Graham Marsh Dry-stone Waller
PUBLISHED: 12:41 02 February 2009 | UPDATED: 15:45 20 February 2013
On the high, open, windy road between Langton Matravers and Kingston, on a winter's morning of blue sky and long, long views, dry-stone waller Graham Marsh is building a section of wall.Words by Stephen Swann. Photography by Roger Holman
On the high, open, windy road between Langton Matravers and Kingston, on a winter's morning of blue sky and long, long views, dry-stone waller Graham Marsh is building a section of wall. Watching him work I am struck by the thought that Graham is heir to a traditional way of using this Purbeck limestone to build walls without the use of mortar that goes back thousands of years. He works in an almost instinctive way, selecting stones from the pile that litters the ground around him and placing them in the partially built wall with a precision that comes of years of experience.
Years of experience, yes, yet at 30 years old, Graham is still a young man. "I was born in Poole Hospital and lived there for 48 hours so I can't claim to be Langton-born but I can certainly claim to be Langton-bred," says Graham. "My dad worked as a warden for the National Trust's land just over there," he tells me, pointing to where the land ends and the sea begins. "I went to school locally and then did a Countryside Skills course at Kingston Maurward College. After that I worked in a quarry just up the road here cutting up noggins. I stuck it for nine months then got a job with a firm cleaning and servicing supermarket trollies. That didn't last long, and from there I worked for the council on the strimmer team - that didn't last long either.
"Dad had done a bit of walling, having learned it whilst a lad at Spyway Farm. I'd somehow always known that I wanted to work outside and the idea of doing walling really appealed. As a kid I'd played with friends in a wood where there was a lot of stone from a robbed-out wall, and I'd built a dry-stone seat out of some of it. Walling came to me naturally somehow, so I suppose it was inevitable that one day I would do it for a living."
Graham's dad got him a job walling for the Stewardship Scheme at Spyway Farm above Dancing Ledge. "I remember I did 20 metres of wall at Spyway. It must have been okay because the National Trust gave me 18 months' work, and I've been walling ever since."
At this point Graham breaks off for a hot drink and a smoke. "You've probably noticed that the wall I'm building here is not built with horizontal courses but with courses at an angle to the ground. This sort of walling is called French Walling but many locals round here call it Sheep Walling," he tells me. "The sloping stones are supposed to let the rain run off better. When water lodges in a wall and freezes, it can cause the stones to crack, the wall is weakened and eventually it will collapse. Also, the slope is supposed to make the hooves of sheep slip, and that stops them climbing the wall and damaging it."
I put it to Graham that he leads a somewhat lonely life. He takes time to roll another cigarette as if the question demands a little thought. "I suppose I am a bit of a loner. But then I've always got my two best mates with me, my dogs, Daisy and Bounder," he says, pointing to a sheepdog and a lab, both of whom seem to hang on his every word. "I like being my own man. I watch the seasons come and go, and the wildlife. I think I am lucky to work where I do. I walk to work, sometimes five miles across country. You have time to think doing this job - I probably think too much.
"It's hard work and you get a fair bit of lower-back pain but I see walling as a real job. What I do is take millions of pieces of stone and make them into one piece. A good wall has to be tight with little room for air in it. It has to have good straight edges. It takes time to build - I reckon two metres a day is good if you want a good job with good workmanship."
I ask if he ever brings a radio with him to listen to as he works. "I used to. I was a Radio 2 listener but these days I don't seem to need it. When you are working well, time doesn't drag. If I worked in an office, I'd always be looking out of the window, then time would drag for me."
I ask about the future. "Just recently I built a big dry-stone seat at Durlston. I really enjoyed that. It made me think, be more creative, more arty. I'd like to do more of that sort of thing. As to what I'll be doing in the future, I can't see me not walling. I help at Spyway with lambing and other jobs, but as long as there are people who think it is important to keep the walls and not go over to modern fencing, I'll keep walling.