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

Cotswold Life - - INSIDE - WORDS: Dale Le Vack

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.

PHO­TOS: Danny Keaney

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

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