This afternoon my cousin David and I headed up to the top fields to pick stones.
It’s back-breaking work, but necessary. My uncle Frank, David’s father, is planning to start the ploughing in a couple of weeks and the fields need to be cleared of stones so they don’t end up breaking the machinery–the plough or the combine–that he’ll use to work the land, so we’re doing something that no doubt was also done by medieval peasants.
Stones are everywhere here in Derbyshire’s Peak District: in the fields, in the walls; in the cottages, churches, and the historic homes; in the rivers, the troughs, the millstones. Stones tumble from the walls, are heaved out of the ground by the frost, are carved out of the many quarries. There is no avoiding them. If you don’t like your architecture made of stone, don’t bother coming to this part of Derbyshire.
–The old Baptist Church, later Smith Bros joinery.
–Here you have it all: large stones in the foreground, a stone wall and a stone barn in the middle ground, and on the horizon, the quarry at Crich with its limestone dome.
It was a rather cold, grey day when we went to pick stones, with an icy wind coming off the moors and a threat of rain in the air. We started at the top wallside next to the pine trees that were planted on the moorland by the Forestry Commission forty years ago. This wall had suffered the most degradation over the years due to the “hunt” that passes through every year, walkers and hikers looking for shortcuts over the wall, and Frank’s bullocks which lick the cement out from under the coping stones in a quest for lime.
Stone picking is back-breaking work. After dinner when Frank announced that he needed volunteers for stone-picking, everyone else found more pressing jobs to do–not a difficult thing to do on a farm where there are always sixteen things that need doing at the same time. Julie was going to start setting out some plants she’d received in the mail; Carol was continuing to put tiles into the family bathroom that she was renovating upon their recent move into the 300-year-old farmhouse; Frank had something else to do; and none of the kids wanted anything to do with stone-picking but instead huddled by the warmth of the electric fire in the sitting room.
Stones in the fields are tricky things: even the ones that lie on top of the ground often need a hearty kick from a strong boot to dislodge them. They can hide under tufts of grass, invisible except to a well-placed foot that can feel the slight difference in terrain, and then must be dug out using a gardening fork.
The stones are so numerous that it’s bend, grab, throw, bend, grab, throw, for most of the afternoon. At first it feels like wonderful exercise, a pure relief from days of sedentary activity, then the novelty pales, and it’s back to bend, grab, throw. What relieves the monotony is David, who’s telling me all sorts of interesting things about the tropical sea and the three volcanoes that spouted lava nearby many years ago, and why the fields on the farm have their particular names.
After two hours it’s time to call it quits, and David must return to help Carol tile the bathroom.
This afternoon’s work has cleared the stoniest wallside, but there are three more sides to go–and that’s just one of the many fields on the farm. There’ll be more days to come for stone picking, a job that never ends–but I’ll just let my back rest for a couple of days first. It’s been quite a workout but, as I look at the cartload of stones, so very satisfying.