Since May 2014 Pembrokeshire hedgebank expert Richard Wheeler has been working at Southwood Farm, carefully bringing into being a 125m length of stone faced traditional Pembrokeshire bank (cloddiau) in the field to the east of the farmhouse.
This is the next stage of the SITA Trust funded hedgerow project, and, on a blazing hot day in July, we caught up with him to find out more about this most artful countryside skill.
So Richard, how long have you been building hedgebanks?
I started about thirty years ago when the government manpower schemes were running. It’s been on and off since then, either working for the National Trust or as a contractor.
Is there more or less of this work available now than when you started building hedgebanks?
I’d say there’s less work now. The cost for building hedegbanks in the traditional manner is higher and there seems to be less field stone available.
Who taught you?
I don’t think there was anyone in particular – I’ve picked it up from the training schemes and simply from having lots of practice.
Have you taught others?
Over the years I’ve taught others, yes. But not everyone takes to it. You’ve got to want to learn this skill, be capable of physical work and have a keen eye for laying good stone.
What tool/s do you use most when building a hedgebank?
Mostly a spade and shovel but I need an iron bar, lump hammer, sledge hammer and a string line to complete the job. Oh, and a mini-digger comes in useful too for backfilling the hedgebank!
What’s the secret to building a long lasting hedgebank ?
You really need good solid base stones at the foundation of the bank. Get this right and the rest will follow naturally. Each layer of stones and earth fill needs to be set and tamped in solidly before the next layer can go in. What you’re aiming for is a bank that’s strengthened by the weight of each layer.
How much can you build in a day?
Probably about a 2m length (of 1.5m high bank), or about 5.6 cubic metres of bank.
How much have you built in your lifetime?
Hard to say! A lot of my work has been about patching up holes and rebuilding sections. A couple of km would be realistic.
What do you think about when you’re working?
I can switch off totally when I’m working and just get into a zone. But not so if the weather breaks and everything feels twice as heavy. Then its best to stop and come back on a drier day to catch up.
What have been the challenges with this particular job at Southwood?
There haven’t been any, apart from having to wait until the winter storms ended and for the land to dry out. The field now is just right, the weather’s been perfect and the stone (from nearby Rhyndaston quarry) is good to work with as well.
And what have been the rewards?
I took a look over from the farm today at what I’ve built so far and thought ‘wow, that’s impressive’. The reward is also knowing that when this bank grasses over and gets planted up it’ll provide a fine shelter for livestock and wildlife for years and years, hopefully generations, to come. And there’s something really satisfying knowing that what I’ve done has helped to keep the art of the cloddiau alive.
See this work in progress at the next Southwood Farm event, this Thursday 31st July (10:30 – 15:30).