Chris Swales: Master of Stone
by Alan McEwen
Chris Swales is a highly acclaimed Master Stone Mason and Carver from Skipton. The 38-year-old opened his business ‘Swales In The Dales’ in 2005 and since then his work has become renowned all over Yorkshire and Lancashire. However, it has been quite a journey for Chris who suffers from Fibromyalgia to get to where he is today.
Chris started his working life as an apprentice agricultural and dairy engineer at Ray Bradley Engineering in Gargrave before joining Lindley Pate of Gisburn in 1999. However, following the Foot and Mouth Plague in 2001, Chris soon found the job he loved under threat as local farms went into lockdown.
It was in June 2001 that work got so bad for Chris that he decided to leave.
“Ever since being a young boy, I had enjoyed walking around Skipton and viewing the wonderful stone buildings.” Chris recalls, “This is where my passion for Yorkshire stone came from and I quickly got a job as a trainee drystone waller.”
“DESPITE THE REGULAR CRIPPLING PAINS, I MADE CERTAIN THIS DEBILITATING ILLNESS WOULD NOT STOP ME”
Chris quickly picked the art up and became a highly skilled drystone waller working across Lancashire and Yorkshire constructing drystone walls. By 2005, Chris was beginning to carry out his own private work and this encouraged him to establish his own stone masonry business, called Swales in the Dales.
“I considered it a rather catchy name.” Chris smiles as he explains the reason behind the name. “And fitting as we lived in Craven in the Yorkshire Dales!”
Despite his enthusiasm and passion, Chris found his first year hard with limited finances and only having very basic tools. However, Chris was determined and carried on with mainly small jobs which eventually allowed him to buy new tools and in turn take on larger jobs such as landscaping and building new stone-flagged patios, stone steps and decorative water features. His work took him all over Craven, Ilkley and beyond.
In 2007, Chris then got together with his now wife Becky who he had known for a number of years prior to romance blossoming! After getting married in 2009, they welcomed their first child Ruby in 2010 before giving her a little brother, James in 2012.
Chris’ business was going from strength to strength and he now had a family to share it with but Chris had always enjoyed learning and the teaching profession and so in 2011, he decided to study for his teaching degree at Craven College in the evenings.
“I then took up a part-time job in the college’s Heritage Department.” Chris explains, “However, running my own stone masonry business, together with the college work and enjoying fatherhood gave me very little spare time!”
While there, Chris studied old stone buildings, stone bridges and particularly decorative carved stone such as gargoyles. His studies generated a strong desire to find a stone carving course but unfortunately for Chris, no local courses were available.
However, Lady Luck shone upon him in 2012 when Craven College organised a trip to Romania for Chris and his fellow students to carry out some lime pointing work on a stunning 12th Century fortified Saxon Church. It was an experience Chris says he will ‘never forget’ and upon returning, the college arranged a stone carving course.
“I was thrilled and jumped at the chance!” Chris grins, “The course taught us the basic skills of carving a ‘bullnose’ from a square stone block and also how to carve letters.”
The course gave Chris a profound interest in carrying out stone carving and so, he quickly went out and purchased a set of expensive tungsten carbide chisels. Originally he’d wanted to undertake further training but with no more courses on offer, his tutor suggested the best way to learn would be for Chris to visit his local stone yard.
“I asked for some offcuts which I could then carve. Practise makes perfection! I produced a great many small carvings for friends and family and as time went by I started picking up orders.”
Sadly, in 2013, Chris was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia – a condition that cause widespread pain and muscle stiffness along with other physically draining symptoms. Fibromyalgia started to have a huge impact on Chris’ day to day life and he began to suffer numerous side effects from the large doses of medication he was required to take.
Chris sighs: “Despite the regular crippling pains, I made certain this debilitating illness would not stop me from exercising my love of stone carving and stone masonary work.
“I found the daily effects physically and mentally exhausting and so I realised the heavy work involved in the construction of drystone walls out on the moors and fells in all kind of intemperate weather was exacerbating my condition. Therefore I decided I would promote and attempt to attract orders for the much lighter stone
Over the next couple of years, Chris reinvented himself and turned his business completely around into a highly specialised stone carving enterprise. In 2014 he opened a small workshop in Crosshills and changed the name of his business to
‘Swales in the Dales Stone Carving’.
“Typical jobs I carry out are handcarved date stones commemorating when the houses were built, house names and numbers. I also have a sound reputation for replacing old weather-damaged stone million windows and other interesting stone repair jobs.”
In December 2016, Chris became a registered Monumental Mason with the National Association of Monumental Masons (NAMM) which enables him to produce and fix headstones for graves.
In May 2017, Chris was approached by the Woodlands Trust Manager of Skipton Castle Woods.
“They built a semi-circular stone seating area in the middle of the woods which walkers and schools used when visiting. The manager told me that some people were damaging parts of this ancient woodland and in an attempt to deter them she had written a poem urging visitors to look after the trees and shrubs in the beautiful, historic woodland.” Chris grins, “Her inspiring words read:
“Rest your feet for a while
in the company of threes.
Hear the oak, ash and hornbeam
talk in the breeze.
Take heed of the whispers
of trees from the past.
Always treasure this wood
long may it last.”
Chris was asked to carve the words around the top-most surface of the seating.
“I was thrilled to be given this opportunity because I had spent a lot of my youth in these woods.” Chris smiles.
Chris also hand carves deceased persons’ names onto three huge stone monoliths at Tarn Moor Memorial Woodland in Skipton. Since 2017 he has carved an impressive 99 names which add up to 2070 letters.
And in July of this year, Chris graced the small screen by appearing on Alan Titchmarsh’s ‘Love Your Garden’ working on a garden in Cowling for a local couple where the husband unfortunately had terminal prostate cancer.
“I was asked to hand carve a commemorative plaque to mark the couple’s 30th wedding anniversary.”
Chris has had an extraordinary journey, overcoming challenges and not letting anything stop him from achieving his goals.