By Karen Graham
It catches your eye as you drive north on County Road 10 from Mount Pleasant. On a slight angle, it is positioned in a way that allows the light to flow through the opening, and with stones strewn at its feet, the arch looks like the remains of an ancient outbuilding. That is not the case. It is a new structure, built in a single day in July 2006 by a group of volunteers under the expert direction of dry stone wall expert John Rimmington-Shaw, of Port Hope. He had admired an extensive pile of stones on that hill, one of many located on the property owned by Ross Jamison, of Hayes Line. To Rimmington-Shaw, the stones offered the potential for the creation of what the Victorian era would refer to as a folly, or a faux ruin. They presented an opportunity, and he was eager to seize it.
A chance sighting of the owner walking the field gave Rimmington- Shaw the chance to ask about creating something from these rocks. The owner agreed, with the caveat that the finished product would not present a tripping hazard to grazing cattle. This was achieved by building the arch surrounded by piles of stones as a deterrent to the cattle from getting too close.
While this project was a volunteer effort, Rimmington-Shaw is a rare dry stone expert who makes a living in this ancient profession. Some of his local projects include a bridge in Port Hope, foundation work on historic homes and outbuildings as well as traditional stone walls for private customers. He spends several months in the winter in California, where he has customers he calls “patrons” for whom he creates stone features, including ones involving mortar such as fireplaces. He also teaches this trade in places like Ireland where stone walls are familiar and important components in the landscape.
At home he is founder and president of Dry Stone Walling Across Canada and an avid supporter of the idea of sharing knowledge freely and learning from others. Besides building walls himself, he is eager to encourage others to discover how satisfying the activity can be. Many of those who join his workshops are those who spend their days working with their heads, including doctors, lawyers and teachers. They come to learn a different kind of skill, one he refers to as “thinking with their hands”. Building with stone is physical work, true, but it is also a creative endeavour which is very rewarding.
What does it take to build a wall of stone, where gravity and physics are the only things holding the pieces together? No particular skill or hand strength, he assures. And don’t suggest to him that perhaps building a stone wall is like putting together the pieces of a puzzle. Not at all, in his mind, as a puzzle has a predetermined look and a single way in which the pieces will fit together. A dry stone project has many possible designs and stones of every size and shape have a place. The only moment where their shape matters is in the construction of an arch, where flatter stones are needed at the top. John prefers to use large round stones wherever possible, and absolutely avoids a traditional brick pattern of staggering stones 1 over 2 then 2 over one, which is just boring. If fitted skillfully, he explains, the stones can be pretty much be relied upon to create and support an impressively solid and long-lasting form on their own.
One of his more unusual local projects will be the focus of an event in Port Hope on Thanksgiving weekend. In 2006, a permanent stone house structure with a boat perched on top to form roof was built in honour of Farley Mowat’s “The Boat that Wouldn’t Float”. Currently located on private property, the town recently purchased it. On the weekend of October 8th, it will be dismantled by volunteers, its stones carried by flatbed truck and wheelbarrow to a new home in town near the Ganaraska River, where it will remain as a memorial to one of Canada’s greatest authors and long-time resident of the town.
In his work, Rimmington-Shaw is addressing a problem he has discovered: Canada doesn’t have enough ruins, so he’s determined to create some. To learn more about dry stone walls and the association, visit the website at www.dswa.ca, where you will find some local courses and projects where you can learn to design your own stone projects.