You don’t need a gym, you need a croft.

By Andy Williams

We all know what a fence looks like. It’s metal wire strung between wooden posts. Usually yes, but there are occasional local variations. In the slate producing areas of north Wales they’re often wire twisted around slate posts. It’s a clever use of what would have been a waste product, and they last a lot longer than virtually any wooden post would. Here in Caithness they have a different variation of a fence. Stone slabs are set upright, with about an inch overlap where they meet. That overlap means that each slab is supported by the slab to either side while supporting both of them at the same time. It’s impossible for any one slab to fall over. Either the whole fence stays up or the whole fence goes over. Caithness tends to be fairly windy, so it’s an excellent solution for livestock. Animals have a solid windbreak to get behind in bad weather. It doesn’t need maintaining like a hedge or fence does. Clever eh? Only one little problem. What if you need to move a solid stone fence?

We have one marking the outline of our back garden, which has stood for 80 years. Over time, the soil inside the garden has built up until the weight of it has slowly pushed the whole fence over at an angle. Its position also means we have to either climb over it or walk around it to get into what will be the veg garden. It’s time for it to go. Simple. Just dig a bit, lift a bit, move onto the next slab, right? In reality it’s not quite that easy, as we discovered yesterday. Every slab is sunk a good two feet into heavy clay soil that hangs onto the stone so well that we have to dig a trench the full depth of the slabs, then lift each out by brute force. They’re typically roughly three feet wide and five feet long, and solid Caithness stone. The real factor in shifting them comes from the thickness, which can vary a lot. The thinner ones I can move fairly easily. I’m not a small person, and after a few months of labouring on the croft I can generally get by. Some of them are three inches thick however, and moving them hurts! In a whole afternoon we only managed to lift out four of them. The way the stones lean into each other means they have to be taken out in order, you can’t just move up and down the row. The next two slabs areĀ  skinny ones. Lovely. But the one after that is three and a half inches thick, and the widest in the whole row. I freely admit it intimidates me. Today my whole upper body aches. I’m giving myself until Monday to recover, then it’s back to the digging. Only thirty of them to go. Doddle. No, really!

The slabs actually have value and are sold second hand locally. We’re going to use them on site. We’re going to turn them into walkways to access the veg garden in wet weather. Barrowing compost, manure and soil amendments out, and harvested crops in, would normally compact the ground and make an awful mess after rain. Not in our garden. We’re having a wide stone pathway running every third bed. It adds functionality to the veg garden at no cost.

Forget the gym. The gym is for the weak. You want The Croft Plan. It’s like a gym, but you never go home. You live at the gym now. And you’ll never leave.


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