Meet Josh Bird, one of the new generation of dry stone wallers
A new generation is building and restoring Cotswold dry stone walls. Josh Bird is just one of them
The art of building and restoring Cotswold dry stone walls from late March to October is being handed down to a new generation of craftsmen. Many have learned the tricks of the trade from an older generation. Typical of these is 28-year-old Josh Bird, who left Kingham Hill School near Chipping Norton at 16.
“I wanted to be outdoors in the spring and summer months enjoying the fresh air building dry stone walls and hedging,” he says. Josh, who lives in Long Marston, started working for Mike Stevens, an uncle on his father’s side of the family.
“That’s where it all began for me, but you can’t just be told how to do it, you have to be shown. The Stevens come from Long Compton and they’ve been farmers and agricultural workers for several generations. My father was originally a blacksmith who later became an engineer. He had four brothers and they all learned their skills from my grandfather Gordon.
“As well as livestock and arable farming Gordon Stevens was a manual worker, ditch-digging, creating lakes, and building dry stone walls. I don’t know much about his father, my greatgrandfather, but apparently he was also multi-skilled. You had to be in those days.
“I completed my first dry stone wall at the age of 19 and from there I’ve built many field and ornamental walls in Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, working for Mike. I’ve been with him now for nine years. He’s taught me everything I know about dry-stone walling.”
The high level of demand for new and repaired Horton and Cotswold stone walls, especially in private gardens, has led to more young men taking up walling. Josh says to be successful it’s important to have a keen eye and that’s the hardest thing to pick up.
“We use few tools. I have an old fire axe my uncle gave me which came out of an aeroplane in the war and I also use a measuring tape. The key is being able to see a pile of stone, pick one up, know if it’s going to fit in that place, and achieve ‘the look’ that’s pleasing to the eye with all the right curves. It takes time to acquire it.
“If you want a tapered look for an ornamental wall you’ll build a wooden frame around it. So far I’ve specialised in ornamental garden walls and many of mine have built-in metal hooks, and features such as niches and shelves.
“Sometimes you can rebuild a wall using the dismantled stone but usually you’ll need a fresh supply and buy it graded in size from a quarry.
“Work on site starts with larger stones at the base but you don’t force it too much. We take the stone as it comes. Old men say if you pick up a stone you should be able to put it on the wall.
“If you’re rummaging through a pile trying to select a specific stone for a slot you’ll end up having a lot left over you weren’t able to use. So put them in as you go along. Look at the wall, imagine the piece you’re going to need, size up the pile and within a few seconds you’ll see the piece you want - and fit it straight in.
“There are wall builders who use a small stone axe to cut them into shape, but a really skilled craftsman won’t use one too much. It’s different if the customer wants a precise wall with tight joints, but for field walling we avoid it.
“You’d never use concrete in a traditional wall unless it’s for retaining a soil bank in a garden. In such a case when you put the middle in - the small broken stones – you’d mix them with dry cement. This will strengthen the wall to hold back the soil.
“In lower areas where the ground is soft – or there’s a lot of rain – you might have to use a concrete footing but at higher altitudes, where dry stone walls are common, the ground is hard. You only need to remove the top soil before laying the base stones.
“Field walls are built faster than ornamental garden walls. Traditionally the former were three or four feet high with stone toppers added to keep in the sheep. In olden days a boss would kick a stone as far as he could - and that was the length to be built in a day. Doing both sides you should achieve two metres a day. They should last a lifetime, 60 to 70 years.
“We attract attention. If I’m building a wall near a road, motorists will park up to see me at work and that’s the best way to bring in new business.”
At weekends Josh has a different job. He works on his other grandfather’s estate. Tony Bird OBE, the international industrialist and property developer, has owned the Upper Billesley Estate near Stratford since the early 1980s.
Over subsequent decades, he’s planted thousands of trees from all over the world in the estate’s nine woods. These include Scots Pine, Douglas Fir, and many varieties of Conifer and Oak. He’s added Spruce, Scented Poplar, Field Maples, Acer, Chestnut, Lime, Brazilian Liquidambar Styraciflua, Sweet Chestnut, Sequoia Gigantica, Beech, American Redwoods, Mulberry, Walnut, London Planes and evergreen Holm Oaks.
At the end of one avenue is a memorial tree, a Brazilian Liquidambar Styraciflua, originating from the Amazon basin. It was planted for Tony’s beloved daughter, the late Rachel Bird, mother of Josh, who tragically passed away of cancer in 2017.
Using the hollow base of an old elm tree Tony and Josh lifted it over Rachel’s tree and lowered it to the ground from a JCB to protect its trunk. A seat and plaque will be added. Josh says: “The exotic tree will become ever more significant to me as it matures. I love being involved in planting trees on the Bird family estate and share my grandfather’s passion for them. We work with an experienced team of woodsmen. I use a chainsaw clearing the ground in the woods to make way for new planting. I think my destiny is the outdoor life.”
The dry stone Walling Association of Great Britain is a registered charity founded in 1968 to promote the heritage of dry stone walling. The Association publishes Walls and the Landscape, a guide to British walls. Its representative in the Cotswolds is listed as Chris Ingles, c/o Willersley Fields, Badsey, Worcestershire, WR11 7HF.
Josh Bird dry stone walling at Little Wolsford
Josh’s grandfather, Gordon Stevens
Josh Bird’s dry-stone walling
A completed wall in the Cotswolds