In 1988, I worked as a dry stone Waller for Lord Longstone in the Peak District. To my memory, I can honestly say I have never worked in a place that was so beautiful and serene. Unfortunately, the work only took 7 months, but most of those days were spent working in glorious sunshine, breathing in clean, fresh country air. (In fact, compared to the odours I have to endure in my current job, breathing in methane from cow dung was like taking in the sweet smell of a rose)
The Peak takes on a life of its own during the summer months. I remember watching an old movie called Whistle Down The Wind, and one scene has always remained in my mind. The young chap in it lays down on the moors and, pressing his ear to ground, imagines he can hear the heartbeat of the moors. Now, I am not claiming I could hear the peaks heartbeat, but during the times where I found a quiet place, sitting in the bracken, looking down in the valley, it was surreal, I felt safe and peaceful surrounded by nature to think and bathe in the silence.
In 1988 I was still learning to drive so I, as well as 5 others, relied on a lift from the foreman in the works van. Sad though it is to admit, I can only remember 2 of the guys names who I worked with, Geoff and Tommy. I will explain more about their characters later in the post.
The working day scenario went like this. Travel to Great Longstone in the van about 6.30am. Arrive at the place of work about 20 minutes later. All climb out of the van and walk along a narrow dirt path for 5 minutes until we came to a wider opening, framed by thick trees and dilapidated, moss covered walls. We were meant to work for 9 hours with a 60 minute break and a couple of tea breaks in between during the day. I say ‘Meant’ because once the foreman had left the site we tossed it off. Working for 20 minutes, resting for 20 and so on. But we made great headway, so nobody was any the wiser and I think we made a damn fine wall (About a quarter of a mile long) because, 31 years later, the stretch of wall that we repaired and rebuilt still stands proudly against the winds and weather of the Peak District.
One of the guys who caught a lift with the rest of us, who’s name escapes me, started to bring his dog with him, a little Jack Russell and a narrow but long cage with a ferret in it! Once we had all worked for a couple of hours, he would lead his dog into the thick trees, carrying the cage, with a roll-up hanging out of the side of his mouth and reappear a couple of hours later with dead rabbits hanging from his belt. Eventually, after a few weeks of working together, myself and Tommy would accompany the rabbit catcher, all adorning camouflage trousers, all suitably decorated with a roll-up hanging from the lips. (Eat your heart out Peaky Blinders)
As for Lord Longstone, he would turn up in his extremely large off-roader every Friday morning with his Alsatian by his side. After the usual nod to his subjects, he would take a running jump and drop kick his new stone walls to test them for durability. (They withstood his attack) Then he would instruct his foreman to get some of the lads to load his trailer up with the fallen trees that were scattered around the area. The foreman himself was quite a character, always effing and blinding, but softly spoken with it. He was very proud of his son, who was in active service with the SAS. Although he knew very little about the things his son was involved in, he would visibly beam with pride when he spoke about him. And rightly so. We would only see him for a few hours a week, but on Fridays, he would stay with us and do some work, waiting for the Lord to make his appearance. An hour after the Lord had gone, he would take all of us into Bakewell to collect our wages and enjoy a couple of pints with us before taking us back to Chesterfield.
The foreman always, always drummed into us the importance of being careful when lifting some of the heavier stones. We found out why he was so keen on health and safety one Friday afternoon in a pub in Bakewell. Apparently, a guy who had worked for the Lord a few months previously had been involved in a terrible accident, caused by his own stupidity. This guy was very big and extremely strong. One of the men he was working with challenged him to move a millstone that was laying down amongst the rocks. The guy in question very stupidly took on the challenge, and actually moved the stone! Unfortunately, it fell back in his direction and severed the lower part of his leg! I’m not sure what happened to the guy afterwards, or if Lord Longstone was held accountable, but that was the reason for the constant health and safety speech.
Geoff, the guy I mentioned at the beginning of this post had, in the past, represented Great Britain in the sport of powerlifting. He was a warm, jovial sort of chap, always laughing, joking and ready to lend a helping hand whenever and wherever. I would often see him walking around the local town for a few years after we had parted company as pretend stone wallers. Unfortunately, he died a couple of years ago after suffering from a massive stroke. Rest his soul.
Tommy was diminutive In stature but blessed with sharp intellect. He had been a miner during the strikes of the late 70s, early 80s. Because he had a wife and children to support, he put their needs first and broke the picket lines. His house was bombarded with bricks, fencing posts and human excrement. He told me he found out who his true friends were. I admired his courage and tenacity. Quite a man.
Some of the other guys I worked with during that time, who’s names escape me, were characters in their own right, one day, I’ll write a post about them.