Contadina's Blog

Living the contadini life among the olive groves

Stone Free January 16, 2011

Filed under: diy,dry stone walling,Garden — contadina @ 1:57 pm

Puglia, like much of the upland areas of Britain and Ireland and other parts of the Mediterranean, has rocky terrain, so it’s no surprise that dry stone walls have left their mark on the landscape in all these locations.

The rocky arid terrain of Puglia looks more Greek than Italian and dry stone walls are everywhere, marking out boundaries and terraces amongst the olive groves and vineyards.

As I mentioned in my last blog we’ve decided its time to restore our dry stone walls and so here’s a progress report on the repair of the front walls. Our front walls measure around 90-metres long and as you can see from the picture in the previous blog, they were a mixture of collapsed rubble and swollen rocks.

Work began on the first morning at around 7am and Giuseppe and Jeremy pulled a fair few rocks off the top of the wall to create a level, which they could follow. Posts were stuck in the ground and string used as a guide for the direction of the wall.

Once they got going the wall evened out to around one metre high on the garden-side, two-metres high on the roadside and around two metres wide. I was surprised that thereafter everything was done by eye, so the walls have the odd kink but are basically straight and solid now.

The repaired first front wall

We have three types of limestone and observing the seams in each rock dictates where it will be placed in the wall.  Rocks with grains in them can be split dead clean enabling you to shape them like bricks. Other rocks are really holey and larva-like, and I suspect they were the result of ancient volcanic eruptions. Giuseppe took one particularly holey rock to use in his presepe next Christmas, and he’s planning to put lighting behind the rock so it can shine though the holes for dramatic effect. We’ve no lights, but I love how the holey rocks look in the wall. Finally, there are smooth, pebble-like stones, which seem to contain more iron. These get used in the middle.

Incredibly, between them, the boys managed to repair around 10-metres a day, working through to about 2.30 in the afternoon. Some bits were worse than others and had to be completely rebuilt. It was quite thrilling to see a wall emerge from the rubble with just hammers and metal poker. The hammers were used to push back swollen areas in the wall and chip stones to size, while the poker helped pull out rocks where the wall had collapsed on itself.

It's just like doing a 3-D jigsaw puzzle

Jeremy likens dry stone walling to doing a 3-D jigsaw puzzle, where you use little wedges of stone to fill gaps and the two outside walls get filled with rubble. All rocks that were pulled off provide material to repair other parts, so you need to be able to spot one on the ground that will work in a space, chipping it to size if necessary. Picking up stones only to return them to the ground because they don’t fit is a waste of both time and effort.

Having enjoyed a slothful Christmas he was pleased to be able to do some physically hard work and I reckon he must have been shifting several tonnes of rocks each day, which should help shift a few mince pies. Any rocks not used in the walls were wheel-barrowed to where we will need them next.

They disturbed a few lizards sleeping in the gaps of the walls but were extremely relieved not to find any snakes hibernating there. When he found out how much I enjoy wild asparagus Giuseppe was genuinely concerned that I would not see any growing alongside the wall for at least three years.  As we’ve over a kilometre of wall to repair, however, I suspect that I’ll always have some asparagus to keep me going.

awaiting a fence on top

Before repairing the adjoining walls Jeremy needs to build some columns for the gates. Once these are in place we’ll remove the entrance walls made out of cement blocks and continue curving the dry stone wall round until it is flush with the columns. The plan is then to cement poles into the top so we can run some chain-link fencing along the top of the wall. We can then turn our attentions to the side and back walls.

Our back wall forms part of the boundary wall between the towns of Ostuni and Ceglie and is some five metres wide and 10-metres high. It’s probably been there for hundreds of years and has a number of oak trees growing out of it just to add to the difficulty factor.

The sidewalls are really patchy by comparison and were probably formed by contadini working the land removing stones as they ploughed their fields. I suspect these became walls rather than just piles of rocks  following the land reform in the 1950s which saw land redistributed to tenant farmers who had previously been forced to share all their crops with their landowners.

Having learnt the basics of dry stone walling we’re also planning on redoing our terraced walls between our upper and lower land levels, making some steps between levels and building an orangery. As all the rocks all come from our land, moreover, all it will cost us is time. It will take at least a couple of years to repair all of the walls as working on them during the height of summer is out of the question.

With ongoing repairs they will hopefully last several hundred years longer.

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8 Responses to “Stone Free”

  1. Heiko Says:

    Unfortunately our land is not rocky, otherwise I could have a go at supporting our terraces with dry stone walls. Looks a great job well done!

  2. contadina Says:

    Thanks Heiko. It’s pretty much sheet rock under most of our land, which makes for challenging gardening, but there’s lots of lovely rocks around to build things with 🙂

  3. Maggie Says:

    Oh Wow! That wall looks just fantabulous. 🙂 I think the walls in our garden could do with some attention… Care for a trip over to Liverpool to give us a hand? 😉 Been up to the house this afternoon, but didn’t make it all the way to the back of the garden as it was raining, but some of the bulbs are showing signs of life. Hope for a dryer weekend next week so we can prune the apple tree, and maybe the magnolia if I can find out how to do it.

  4. Carol Says:

    That is a fantastic achievement, I had a go at using some our excess rocks for dry stone walling but without any tutoring it just ended up as a heap of rocks.

    In Forest of Dean they do run courses every now and again, I must get Peter and I enrolled on one, you have inspired me!

  5. contadina Says:

    A new season starting in your new garden Maggie, you must be really excited 🙂 Get Peter enrolled Carol, although it’s tiring work it’s really satisfying.

  6. Mike Says:

    Such beautiful stonework, reminds me of the old walled Victorian kitchen gardens. Have you ever read Scott and Helen Nearings books on building with stone? The Good Life and Our Home Made of Stone. They had a wall similar to yours that surrounded the gardens.

  7. contadina Says:

    Thanks Mike. I’ve read their 60 year’s of self sufficiency book, but didn’t know about the stone one. I shall have keep a look out for it.

  8. […] I blogged back in January dry-stone walling is like a giant 3-D jigsaw puzzle, where you start out with large flat-faced […]


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