Some of the huge trees which came down in last winter’s storms brought down with them parts of the dry stone walls which circle the estate at Minsteracres.
Far more than just replacing the odd stone, the job called for a skilled dry stone waller to make proper repairs.
Step forward Geoff Gowland.
A former farmer, Geoff now works freelance as a dry stone waller, a beater in the grouse season and helps with lambing in the spring. It was while lambing with the shepherd who grazes his sheep on the parkland at Minsteracres that he was approached to rebuild the damaged walls.
To someone with an untrained eye Geoff makes the job look easy but it takes skill to get it right. “It’s surprising how many people are doing it, but there are a lot of cowboys out there,” he remarks. He can tell at a glance whether a wall is good, “I can tell a person’s technique – you can see the difference,” he says.
“I was working a while back with another man. We started either end of the wall. The locals were taking bets as to whether we’d meet in the middle! We did of course.”
Repairs are like a jigsaw puzzle reusing the stones the right way up, making sure that the angle of the wall matches the original, that they are tied off properly – that the stones which run crossways through the wall are sound, and that there are no running joints – no straight lines of stones running vertically through the wall which weaken it.
Geoff has not had any formal training, but he has been dry stone walling since he was 10. “I started with my dad, putting the middles in – they’re the rough stones you pack the wall with. If not’s not full, the wall will fall over.”
Some can judge each stone at a glance. “If you’re clever, they say you shouldn’t need to pick up a stone twice. I’m not that clever!” insists Geoff.
His dad was a tenant farmer at Blanchland and Geoff took over the tenancy when he died. “We were on that farm for 47 years, but during the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 all our sheep and cattle were taken and culled. It kind of broke my heart.
“I remember the day they took them. That night I went to close the gates and I just thought ‘what’s the point?’ It was a sad carry on.”
Now in his 70s, despite having lived so close and having passed the entrance to Minsteracres thousands of times, Geoff had only visited once before.
He’s made up for that now though. His repairs mean he has left a lasting legacy on the estate, and operations manager Geoff Bockett is delighted with the quality of the job, “We’re really delighted with it – it’s a great piece of work,” he says.