Donald’s a busy bee

Drystone waller Donald Gunn who's bee boles project will be appearing on the BBC's 'Countryfile' on Sunday
Drystone waller Donald Gunn who's bee boles project will be appearing on the BBC's 'Countryfile' on Sunday

A Norham man is bringing dry stone walling skills gained over three decades to a unique project on the Yorkshire moors.

Donald Gunn is restoring a 17th century wall at Glaisdale in North Yorkshire, which contains several alcoves, or ‘bee boles’, where skeps (bee hives) were placed.

The wall protected the hives from the worst of the moorland weather, allowing the bees access to what was then extensive growths of heather.

“In effect,” said Donald, “what you have is a large honey factory. It would have been incredibly valuable, because back then, in the days before England had sugar, bees were needed to provide honey for sweetening, as well as its medicinal uses.

“It’s amazing that this was the way to farm honey until 1853, when the modern beehive was invented,” he said.

The boles and the walling lecturer’s work will feature on the BBC’s Countryfile programme on Sunday.

But a back injury when Donald worked in the Lammermuirs in the 1990s nearly put paid to the lifelong career he loves: “I was lifting a stone that was too heavy to lift and burst two disks in my back.

“I was on a very isolated farm, it was winter and I was paralysed: I couldn’t get up and I couldn’t feel anything. It was pre-mobile phones, but somebody found me, he just happened to come up to check the sheep or see if I was still there.

“I was told I would never work walling again. I was off for a year and a half,” he said.

But the 55-year-old gradually recovered, studied to become a lecturer in walling, added an archeological research and other qualifications to his CV and has since been employed on important historical projects all over the world.

The project to restore the remote wall has the support of the North York Moors National Park and Natural England, but the original instigation came from a former farmer, who kept telling everyone there was something special at the top of the hill.

“He’d been pushing for something to be done to the site for about 30 years,” said Donald. “He came up and saw us and was really quite moved.

“In fact, the folk from the nearby village, some of them in their 80s, came up this steep track to come and see. It meant quite a bit to them.”

Originally from Caithness, Donald started a life in stone working for his stonemason uncle in the school holidays, and got into drystone walling because, he said, “My uncle was never that fussed about it.”

A few years later and he has reconstructed archaeological sites as far afield as Iceland and Canada. And North Yorkshire National Park has asked him to restore a 500-year-old wall built by monks along the coast next.

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