MENDING WALLS: Jay Heritage’s Stone Walls to Be Restored by a Master

In his iconic American poem, “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost describes two neighbors who meet on either side of a stone wall and work together to repair it. Today, not many of us know how to mend a stone wall, let alone build one.

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Published November 10, 2014 7:44 PM
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wall-thIn his iconic American poem, “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost describes two neighbors who meet on either side of a stone wall and work together to repair it. Today, not many of us know how to mend a stone wall, let alone build one.

By Margot Clark-Junkins

wallpeopleIn his iconic American poem, “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost describes two neighbors who meet on either side of a stone wall and work together to repair it. Today, not many of us know how to mend a stone wall, let alone build one.

Stone walls can be seen everywhere we go, quietly crumbling next to highways, on park trails, at historic sites and in back yards. Crisscrossing the woods and fields of New York and New England, stone walls tell the story of America’s early, agrarian economy when Colonists used shovels and oxen and their bare hands (and some used slaves) to clear the land in order to farm it.

Here in Rye, the Jay Heritage Center is preparing to preserve miles of stone walls dating back to the early 1800s. To ensure it is done correctly, Andrew Pighills, an Englishman who has mastered the art of building dry stone walls (in which no mortar is used), has been asked to lead the way. Pighills holds an Advanced Craftsman certification from the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain as well as a certificate in Horticulture from the Royal Horticultural Society of Great Britain.

Last Sunday, as the wind blew fiercely outside the Jay Mansion and the sun began to sink, Pighills presented an informative slide show on the similarities and differences between stone walls in the U.S. and the U.K.

The type of stone used to build a wall depends upon where it was built. Typically, stones were pried from the earth in the immediate vicinity; the stone often dates back millions of years, to the formation of the landscape itself. Stone walls tended to be built in areas with rocky outcroppings and/or in areas where trees had difficulty growing or were in short supply. 

Pighills introduced the audience to types of stone and structural styles. We looked at walls made from Vermont slate and Brathay flags from England’s Lake District. We looked at boulder walls in New England and walls composed of metamorphic quartzite rock in the Scottish Highlands. Pighills explained the importance of capstones, which are laid horizontally over the top of the wall to protect the interior from debris, and vertical capstones which can deter animals from leaping over. He explained the structural rule called “1 on 2 and 2 on 1,” in which the joint between two rocks is always topped by a third. American stone walls tend to be short and wide, he said, whereas U.K. walls are often tall, narrow, and sloping. We were sternly warned against filling gaps in our walls with gravel, which guarantees their destruction. We learned that Laird’s Walls have two faces, only one of which is made attractively uniform for the Lord of the Manor to enjoy from his castle.

 

“And on a day we meet to walk the line and set the wall between us once again. We keep the wall between us as we go.”

wallIn previous centuries, livestock had to be corralled and people journeyed on foot or by horse; this lifestyle necessitated the creation of a host of stone structures we no longer need: creep holes, squeeze stiles, shooting butts, pounds, fence posts, mile markers, hitching posts, way stones and foot bridges (okay, we still need bridges). There was always a demand for chimneys, kilns, foundries, and wells, too. 

The recessed ha-ha walls that subtly frame the Jay Mansion kept livestock from sullying the lovely back lawn while keeping the view down to Long Island Sound gloriously unobstructed. After his presentation, we walked the length of the ha-ha with Pighills; he declared the walls to be in superb condition, considering they were built in 1822. He pointed out the “pins and feathers” markings on several stones, evidence of having been quarried. He also pointed out a craftily constructed network of culverts and trenches to divert water.

Restoration work on the walls at the Jay Heritage Center will be completed in phases, beginning with the removal of vines and trees and coinciding with the restoration of several garden “rooms.” Stay tuned and remember, good fences make good neighbors.

 

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