Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The Goose Hoose

The Goose Hoose came together like a dream. The build was expected to take around ten weeks, but we had it wrapped up in five. It was a quick turnaround time by anyone’s standards, not least by a set of apprentices, some of which had no prior experience in stone masonry. Under a different set of circumstances, the build might have taken us longer, but the combination of certain things made it feel as if we were working within a slipstream. First and foremost, the guidance from Daryl, our building tutor and my BFF, was outstanding. He's been a force for good as the captain of Team Stone and is a real credit to Dumfries House. His knowledge and efficiency sometimes made my head spin. Secondly, there was a really nice set of dynamics within the team, which created a cohesive, positive atmosphere right from the off. Everybody mucked in, everybody did their bit, and at the end of it, we all sat on the roof with a glass of Prosecco and toasted to a job well done. 

We toasted to what had passed. An enormous amount of stone had been measured, cut, squared and shaped in extraordinary plumes of sandstone dust within the banker shop. And when that stone had been worked - be it quoin, jamb, voussoir, string course, coping or crow step - it was taken on the short journey to site where it waited patiently for the softness of a lime mortar bed in The Goose Hoose. A small sea of mortar had been mixed and poured into wheelbarrows and buckets ready to be scooped out by hungry trowels. Stones were bedded and sometimes re-bedded, lines were run, levels were leveled, hammers swung, stones teased, tapped and tempted into plumb, square and level. Noses were crinkled, heads were scratched, hmms were hummed. We laughed, we sang, I told stupid jokes. Then Prince Charles came along and gave a nod of approval. 

Monday, 15 August 2016

Day 1 and an Ode to Departed Friends

And so it begins. The live build. There were 27 of us during the summer school and that has now reduced to 11. I loved every single one of my summer school friends, and I actually found myself becoming closer to them in the three weeks that we were together than I did during my three years of stonemasonry training at Bath College. Leaving the office and retraining as a stonemason was a great decision on my part, even if I do say so myself, but the summer school was something else. It was a series of magnificent flashes of colour, setting itself aside from every other experience I’ve had up to this point. It was so unique and went by in such a blur that I was afraid that it might have been part of some elaborate hoax, a drug-induced coma or worse: a dream. When Christian and I got back to Dumfries House on Saturday evening after two weeks off, we were glad to find that everything we had remembered was still here. Gradually, as our newest friends began to arrive over the course of the weekend, the dream steadily restored itself to reality. These people were real, and it was also a relief to find that they shared a similar fondness for those who have now returned to their normal lives. The people I’d written about had not been imagined. They were were real and so the strength I gained from getting to know them was real. Future posts will be more focused on the live build, but this post is an ode to them.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Day 0 and the Raleigh Wildtrack

I knew I needed a mountain bike for the live build, but I’d left buying one until the last minute. It wasn’t through want of trying – I’d visited half a dozen bike shops in the area over the past few weeks in search of a suitable one, but there was one problem: my taste for mountain bikes was still firmly rooted in 2000. The turn of the century heralded the beginning of a passion for bicycles that is still firmly with me. So I preferred the retro style that I grew up with. The new style was too flashy for my taste and the tubing was far too thick. At the age of 14, my school friends and I would cycle through Upton St Leonards, up a very steep hill called Portway to Painswick Beacon. It took an hour or two to cycle right to the top, but it was worth it. It was in this area that I found a freedom in cycling down its wooded trails. You can’t beat the exhilaration of cycling fast down a hill and I wanted to capture some of that excitement while I was at Dumfries House. I visited the Gloucestershire Bike Project, a local charity that restores and sells donated bicycles. They had plenty of great bikes, but not one that quite suited my needs: I was looking for a mountain bike that was simple, sturdy and had a retro feel to it. And it couldn’t be flashy. I didn’t want to attract any unwanted attention. As I left their warehouse, I saw a blue Raleigh Wildtrack that was bound for sale on the Internet. It was perfect. And only £95 – a quarter of what I was looking to pay. I don’t think I would ever fall in love with something so cheap. I bought it there and then. The only thing I had to change were the tyres. The ones that it had were brand new, but they were too knobbly for my liking, so I bought some ones that were good all-rounders for road and trail riding. I’ve already been to the local Tesco on it and I’m still in love. My love of bicycles has been thoroughly renewed. And what better to do it than through a charity.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016


On the very first morning of the summer school, Corinne was complaining of stiffness. She’d taken part in the Vitality British 10K run in London the day before and in doing so helped to raise over £2000 for charity. My cousin had also entered the race and it was also one that he went on to win. I told Corinne about it and she was suitably impressed, but I don’t think it’s something I told you. 

Skip forwards a week and a half to Dumfries House. I discover that you’re a regular runner. Some mornings I saw you as you set out on your morning jog, other mornings I saw you when you get back. I’m not a 100-mile a week man like my cousin, but I do run. I like running. I like the intensity of it. I like it for the freedom it affords and for its accessibility. I like the freedom of knowing that I can go anywhere I like and I can go immediately. It doesn’t require a membership or expensive equipment. I don’t necessarily need to travel anywhere to do it or have to rely on anyone when I get there. It’s dead cheap and no one can let you down. 

You told me about your achievements as a high school and college rower and how you used to train for four hours a day as you competed at national level. It’s no wonder you like to run. You know the freedom of being out on the water and you sought a similar kind of freedom here. 

My mind now shifts to films with running scenes: Shame, Juno, Forrest Gump, any Rocky film. Al Pacino does a lot of running in his films. Carlito’s Way in particular. He has a wonderfully cinematic run, but he never runs for sport. At least not when he’s acting. He’s either chasing or being chased. 

Towards the end of the third week of the summer school, I told you why I liked running. I said I liked how it speeds up the mind and allows me to have two or three days’ worth of thoughts within the space of 30 to 45 minutes. So if I go out for a run on a Thursday morning, I will have so many thoughts and ideas during that period that it will feel like Saturday afternoon by the time I get back. But it’ll still be Thursday morning and I’ll still have that time available to do whatever I have to. Things tend to make more sense when you run. The same can be said for walking. It’s a way of letting your legs do the thinking and a way of clearing your head. It’s an act of meditation, a way to relax. 

On your last morning run at Dumfries House, you came back triumphant and overwhelmed with joy. After almost two weeks of effort and many unsuccessful attempts to achieve the seemingly impossible, you did it. All your hard work had paid off. For you, running may well be about the things I described. You may do it for freedom or relaxation, a way of thinking more or thinking less, or a way of clearing your head. But if any of these are your reasons for running, they were all secondary reasons while you were running around the country lanes of the estate. All that really mattered is that you had accomplished your primary objective.  And you had done it.  You had finally managed to stroke a cow.

Sunday, 7 August 2016


“It is the third day of the summer school and I feel dizzy with inspiration. The lecturers are opening up a whole new world for those who let them. The last three days have been a great outpouring of wisdom and I feel proud that I was chosen to be here. The tap has been turned on and knowledge is dripping from above. “The buckets!” I want to shout. “Get the buckets!” All I can find is my notepad and pen, so I write down as much as I can, scribbling in a frenzy, capturing as many ideas as I can. We are all stood at the gateway to a whole new kingdom and our lecturers are handing us the key.” 

It was a warm afternoon anyway as we stood with our drinks outside The Bricklayer’s Arms, but I was warmed even further by the lecture that Lucien had given before we finished for the day. He had shown us the contents of his sketchbook and dazzling beams of light projected from every page. He showed us a riverfront capriccio and it was so dreamy that I would have done anything to walk within it. I was mesmerised. It was one of the greatest things I’d ever seen.  Lucien's enthusiasm was infectious and I carried that creativity and warmth of feeling with me as I walked with you across London. 

When we finished our drinks in The Bricklayer’s Arms, we left Shoreditch’s hipsters’ paradise and walked to a nearby Vietnamese restaurant in Hoxton called Cay Tre. I sat across from Dorian and J.J, while you were at the other end of the long table and we still hadn’t had chance to chat.  Afterwards, Holly led the way to The Amwell Arms in Pentonville and the 30-minute walk west presented us with that very opportunity. I liked you straight away.  The kindness in your eyes was matched by the kindness in your voice. You told me about your life in Hamilton, Ontario and as we weaved our way through the residential streets of South Islington, I was soothed by the way you described your city. It was different somehow to the way someone from England tends to describe where they live. Your description was kinder and softer in content, but also kinder and softer in tone. You didn't skirt around the problems the city has faced, but you didn't use its problems against it.  It was more suggestive of the idea that it is the people that make the city and not the other way around. There was no point in your description that was set aside for cynicism; no point in which you would put it down, condemn it, succumb to negativity. You lived there and as such, you honoured it and you gave it the respect it deserved. You didn’t live there just to shift the blame.  You treated it as a living, breathing thing.  As a resident, I got a sense that you felt duty-bound to help it, and through your role in building heritage and conservation, you were doing just that.  It was a thoughtful description and I felt energised by it.  It was a breathe of fresh air in country so full of cynics, but I also realised that I was being carried along by your voice. Such vitality, such charming intonation! I could listen to you all day. I wondered if I could capture your voice in a jar and take it home with me. I wondered how I could get it into my sat nav.  I needed time to think that through.  We walked on.  

When we got to The Bricklayer’s Arms, I bought you a pint of ale and we sat with the others outside. There was a lot of crisscrossing of conversations while we were there and I mostly listened as discussions went on between you and Holly to the left of me and the boys to my right. At one point, while I was turned to Dorian and J.J, I overheard you mention Nova Scotia and in that instance a bell was rung. It took me twenty or thirty seconds to find the source of it, but it came to me. It was from an introduction to a poem written by Elizabeth Bishop I’d listened to recently. “This is a Nova Scotian poem about the east coast of Nova Scotia called “At the Fishhouses”, [which is] south of Halifax where there is very rugged coastline.” It had quickly established itself as one of my favourite poems, and when I heard Bishop’s brilliant reading of it, the poem planted itself right in the centre of my consciousness. I told you about it and how Bishop expertly describes a scene when she visited Nova Scotia.  I was pleased to find that you shared Bishop's fondness and enthusiasm for that region, having been there many times throughout your childhood and adult life.  Your eyes were two glistening charms as you spoke of the holidays you've had there and I was left in no doubt as to the magic this place possessed. I started getting nostalgic myself, even though I’ve never been, but it’s a trip that will become impossible for me not to make as my love for the poem grows.  

Then the conversation moved on, but I was still rooted in this place I had yet to visit.  I thought about its name for a moment, rolled it around on my tongue.  Nova Scotia.  It's a softly lyrical and mysterious name.  It sounded to me like a place that could exist anywhere, just as long as that anywhere is far away and slightly out of reach. And yet, in the mythical Latin beauty of its name, it could also quite easily not exist, or perhaps just exist as place from a long-forgotten fairytale, or as part of a wonderful dream or half-dream that someone had once.

Friday, 5 August 2016


We joined the River Ayr roughly halfway along its 40-mile journey from its source at Glenbuck to its mouth at the seaside town of Ayr on the west coast.  Towards the end of our outward walk along the riverbank, we came to an old rusted pipeline that passed over it.  It was a bridge for daredevils and thrill-seekers and a place that has doubtless served as childhood initiation ceremonies for generations.  The world was your playground and your eyes were wild with love when you saw it.  The appearance of the pipeline ushered in an early Christmas for you, and if I listened really carefully I could almost hear the atoms in your body fizz and pop and whirr with excitement.  You vaulted the iron spikes of its fence and Amos followed suit soon after.  It was around this time that Wakina’s face dropped.  She spoke to her compatriot in rapid Kenyan.  “Why do you have to be such a dumbass, Amos?  You are 41 years old.  When are you going to learn to grow up?”  I don’t know any Kenyan so I can't be sure that's what she said, but I can imagine it was words to that effect.  The British onlookers were stereotypically restrained when it came to talking you back – our warnings were polite allusions to danger as we listed the possible side effects of falling, while Wakina was almost on the phone to Amos’ wife.  You hesitated for a few minutes while her remonstrations with Amos continued, but again I saw that wild, hypnotised look in your eyes.  Amos was in two minds; you were not.  There was nothing else that you wanted more.  This was your destiny.  You would do it for Canada.  As I stepped back to frame the scene, an adaptation of the Hericlitus quote came to mind: "No man ever falls into the same river twice."  You walked steadily across the pipeline to the fence on the other side, turned and walked back again. You climbed back over in victory and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief.  A crisis had been averted.  No hospital waiting room for us this time.  We all loved you deeply, and over the course of the next week and a half we loved you deeper still, but let's face it: if there was one thing worse than dragging your limp body out of that river, it was being the one nominated to tell Simon.        


When we got to Cumnock after the tour of the Knockroon estate, none of us really knew what to do with ourselves.  We gathered on some steps and tried to settle upon the most judicious course of action.  Naz was looking for a pub, while Shreya and someone else may or may not have gone into a clothes shop.  Most of us decided that the local Asda was the safest and most sensible option so we headed over in a great shoal of cultural diversity.  This place was curiously, intimidatingly sleepy.  I checked the day: Saturday afternoon.  Perhaps Scotland had different weekends.  Or the air raid siren had recently gone off by mistake.  The locals who were out were nonplussed by our presence, crossing the road not to be unfriendly, but rather to survey whether the scene was unusual enough to be put on Facebook.  A very well-represented cross section of planet earth had descended on Cumnock that afternoon, only to find that approximately 85% of its inhabitants were asleep.  

You joined us in Asda twenty or thirty minutes later and you told me of your trauma: you were sat on the steps to rest your back while everyone else was trying to formulate a plan.  Before you knew it, everyone you knew had gone and you were left on your own in a very strange place.  Then something happened that always tends to happen in a situation like this: the town drunk peeled himself out of some nearby woodwork and strolled over in a line reminiscent of the kind a four year-old would draw on an etch-a-sketch.  He might have wrongly assumed during his railing and wall-assisted approach that you had jumped at the chance at playing the role of damsel-in-distress in a two-person play that was written, directed and co-starred him, and was also wrong in thinking that you already knew all the lines.  So anyway, Fergus McWhatever walked over to you, all boozed up on fermented haggis or vodka and irn-bru or whatever it is they drink, and made heavily-accented, slurred remarks over the incongruity of your presence on those steps.  In an ideal world, it would have been at this point that you would have sent up a distress flare to all the men in the group and within ten seconds or less, a task force well-versed in the finer details of the Iranian embassy siege would have all abseiled down a particularly ugly concrete building close by and came to your rescue.  As it happened, most of us were buying apple juice, pancakes and other essential food items and would have been oblivious to your well-being until we were all assisting the police in combing nearby woodland the next morning.