John Geldard, Audio Clip

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W.R. Mitchell and  John Geldard of Malham discuss the ancient art of dry stone walling.

In this segment John Geldard (JG) describes to W.R. Mitchell (WRM) the different qualities of gritstone and limestone and how to ensure a stone wall has a good foundation.


WRM: Let’s see, roughly when were you born at Malham?

JG: I was taken to Malham in 1919 when I was two months old.

WRM: I see.

JG: I wasn’t actually born in Malham, but near enough.

WRM: Yes, and what was Malham like as you grew up? It would be radically different from today, would it?

JG: Oh yes, it was, because regarding these stone walls, the boundary of our farm was the river which runs from Malham Cove down through the village right down the dale, and our boundary wall was against that river: a good boundary wall. Whereas today you can’t find it, it’s all in the river.

WRM: It’s all lost is it? Where was this, between the village and the cove?

JG: Yes, between the village and the cove. And I think there were three farms on the east side that had land adjoining that river, and we’ve all had to erect wire mesh fences to replace the stone walls which have been thrown into the river by visitors. That’s what’s happened in a lifetime.

WRM: Amazing.

JG: You know?

WRM: But when you were growing up at Malham, did you get full-time wallers?

JG: Not so much full-time wallers, no; that age had gone. You know, all the land was enclosed and it was a case of repairing walls rather than building new ones. But the maintenance of dry-stone walls, if it’s done properly throughout the whole farm is quite a big job, you know, and so whilst it didn’t justify having someone to do nothing else it nevertheless represented quite a portion of the farmer’s time or his staff’s time in maintaining these walls.

WRM: And you were using limestone?

JG: All the time.

WRM: Now limestone is not as good as grit stone, is it?

JG: No, it isn’t, because the general description of limestone is that it’s smooth and round rather than rough and ‘beddy’, what we call ‘beddy’, you know? But it has no, or very little grip. It’s slippy, and whilst the rules of dry-stone walling are more or less the same in whatever type of stone it is - that means it’s two on top of one, one on top of two, end in and end out, you know, to give grip - that’s more difficult to obtain in limestone because there isn’t that length and beddy. It tends to be shorter and rounder. That’s generally speaking, of course. But nevertheless if it’s handled properly and built properly it’s amazing how long they can stand. But there is more maintenance involved in limestone than in the sandstone or the grit, you know?

WRM: Malham is the classic example of where you can trace virtually every type of walling, can’t you? And in the early days it was just a matter of clearing the land, wasn’t it?

JG: Oh yes, that’s right. Yes, it was a two-fold benefit exercise, as you’ve just said it. There was clearing the land and also enclosing it, you know? And they do still say of course that... but it isn’t obtained quite as much now as they used to do, that it is one of the... it has been one of the more economical means of fencing in that the materials were there. There’s nothing to buy, it was just a matter of the time involved in re-building that wall. But now of course time is really expensive, and so that’s why things are rather reversed in that it’s cheaper now if a wall is really bad to erect a fence alongside it rather than pay a man to build them all up again.

WRM: If you go up from Malham to the cove you pass through an area where they actually did walls just simply to make small enclosures, to heap up with some... what was the general process there, what was the technique of making a heap of stones, you know, other than clearing the land?

JG: Well, there is an area on the east of Malham there, where there were several large heaps of stone; and it’s funny that that particular area is noted for being an area of very small fields, which means that there must have been a great abundance of stones just in that area in that they managed to make so many fields and yet have some spare that they couldn’t really do anything else with but just heap up.