It’s finally more or less finished and it looks like being part of the village landscape for a century or several to come.
Paul Vincent Bosacki’s Wall, the stretch of bulwark along the river behind his houses on Chapel Lane, now part of the view from the Leaping Salmon corner, has taken at least three and a half years of mainly single-handed work and skirmishing with the weather, the authorities and a river which can rise 10 feet overnight.
“I wanted to give up many times,” the builder said this week. “Especially last summer, when it rained every time I got set up and I had to dismantle scaffolding, or scrape wet mortar back off because there’s a £5,000 fine if you drop any in the river.”
It seems safe to say that nobody is going to take it down now, although Paul had bets on with a couple of people that he would ever be allowed to build it. Now, nearly everyone admires it as something unique and rather handsome in comparison with what is usually done in the name of flood protection.
A sample of the stonework
It is built almost entirely of big-to-giant examples of local stones that Paul calls “glacier bullies”, fitted together in a huge three-dimensional jigsaw, one piece at a time.
Smaller examples are fairly common in local construction – probably usually taken from the river, which has cut down far enough to expose what are also sometimes called “river bullies”.
Paul cut down to the same level in the course of laying foundations for his properties and found a whole layer of them, interwoven by glacier pressure, including boulders much bigger than manual labour could ever have raised in the past – starting about eight feet down (245 cms) and going down to bedrock level, where the river is, at about 13 feet (4 metres) below the flood plain.
He admits: “At first I thought I’d uncovered an old Roman site and I covered it all up again because I didn’t want the Time Team or somebody down here. Then I started digging again and realised there was a whole valley floor of them.”
He excavated enough to start building with them at the vulnerable bend at the upriver corner of his land. Then, when he decided to carry on down to the bottom corner, at the Tilly Bridge, he dug up more, all from the same site.
He says: “I found somebody at Exeter University who told me they were brought down here by glacier when Princetown was an ice-cap, in the Ice Age before last, 44,000 years ago. I don’t know much more except it’s beautiful stone, hard as granite if not harder, but with a lot more colour.”
He was usually the only man on site, and he is in his 60s. The job would have been impossible without two small excavators he calls his left and right arms. One is usually fitted with a grab and the other with a shovel, because refitting extensions means a lot of fiddling with hydraulic connections. He sold one pair after completing the first half of the project and went out and bought another pair, a Takeuchi and a Hitachi, at around £32,000 each, when he decided on the second half.
The wall would also have been impossible, Paul adds, without his son, Neil, a former Tavistock College pupil, now a 44-year-old civil engineer based in Hertford, who knew what the Environment Agency would require and how to satisfy them.
“Otherwise it would all just have cost too much,” says Paul.
The wall is topped off with squared granite blocks from the old Brunel railway viaduct which was blown up in the 60s and replaced with the Gem Bridge on Drake’s Trail. They probably came from Merrivale Quarry, he guesses. Some are also built into the face of his wall. He found them lying around the old viaduct site three years ago and negotiated with West Devon’s contractors on the site to take them away himself, using a crane and lorry.
The overall result is about 110 feet (33 metres) long and 13 feet high from the river bed, with hundreds of tons of concrete in the foundations and in the reinforcement behind the face. Paul shifted about 200 tons of material off the site to make room for the building. The foundations were laid with the aid of shuttering while the river was low.
“I certainly don’t want to do it all again,” says Paul. “But if you wanted to commission something like it, I reckon it would cost at least £120,000. I had to do it because the tax situation changed and I could see I would have to sell the houses eventually, rather than renting them out. And you would never get a mortgage for a house with a boundary which was gradually washing away. The Environment Agency has no money for protecting private property any more but they were happy to let me do it, as long as I stuck strictly to their rules and avoided any contamination of the river. I told the Dartmoor National Park Authority what I was doing, on the basis of previous planning permission, and they have been out to look at it several times. They gave me permission to remove trees at the halfway point, so I could finish the job.”
Paul has been arguing with planners ever since he moved onto the site as a tenant in 1973 and built a lorry service business, Bridge Motors. Eventually, he was stopped from taking in lorries and says he nearly went bankrupt. But in 2001, he managed to buy the land. Then he discovered that a new regulation on flood plain development meant he had just a week to start using an existing planning permission for housing. By the time he finished, he had managed to amend it so he could build Vincent Place to his own design. He has also built three other houses in the village over the past 30 years and has handled a lot of parish contracts – including, this week, mending the park wall where it was damaged by a vehicle.
He built the Chapel Lane houses on high foundations and says they are now proof against any flood except the kind of 100-year disaster no precautions will stop.
The finishing of the wall has included laying a bank of boulders against the concrete foundation, which is starting to silt up and support plantlife to cover the last signs of concrete.
By the way – after standing in the river on a regular basis for nearly four years, Paul says he has not seen a fish, small or large.
* Josephine Collingwood, photographer of Dartmoor and author of the Dartmoor Tors Compendium, took a look at a photo of the wall for us and commented:
“I see the larger light coloured boulders in the wall and think of some sort of hard quartz sandstone. The rounded edges clearly show that these have been knocked about in river beds over millennia. Their presence in Dartmoor can only be from the erosion of the overlying Devonian and Carboniferous sedimentary beds. They are what’s left behind in the rivers.
“My best guess is that they are ‘proximal turbidites’ (What a great term!!), ie boulders laid down by turbidity currents that grade the material as they flow, leaving the densest and heaviest to last. They could be remnants from the Cotehele Sandstone Formation which is aged about 350 million years (early Carboniferous), and can still be located just west of Merrivale, around Whitchurch Common.”
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Paul Bosacki at work on his wall last winter: picture by Michael Leek.