Many years ago I was encouraged to read Roger Hutchinson’s Calum’s Road. The small and quirky book made a deep impression on me: deeper, perhaps, than I realised at the time. Since then the story has always been there in the back of my mind. It began a story of my own. As there is unlikely to be a book, Matthew’s Lay-By, I shall tell the tale myself.
The late Calum MacLeod’s story deserved its book. One of the last inhabitants of Arnish in the north of the island of Raasay in the Western Isles, the crofter campaigned with others to persuade the local authorities to connect Arnish to the rest of the island with something better than their footpath. They got nowhere. So he decided to build the road himself. MacLeod bought a book on practical roadmaking, secured a bit of early help with blasting, and then in the ten years from 1964 to 1974 constructed the one-and-three-quarter-mile single track road on which he had set his heart. It’s still there, and has now been surfaced. In the photographs it looks a fine, lonely little road, winding over the hills. MacLeod managed this with just a barrow, a pick and a spade.
Now it so happens that I too live in an isolated spot served by a narrow lane: a public road that winds steeply and sharply up from the valley below. Our house is off a bend near the top, and before that bend there’s a particularly tricky section hemmed in by high banks on both sides, with nowhere for two vehicles to pass. A passing place about halfway up existed but it was wet, bumpy and slimy, and quite steeply uphill, and once you’d pulled off into it you’d as often as not bog down, wheels spinning. So one car or another had to reverse, and it’s about 200 yards in either direction before passing is possible.
Unfortunately — I rage against it but I have to accept it — modern drivers are mostly unable to reverse even in a straight line, let alone back round narrow, blind bends. So there are regular problems with desperate townies backing into hawthorn trees.
Unlike Calum, I haven’t tried to persuade the local authorities to reconstruct the passing place, which is cut into the bank where I own the land. In an age of austerity and government cuts, I hadn’t the heart to bother Colin, our hard-working district councillor, with complaints about our lane. Nor had I the heart to attempt whatever bureaucratic process is required for permission to do one’s own voluntary roadmaking. I’m sure it would be a nightmare. Thus arrived my Big Society moment.
I just got digging. A friend with a mini-digger helped with the initial scoop; then out I went with barrow, pickaxe and spade. I planned to do a few hours every day at weekends. I’d widen, deepen, level, then surface with gravel.
That was late May. It began well — until I hit a small bog: deep clay in a kind of slurry. But I managed to crowbar up a dozen or more substantial rocks, and in they went. Then I ordered two tonnes of limestone gravel, then another, then two tonnes of ‘chatter’ (limestone chippings and dust). By early July all was looking good, though my back ached and my wrists were swollen. I had (as so often in my life) bitten off almost — but not quite — more than I could chew.
As it happens, my partner is writing a biography of Thomas Telford, the great Scottish engineer of roads, bridges and canals. He had reached a chapter recounting Telford’s exacting approach to surfacing with stone. Telford advocated belt-and-braces, with good, big stones beneath, then smaller ones on top. If you just dumped a load of gravel, he said, storms would sooner or later wash the surface away.
You may remember the huge downpours of early July this year. About two tonnes of my gravel was washed away, all the way down the hill. I had to rush out onto the road with shovel and barrow, clearing and retrieving. There was nothing for it but to follow Telford’s advice. With pick and crowbar, I dug from the bank and assembled about 20 enormous rocks and slabs of every shape and size. My back and knees ached and I may have damaged my right wrist permanently.
The last three weekends have been spent digging a customised bed for each rock. I know where the stormwater will run because it has made a ravine through my gravel. The rocks to stabilise this section need to be keyed like teeth into the soil, and the ground is itself rocky, so it’s a devil of a business getting each rock right. And now there are clouds of small black summer flies tormenting me.
But the curious thing is, it has become a kind of addiction. I may be weary and aching, it may be raining or the flies may be swarming, but I’m out there in all weathers with my pick and barrow, and when I come back in I find myself itching to go out again and do one more rock. My partner begs me to come home. Friends stare pityingly. The purpose of the enterprise is all but forgotten. My life has been overtaken by the urge to get this done. I bet it was the same with Calum.
Last Monday I completed the rock-laying. One more tonne of chatter and we’re there. It looks rough but I think it will serve and endure. And should you be motoring in the Peak District and spot an old chap bent double, in torn trousers and a filthy T-shirt, at the centre of a huge cloud of black flies and trying to lever up a rock — please give your columnist a friendly hoot. I care for nothing, now, but to finish this job — yet I know that when it’s finished there will be a big lay-by-shaped hole in my life.