with that.

In the museum

Light, colourful and cheerful – not your average museum

The reason for our trip to the continent was an invitation to the wedding of Natalie’s brother, Dom, to his fiancee, Kathrin. For reasons that are still a little unclear, the pair had decided to get married in Duisburg, which is in the middle of the industrial Ruhr region of Germany. (And quite a way from where they or either sets of parents live, hence the slight confusion.) The ceremony was at midday and the reception didn’t start until the evening, so Dom and Kathrin (DomKat?) thought that they had better arrange some kind of activity for their guests in the afternoon.

They decided, as you do, that what the wedding party needed was a guided tour of a museum. And not just any museum, you understand, but the Museum der Deutschen Binnenschifffahrt – the Museum of German Inland Waterway Navigation. I may come across as a little dubious here, but the museum was actually pretty amazing and I’m really glad that they took us there.

In the museum

Not your typical museum (or wedding) behaviour

The museum itself is housed in an old swimming baths, with separate pools for men and women. But rather than do away with the old decor, the people who run the museum have decided to integrate it into their exhibits – and have done so spectacularly well. And while our guide admitted readily that this was the first time in eight years working there that he’d hosted a wedding party at the museum, he took it all in his stride and quickly got into the spirit of things.

The focus of the museum is on two ships, one a genuine old sailing boat and one a slightly shortened replica of a modern day motor barge. These are berthed, in a fit of inspired genius, in the old swimming pools, which have been retained exactly as they would have been. With gratings installed at what would have been water level, this means that you can wander around both above and below the waterline of the ships. In one case, they have even set up a small diving scene, with a mannequin in a diving suit and a whole load of rusted objects strewn around the ‘sea bed’.

In the museum

Underwater view: Making the most of the surroundings

Around the edges of the swimming pools are a variety of models, artefacts and display boards highlighting other aspects of the history of Germany’s inland waterways, including historic boats and sailing ships (from dugout canoes onwards), old anchors (which we were encouraged to try to lift) and even a replica of an old sailors’ tavern.

At each stage of our tour, we were encouraged to get hands-on with the exhibits, whether by looking around the replica of the modern barge, trying out the pump that would have been used to provide divers with an air supply (that’s what the thing is in the photo of the happy couple, in case you were wondering) or wheeling cargo around on an old sack-truck. Our guide even came up with a range of novel photo-opportunities for the bride and groom, including on the bridge of the freighter, mucking around with the pump (as you’ve already seen), ringing an old ship’s bell or posing alongside the majestic old sailing barge.

In the museum

Visitors are encouraged to get hands-on with the exhibits

To be honest, this isn’t the sort of museum that I would have visited if I had been in charge of the itinerary. But it would have been my loss, as the people who run the place have taken what could have been quite a dry topic and have made it into something exciting, vibrant and alive.

Rather than just hearing about names, places, dates and objects that are so often seen as the key to the past, we were introduced to the people who worked on the boats and experienced in some small way what life was like for them and their families. And that, to me, is what history is all about.

How not to run a museum

When I was in Germany a couple of weeks back, my wife and I took an hour or so away from our family duties and paid a quick visit to the Römisch-Germanisches Museum (Romano-Germanic Museum, or all about the Romans while they were in Germany) in the centre of Cologne. The city was a major Roman settlement and every time someone tries to build something – or even just dig a hole – more of its history comes to light. Given this amazing potential, we had high hopes for the museum and its exhibits.

In the museum

If you build it, they will come. Er, no.

To say that the museum fails completely to do justice to the city and its historic past, however, is to be polite. True, it does have some fantastic pieces, such as a huge Roman mosaic and a spectacular array of statues. But in this electronic, hands-on age, to simply line everything up and label it shows a distinct lack of effort. Cologne’s history is truly amazing, but the museum seemed more like a musty old storeroom than a celebration of the city’s past, present and future.

Some Roman coins

Boooooring!

Now, I may not be an expert when it comes to museums. But I have been to quite a few over the years and I know what gets me engaged and what just turns me off. So here are my top six Römisch-Germanische improvements, just in case someone rings me up tomorrow and says ‘OK, Herr Smarty Pants. You think you can do better? So why don’t you just get back over here and show us what you’ve got, my friend?’

1. Make it welcoming. When we wandered in through the museum’s front door, we were faced with a miserable looking lady sat at a desk in the corner. Once she had (grudgingly) sold us two tickets, these were checked by a surly security guard before we were allowed into the exhibits themselves. Everything about it screamed ‘what do you think you’re doing here, pond scum?’ Not a great first impression. Let’s replace the desk with a counter front and centre, get the lady to smile, greet visitors with a ‘welcome to the museum’ and replace the security guard with someone in a ‘Civus Romanus sum’ T-shirt.

2. Ditch the uniforms. Patrolling the exhibits were a team of uniformed staff, whose purpose seemed very much to be making sure that we didn’t cause any trouble, steal anything or enjoy ourselves in any way. I didn’t see them interact with any of the visitors, though their eyes followed us around the room throughout our visit. What’s that all about? I’d swap the official-looking uniforms for something less formal and task these people (who are all perfectly pleasant, if the lady I approach to ask if it was OK to take photos is anything to go by) with making sure that everyone was enjoying the museum and getting the most from their visit.

3. Introduce some interactivity. Lining up exhibits in glass cases with little labels is sooooo last century. Rather than just looking at little Roman lamps, lets get some replicas that we can play with. Same with the coins, jewellery and cooking implements. And while we’re at it, perhaps we could get some drama students to dress up as Romans and give people a bit more insight into the history of the people behind the objects by telling stories, giving demonstrations and getting visitors involved. Why just read about weaving when you could have a go at it yourself?

4. Make some noise. Even though there were quite a few people wandering around the exhibits while we were there, the museum was as silent as the tomb that it clearly wants to be. People stared silently at the statues and spoke in hushed whispers, if at all. This is nuts. Lets get hold of some Roman music to get an atmosphere going, perhaps even some live musicians at weekends and Roman holidays. And why aren’t there sound effects for any of the exhibits? Or audio-visual presentations to accompany some of the major pieces? It’s really not that difficult, people.

Statues

Interactive? Not so much.

5. Open a cafe. This must have been the first museum that I’ve been to that doesn’t have a cafe or restaurant. Once you’ve looked around the exhibits, you leave. That’s it. It’s almost criminal, in my view, that there’s nowhere to sit and mull over what you’ve seen while you down an espresso or tuck into some hearty soup. It’s also a great waste of a potential revenue stream. Especially because there’s an open air courtyard on the top floor that’s just crying out for a coffee bar and some patio chairs.

6. Open a decent shop. While there is a sort-of shop in the foyer area, it’s basically a shelf with a few dusty books on it. If this is going to be a family attraction (and it should be), then we need things that adults and families alike can purchase to commemorate their visit and to help them to learn more about the city’s history. While a few scholarly texts are fine, how about something a little more exciting for anyone who doesn’t happen to be a professor of ancient history?

There we go. Nothing too Earth-shattering, but a few simple ideas for making the Römisch-Germanisches Museum less like a mausoleum and more like the celebration that it should be. I’m sorry to go on about this. But history is incredibly interesting and provides real insight into our present and future as well as our past. Museums that make history out to be something inaccessible that should be revered in silence do a disservice to us all.

Eight ideas for a fun life

When I read through books and magazine, or talk to people when I’m out and about, I’m constantly coming across new ideas or new ways of doing things. As someone who is on an ongoing quest to ‘do well, be nice and have a life… all at the same time’, I get very excited about these things but invariably never get around to doing anything about them.

So rather than consign them to my little black book of ‘things to do when I’ve got a spare month on my hands’, I thought I’d share them with you here on my blog. I’m not saying that these are necessarily good ideas, or that they’ll make you the next Richard Branson, but they’re all things that sound fun to me.

If you want to give any of them a try, then please feel free. And do let me know how it goes. I might even try one or two myself, at some point, if I ever get around to it.

1. The veggie van. Get a van, preferably an electric one or one of those really old Renault things, and set up a mobile shop selling local fruit, vegetables, bread and preserves. Collect produce from local suppliers in the morning and spend the afternoon and evening driving to wherever your customers need you to be, such as outside offices or by the railway station. We all love farmers markets, after all, but they’re usually either only once a month or during the week, when everyone’s at work.

2. The mobile coffee cart. Get a little motorised coffee cart and set up a regular round in your local area, selling tea, coffee and home-made pastries. Smile at everybody, ask how they are and become a local icon. Not necessarily the biggest money-spinner, but a great way to get out, meet people and generate a sense of community.

3. The market garden. There’s a field on the edge of our town that was bought by the Council a couple of years ago. They’re currently deciding whether to turn it into a football pitch or a children’s playground. What it would make, though, is an excellent market garden, growing fresh, organic fruit and vegetables for the local population and bringing people closer to the food they eat. So find a small plot of land and get growing.

4. The guerilla gardening campaign. I’m a big fan of guerilla gardening (see http://www.guerrillagardening.org/ if you don’t know what that is) and think that it’s a brilliant way to make boring, overgrown or derelict parts of town more beautiful and more inspiring. I’ve never really got around to doing much about it, though. But what’s to stop you (or me, for that matter) from sowing a handful of sunflower seeds on a roundabout or growing a few radishes in the planter by the bus stop?

5. The virtual orchard. I’d really love an apple orchard, but like most people have limited space. So for the moment, at least, I’ll have to be satisfied with the couple of little trees at the bottom of the garden. But why not a ‘virtual’ orchard? Go around your community and map out where the different apple trees are and who owns them. Then, at harvest time, recruit volunteers to pick the apples, turn them into juice or cider or anything apple-y, and share them with the ‘owners’ of the orchard and everyone else in your community.

6. The heritage trail. The town I live in has a fantastic history dating back through the centuries, but nobody really seems to know very much about where they live and how it has developed. My (currently very vague) plan is to develop a guided walking tour of the town, highlighting the key elements of its social, cultural and industrial heritage. This would be accompanied by a guidebook, an audio download, a colourful map and perhaps even some display boards. Why not do something similar for where you live?

7. The guerilla art campaign. I’m a big fan of art, especially things that challenge me or make me think about things in a new way. In a wood near where my mum lives, someone has made tiny little front doors that they have stuck to the trunks of some of the trees. Inspired. Or check out some of Slinkachu’s little people. I like drawing and I like making things, so why can’t I find the time (or the talent) to do something like this? It’s fun, it’s cool and it makes people smile. There really ought to be state funding available…

8. The community bookshop / coffee shop / bakery. I like books, I like coffee, I like baking and I like bringing people together. So my wife’s suggestion that I find a group of local people and open a not-for-profit community bookshop, coffee shop and bakery probably isn’t too far off the mark. A group of similarly-minded folk have opened a community bookshop in the next town and it seems to be going great guns. After all, who doesn’t like coming in for a coffee, a good read and a bit of a chat?