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Restoring The Ha-Ha

Stowe Landscape Gardens




During the month of June 1993, I was fortunate to be part of the team of National Trust volunteers who began the work of restoring the ha-ha along the Oxford Avenue. Professional stone masons had completed work on Lee's Bastion, the semi-circular protrusion located halfway up the Avenue, and our task was to work northeast, towards the house -- pulling down those stones that were unstable until we reached a firm foundation to build on, and then reconstructing the wall.

As an American, I was unusual within the team of volunteers. Most were British men who had lost their jobs and who, during their search for permanent work, chose to donate their time and energy in return for a small stipend and a filling mid-day meal in what was once the State Dining Room at Stowe.

I came to be on the team in a roundabout way -- I had first seen the garden in the summer of 1989 when the National Trust had just begun its restoration work. Knowing about Stowe only through the lines from Alexander Pope's Moral Epistle Of the Use of Riches, I drove to Buckingham from Oxford one afternoon, found Stowe School by following the road signs, and then gave myself a tour of the garden based on a couple of leaflets I bought at the School Shop. I remember telling myself, as I looked through the Doric Arch toward the Palladian Bridge and finding the view blocked by unruly vegetation (since tamed), that I wished I had the means to help restore the garden.

Three summers later, during one of several subsequent visits -- this time with a group of my students from a summer school program based in Oxford -- I had the chance to talk briefly with the Head Gardener, Frank Thompson, who told me about the Trust's Volunteer Program. He explained that if I could cover my own transportation to England and to Stowe, he could offer me a place to sleep and one hot meal a day for as long as I was willing to work. The next year, I took him up on his offer.

What follows is a series of photographs of our work on the wall and explanations to accompany them, followed by exerpts from the journal I kept during the summer of 1993.



The two photographs below were taken four years apart -- the one on the left depicting the finished product of the efforts of the volunteers on the Oxford Avenue ha-ha, and the one on the right depicting the state in which the volunteers found the wall. The perspective of both photographs is the view northeast from the gate and cattle grid at the south Boycott Pavillion.

The first order of business was to clear the vegetation that had grown up over the wall. What we found were the remains of the original courses (horizontal rows) of stones -- that is, those courses still left standing. Many stones had fallen into the ditch, and others had been removed over the years to form the boundaries of private flower beds or to serve other purposes. The photograph below left shows a section of the wall northeast of Kent's Bastion, one particular section of which -- though relatively intact -- leans precariously outward. Sections like this had to be dismantled and rebuilt. Sections from which stones were missing had to be rebuilt with stone donated to the Trust (I believe) by a quarry in the west of England. A large pile of these stones, pictured below right, sat in the yard to the north of the northern Boycott Pavillion. On days when the rain was heavy enough to keep us from working on the wall, we spent our time in an open shed, shaping these scraps of stone to form rough blocks.

Once we had created enough of a stock of blocks of different sizes (each course of stone was of a height, but no two courses were exactly the same) we transported them by tractor and wagon to the wall. Having taken down the unstable courses of stone until we reached a firm foundation, we began re-laying each course, one at a time. Each of us had a section of wall some twenty yards long. We worked independently but shared some of the responsibilities -- each of us learned to operate the mortar mixer and to concoct the right mix, for example, and we helped each other set up in the morning and clean up in the afternoon.

Since none of us was an experienced stone mason, it was helpful to have the professional work on Kent's Bastion close at hand to use as a model. In addition, we had the advice and direction of Clara Willett, who was at the time pursuing post-graduate studies in stone conservation. We also learned a good deal from each other, adopting one another's best techniques. In fact, John, Peter, and I usually watched Andis (pictured below right) to get our ideas -- I don't know if it was his experience with theatre set design (he had worked with the Royal Ballet, if I remember correctly) or something else, but Andis was our aesthetic mentor. There was some room to be creative in that we had the freedom to choose the height of each course as well as the order of the stones themselves -- our only hard and fast rule was to stagger the joints between the stones as best we could and to create weepholes from time to time, of which I will say more later.

As the series of photographs below indicate, a good bit of planning went into creating each successive course of stones. We found that the wall was more aesthetically pleasing when there was a mixture of the original, darker stone with the almost white Portland stone donated by the quarry. Also, the scraps of Portland stone often had one smooth side, and we found that, though we had first thought it an advantage to place the smooth face outward, a rougher surface caught the light in more interesting ways and blended better with the original stone. Occasionally, we set a stone on end, allowing it to penetrate the course above to provide a break in the horizontal monotony. And, as might be expected, a stone would often have to be shaped to fit the opening we chose for it.

The center photograph above provides an interesting perspective on the actual composition of the wall. What appear from the front to be blocks of roughly equal height and depth are not necessarily so. A block two inches high and four inches deep could be (and often was) set on its side in a course of four-inch blocks. In fact, those blocks that were the deepest could cause the most problems, at least for me, because they often contacted the earthen wall behind and had to be trimmed to fit.

My own process of setting a course of stones went as follows. In the morning, after removing the protective tarpaulins from my section of the wall, I first took a wire brush and roughened the surface of the joints between the stones I had mortared into place the previous day. At the same time, I removed any mortar that had gotten onto the face of any of the stones. The rest of the morning was often spent selecting the stones for the next course, setting them up in order, and shaping them to fit -- as John is doing in the photograph above right. I would then run a level line along what I intended to be the top of the new course, and mortar each stone into place, occasionally leaving an unmortared space of a half-inch or so between two stones . If I was lucky to finish this process before our mid-day meal, during the afternoon I filled in the space between the newly set stones and the earthen bank behind, using scraps of stone cropped off the blocks or any rocks at hand, really. One of the things we discovered as we worked was that our predecessors had done the same. In the photograph to the left one can see a piece of broken baluster imbedded in the earthen bank, suggesting that the original ha-ha builders used broken scraps from renovations of the house or garden buildings as backfill.

In every course of stones I tried to remember to create a weephole -- that is, a place for water to drain through the wall from the bank behind so that the pressure of the ground water will not over time push the wall outward. As I mentioned above, I would occasionally not mortar a joint between two stones. Behind this joint, I placed a more careful selection of stone fill, and later in the afternoon when I used mortar to tie together the backfill and to create a smooth shelf on which to lay the next course the following day, I would leave the weephole area free of mortar. Because I left the garden after four weeks to spend some time in the Highlands of Scotland, I was not able to complete my section of the wall higher than about four and a half feet, about two feet higher than the level at which John is working in the photograph to the right. I'm sure that I was saved some even more back-breaking effort by not having to lift stones into place in the top courses of the wall. One of the questions my colleagues and I had as we worked was about keeping the courses of stone level even though the ground along the Oxford Avenue rises as it approaches the house. I imagine that adjustments were made to the top courses since the capping stones of a ha-ha must form an un-stepped line at ground level on the upper side.

The capping stones themselves -- or, rather, the lack of them -- created a problem for us. The original caps were solid ironstone, and few survived intact. To replace them with solid stone was not economically feasible, as I understood it, at the time, so the decision was made to create new ones from concrete dyed to approximate the reddish color of the originals. The photographs below depict the process of setting those capping stones on the top of the wall (this particular stretch of wall borders the National Trust car park just north of the Temple of Concord and Victory). Andis, being the tallest of us, had the responsibility of managing the stones from below. Clara, shown in the top of the photograph on the right, used a brush to apply a solution of creosote and sheep dung, which both stained the concrete a darker brown and provided a deposit on which lichen would grow more readily.

Note that the wall is over five feet high in this area. Stowe has a taller (or deeper) than usual ha-ha, which allowed for deer to be kept in the park but out of the garden proper. At the time I was working in the garden, I was told that there were plans eventually to replace the deer.

The following is a series of exerpts from the journal I kept during my time at the garden in 1993.

There's too much to record, and I'm beginning to be afraid that, like Tristram Shandy, I'll never catch up. I had good intentions when I bought this book of blank pages, but the work itself takes so much out of me that even writing seems daunting at the end of a day. The stones are heavy, and so are the shovels full of sand and lime as we mix mortar. But there is also a sweet satisfaction in setting a course of stones, making them level, fitting each one in. The activity at times seems a Taoist meditation. The stones tell me where they belong in the wall. My job is to place them there and make them comfortable. The mortar surely seems a pleasant bed as the stones nestle in. But I have to be aware that the bed may last for two hundred years and that the stones must remain comfortable and related to each other by the connections I make. Perhaps feeling that responsibility is the reason I want to work slowly and carefully.

I felt often yesterday as I have felt in the darkroom or at the drawing board -- no language, no rational thought. Instead, intense feeling, attention, intuition. The experience is not just making do with the materials at hand, and it is certainly not just a job to get done or even a goal to accomplish. For me, at least, it is both an act of renewal -- remaking the wall in the way it was made originally, "by chance and heaven's favor," as Wendell Berry says -- and an act of love. And as in all acts of love, there is the getting of pleasure and the gift of the self.

Each stone is exquisitely different. Where it came from isn't important, though there's a metaphorical pleasure in knowing that the new Portland stone will sit side-by-side with the original stones that have been gathered and saved from the wreck of the old wall. The stones are connected in the same way that the previous artisans and I are connected. We become part of the fabric of the history of the garden. The Portland stone has been donated -- and I'm donating my time and energy. But the fallen stone is also there raised back into place, offering a continuity to all of this flurry of activity.

The Tao teaches that it is best to "keep to the impersonal," which I have come to define as a space where the ego does not intrude, a space where the self does not act other than to be a vehicle or conduit for something bigger, more comprehensive, timeless. The self is not important. Although I can tell, from time to time, when looking at the way the stones are laid or the mortar is rusticated, who did the work, claiming or ascribing responsibility is a secondary or tertiary act. We restore the wall as a team -- and we become part of a team that exists across the decades, perhaps the centuries -- and what is important is the activity, not the actor.

Yet to "keep to the impersonal," one must also "know the personal." Keeping to the impersonal -- or to the female, or to the dark -- is a choice between complementary modes of being. The personal, too, is important. I am here not just for Stowe but for me. I want, as Berry says, "a piece of my history to come between me and the sky." I want to become a part of this place as it has become a part of me. But the care that I take in the work is for Stowe, even as it cleanses me of language and rationality and the dangers of thinking too much. As tired as I am now, and as I will be daily for the next few weeks at the end of each day, I am also being renewed, like the wall. The stones that nestle together are in another way like the people, soon to be friends, who work side-by-side.

Solitude is one of the first casualties of this life, and its loss teaches me much about the life I hope to lead. I miss my desk, my bed, my kitchen, my bathroom, my telephone. Though it may sound like it, I don't believe I'm really whining about hardships, because I can put up with this temporary communal living arrangement for a short time. I'm actually learning in a forceful way what I need to live contentedly. I have taken my privacy and independence for granted. In the past I've lived, even at the poverty level, a solitary life. I haven't had to wait my turn to use the bathroom or the stove, haven't had to use a shared kitchen for reading and writing. Even my tiny apartment in graduate school -- even my dorm rooms in college -- afforded a space I could make my own. I need a door I can shut, even if I shut it on a tiny, dark space.

The trade-off for the loss of privacy and independence is, of course, the gain of a certain camaraderie (the word, after all, means inmates of the same room) in work and rest. As loosely connected as we all are here at the Arch [the Corinthian Arch, where I lived while working at the garden] we share a purpose and a sense of place. Each of us addresses the purpose differently, and each of us uses the space differently. But the fundamental human contact can be rich if I allow myself to be open to its possibilities.

Today as we cropped stones in the shed, I got to use the new electric chisel first. What was most exciting (beyond not having to swing a heavy hammer) was that I began to get more and more of a sense as I went along of the block within the chunk of stone. The first time I ever thought much about this phenomenon was when I saw Michelangelo's Slaves in Florence: the human shapes were struggling to emerge from the blocks of granite. However much it sounds like a cliché, there is something mystical about seeing potential -- physically seeing it, but with a kind of second sight. My intuition didn't always work, because the chunk of stone and I weren't always on the same wavelength and because I occasionally mistook something else for a faultline or for grain. But when I was correct, I could feel it in my own bones. It felt like faith.

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© John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College, jtatter@bsc.edu