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Volunteering can and does make a difference – Wallathon at Reeth, North Yorkshire

Logo: Dry Stone Walling Association

Water can be a dangerous thing, particularly when “armed” with debris. Many CJS readers will be aware of the devastation caused in North Yorkshire during the heavy floods at the end of July 2019. One of the worst hit areas was around Reeth where buildings were damaged, houses and cars destroyed and thousands of metres of dry stone wall simply washed away by the force of the water, which is where the Dry Stone Walling Association (DSWA) comes in.

Devastation after floods (credit DSWAPL/P Dolphin)
Devastation after floods (credit DSWAPL/P Dolphin)

Following the disaster, the DSWA office was contacted on behalf of its Patron, HRH The Prince of Wales, to see if there was anything that we as an organisation, and in conjunction with The Prince’s Countryside Fund, could do to help residents and landowners get things back up and running. It will take a huge amount of time before things are “back to normal” but as an initial suggestion a “Wallathon” was put forward. This is a word that was created by our Cumbria branch members a few years ago when they were looking at holding a largescale walling event – the name seems to have stuck and has become synonymous with exactly that sort of large, voluntary project.

The challenge begins (credit DSWAPL/M Kitson)
The challenge begins (credit DSWAPL/M Kitson)

The first thing was to identify a suitable date and get word out to potential volunteers. One of our professional wallers was in close contact with the local farmers and landowners and they soon settled on a date in October, bearing in mind that we were already into September at this point. It is this sort of situation where electronic means of contact really come into their own. DSWA put together a call out for volunteers of all abilities to come along and help rebuild large sections of wall. The project would take place over a weekend and volunteers were asked to advise the DSWA office if they were attending for all or part of the weekend and what level of experience, if any, they had. Details of the Wallathon were put on Facebook and other social media sites and the response was almost overwhelming. Within a very short space of time we had in the region of 100 people from far and wide who had been in touch offering to help one way or another. Knowing the numbers was crucial to ensure that there were sufficient suitable wall sections to rebuild and that the work could be managed in a structured and safe way. Local businesses and residents were also keen to contribute and the provision of refreshments for the volunteers was warmly welcomed.

So it was that on the Saturday morning an army of volunteers had arrived and registered for the Wallathon and all had been issued with high-viz jackets. As names had come in, we had been able to identify those with enough experience in walling and able to act as “team leaders” for the various sections of wall earmarked for repair. Everyone was allocated a section of wall to work on and each team consisted of a mixture of non-wallers, and people with varying levels of experience. It was encouraging to welcome a group of apprentices from the North York Moors National Park who had not long completed a training course in dry stone walling and had successfully achieved the Level 1 qualification in the craft. This was an ideal opportunity for them to put into practice their newly acquired skills.

Work in progress (credit DSWAPL/M Kitson)
Work in progress (credit DSWAPL/M Kitson)

As is often the case with large projects, there is friendly and lively banter established early on between everyone working on the walls and the phrase “you had to be there” rings very true. By the end of the day everyone had more than earned the hot meal that had kindly been prepared for them, washed down with some liquid refreshment. Many of the volunteers were staying locally in the area, ready and willing to continue walling the following day. However, some people were only able to help for one of the days so there was a small influx of new volunteers on the Sunday, where again teams were allocated specific sections of wall and team leaders were on hand to ensure everything ran smoothly. By the end of the weekend a record 225 metres of dry stone wall had been reinstated. It is a truly wonderful sight to witness such a large amount of work being completed in a single project. Not only is this very satisfying to those who have carried out the walling but the positive impact on the local community is not to be under estimated. The area had suffered so much damage that for residents it is almost impossible to imagine things ever being rebuilt or finished off, particularly if farmers and landowners are only able to carry out small amounts of repair in-between other work that has to be done.

The gratitude with which the weekend was received gave everyone a “warm and fuzzy feeling”, so much so that a second Wallathon for Reeth has been arranged for the weekend of 23 – 24 May 2020. Further details will be posted on the DSWA website and Facebook pages but if anyone wishes to get involved please contact the DSWA office on information@dswa.org.uk to be added to the mailing list. In that way we can keep people up to date. There were some very kind and favourable comments received by DSWA following the weekend and this quote from two ladies who attended probably sums up the success of the project:

“ …we are just home from Reeth having had a great day and just wanted to say thank you …... I don’t know who provided the morning bacon butties and the lunch but they were very much appreciated. If you could pass on our thanks, that would be great. The friendly advice and camaraderie of everyone there made the day excellent. We’re looking forward to May already.”

Completed section of wall (credit DSWAPL/J Taylor)
Completed section of wall (credit DSWAPL/J Taylor)

If largescale walling projects are perhaps not to your particular taste, the Dry Stone Walling Association does have a network of local branches throughout the country, which you could get involved with as a member of DSWA. Most branches put together a programme of events and activities, including community projects, displays at local shows and social events and you would be assured of a warm welcome. For further information about DSWA in general or how to join, why not visit the website www.dswa.org.uk or contact the office on information@dswa.org.uk or phone 015395 67953.

Alison Shaw

Dry Stone Walling Association

First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in association with The Conservation Volunteers on 10 Febraury 2020. Read the full issue here

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