Jobseekers and hobbyists are learning an ancient craft
Photo: Mike Zenari
Between the patter of rain on a blue tarpaulin spread over the heads of a handful of trainees can be heard the clink of hammer on chisel on stone.
It’s a musical backdrop for an unexpected scene in the Luxembourg Moselle Valley. But, this hardy group are more than a mere one-off curiosity. They are participants in one of a series of ten-day dry stone walling courses, aimed at reviving a craft that died out 50 years ago.
“Here, we’ve a lot of dry stone walls in vineyards that have been neglected since the 1950s,” coordinator of the dry stone walls in the Greater Region project Pascal Armborst explains. “We didn’t have the skills. But now there are so many people asking for these types of skills, we don’t have a choice.”
The €2m EU Interreg project training dry stone wallers to build and restore walls in Belgium, France and Luxembourg began in 2016 and runs until 2020. In Luxembourg, it is coordinated by natur&ëmwelt, the Naturpark Mëllerdall and the Biologische Station Sias, which together have helped train scores of people, from private individuals to craftspeople, and even jobseekers as part of a job reinsertion programme with Adem.
Besides the social aspect, the project brings environmental benefits. Dry stone walls on the vineyard-covered terraces of the Moselle create a microclimate by storing heat, which is ideal for maturing grapes. What is more, they help with drainage, for example, in the event of heavy downpours. And the tiny crevices in the wall’s rocks provide the perfect habitat for insects, which can feed on parasites.
The team I meet in May is restoring a dry stone wall footpath which was constructed hundreds of years ago in Greiveldange. Trainees stare at the wall, lug reclaimed stones and chip away at them to achieve the perfect fit. “You understand why people invented bricks!” Stefanie Hildebrand, one of the trainees, says.
She wanted to learn the technique to use it in her farmhouse home. Hildebrand describes the process as like “playing Tetris with heavy bricks”. The work is not only physical but requires a great deal of thought in understanding how to get the right tension between stones so that the wall is stable and can last another few hundred years.
“It’s frustrating and very slow,” Hildebrand says, after being told to start a section of wall again. Wells of patience are essential to hone this skill, which trainer Jean-Philippe Piret describes as a kind of “meditation”.
Piret learned the techniques 20 years ago, “when no-one was talking about dry stone walling”. Today, he is one of just five teachers in the whole of Belgium. He has taught at different locations in Luxembourg where dry stone walls are found, including the Mullerthal Park. “You have to take pleasure from it. […] You have to concentrate, be in your bubble, choose the right stone. It doesn’t fit? Never mind, you reshape it. You know it will take time,” Piret explains.
Of course, the trainees won’t be experts at the end of the ten-day course. “You need several months spent working on different techniques and with different types of stones in different regions,” Armborst says.
While finance for the project ends in 2020, all parties hope that it will continue. “We’re in talks with the environment ministry to receive subsidies when we build or restore a dry stone wall. […] Because it costs a lot. It’s a lot of manpower,” Marc Thill of the Station Biologique Sias explains. “But it lasts for a long time,” adds Armborst.