31 Dec 2013

Building stone walls and paving

There is for me something deeply satisfying in the work involved in building stone walls, stone paths and paved areas. Such work, which can be physically demanding on account of the weight and abrasive nature of the items as well as the repetition of tasks, combines the physical and the useful with the aesthetic, like indeed many forms of craftsmanship. I have, in the past, practiced the trade of carpenter/cabinet-maker and I would say the same of that too. I don't think of the end products of either of these crafts as works of art. They are made by hands and tools and the human mind, but, above all, they are functional. Art is, by definition, useless, and so is perhaps essential in other ways.

The photographs in this article show some of the stone work I currently have in progress in Gascony. All of it uses local materials, much found, some purchased. Very little mortar (lime and sand, with an occasional dab of white cement) has beeen used, except for some of the bottom and top layers, and the angle stones. As the walls have been back-filled with rubble and small stones for extra drainage, and then with earth, this dry stone technique should enable surplus water to find its way out without creating undue pressure. At least that is what I hope! 

work in progress: the second layer terrace is under way in this photo, but is now more or less finished, as below, taken from the mid-level and with plantings in progress

the second-level terrace, now finished apart from the topping stones, still to be cut and laid.

I cannot pretend to be an expert in building rough stone walls, and I make many mistakes for sure, but I do apply myself when I work at this and try to do a good job. So far, the ones I have built seem to be holding up alright, but time will tell I suppose. We are definitely not in the pyramid league here! This project revolves around a two layer stone terrace with a mostly stone (I will be replacing the non-stone parts with stone steps) stairway leading up 17 steps and linking the top level to the bottom via an intermediary terrace which I have also paved. Since these pictures were taken, I have started to extend the bottom layer to the left of the staircase. The system will be similar on each side, with some changes in levels to adapt to the ground.

As well as some of the steps (temporary), the pathway that leads from the house to this staircase is made of river-bed pebbles that come from the Garonne river, nearby (see first photograph below), which are also used, alternately with irregular off-cut slabs salvaged from a local stone-cutter's yard, to pave the middle terrace part (bottom two photographs below).

Plantings are under way on the top terrace, and also in beds set into the middle level. At the bottom level lies a wide, sloping and grassed field with a lake at the bottom of it, about 100 metres from the bottom wall and, in between, some fruit trees that I have planted and which will probably be increasing in numbers.

This article also shows, below, some photographs of stone paving in other places that I have seen and thought to photograph. These will probably provide inspiration for future work.

Stone floor paving inside a chateau currently being restored: Château de Fargues, in Sauternes, near Bordeaux. An example of how to do it!

pebble stone paving in Granada, Spain

At the end of last-summer's work sessions, I cremated my favourite espadrilles which had been worn out by so much unsuitably hard effort. At other times I try to wear more suitable footgear for this work. 

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