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The joys of working in winter

I’m often asked what I do in the winter. The answer is I work building dry stone walls. Like I do the rest of the year.

Working outside, particulary during the pandemic has been a real luxury. Whilst millions are forced to work from home, I get to leave the house and commute to work, just like I did pre-pandemic.

And of course there’s lots of positives for working outside – the endless supply of Vitamin D, the wind in your hair, the rain on your face, the deep mud under your boots and the driving sleet and snow in winter!

Scratch that!

There are lots of positives for working outside from mid-March to late November when it is warm, the sun shines and is generally quite pleasant!

Like in the picture.

The rest of the time is shit!

The winter of 2020/21 has not been kind to me.

We were met with this scene on the first day back after the Xmas holidays on the 4th January. A cold snap around New Year had led to a significant snow fall, then a thaw, then more snow and finally a deep freeze.

Everything from the ground to the stones was covered in snow and frozen solid. In fact most of the stones were frozen to the ground.

Usually everything is covered in a tarp to keep the stones clear of snow but I didn’t get a chance to get the tarp on before the snow came.

Thankfully there was a big thaw and everything melted at the end of the first week in January.

Since then everything gets covered at night.

But even with a tarp, sometimes the snow will just do what the snow will do.

This image was take on the 22 January.

All we can do is shovel it off again and hope that the stones are not frozen.

Unfortunately, the sandstone that we are working with – Swinton Rubble from the Hutton Stone co. near Berwick-upon-Tweed – is quite a light and porous stone.

It retains water. This is not an issue when the temperatures are at or above freezing. As it is a soft-ish stone it is easy to work with a brick hammer.

However, when the stone is frozen it becomes as hard as, er, rock.

It behaves in a totally different way. Instead of easy working, it resists hammer strokes like you’re using a feather duster to dress the stone. And instead of chipping in an expected fashion it flakes and breaks in unexpected ways. That is, if it breaks at all!

So we’ve been faced with some difficult conditions.

Frozen ground.

Frozen fingers and toes.

And lots of frozen stone

The solution to that came from a walling colleague in the USA who suggested we hire a weed burner and propane gas to melt the ice and snow.

And now the daily routine when we arrive is get the burner going, light our small wood fire to heat our fingers and then melt the ice off the stones. And do it again in the late morning, at lunch time and in the afternoon!

Meanwhile, tt snowed again today, has been sleeting most of the evening and is forecast for more of the same tomorrow and the day after.

And the forecast for next week is colder again. We’ve only built half as much as planned and it’s not looking good progress-wise for the next couple of weeks.

It’s been a tough year so far!

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