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Entering a new stone age

29 November 2013

Eight cathedrals have joined forces to establish a degree-level qualification for stonemasons that will put them on a par with other cathedral professionals, and help maintain the fabric of some of England's finest buildings. Paul Wilkinson reports


Site-specific: Vic Daley, one of the current group of student masons working at Gloucester Cathedral

Site-specific: Vic Daley, one of the current group of student masons working at Gloucester Cathedral

SEVEN young adults are in a classroom in the incongruous setting of the stoneyard at York Minster. While the twenty-somethings scribble notes, the ten-foot wheel of a giant stone saw looms through the window. Surrounding it is a sea of freshly trimmed magnesium limestone blocks destined for the Minster's ongoing £26-million restoration.

For the five men and two women, this unlikely return to academe is an unpredicted twist in a career that is older even than the medieval walls of the building that stands across the road - arguably the greatest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe.

All seven are stonemasons from some of the finest cathedrals in England, who - when they left school some years ago - hardly expected to put down their mallet and chisel to pick up pen and paper again. But now they are a few weeks into a two-year course towards a Foundation Degree in Personal and Professional Development (Stonemasonry).

The expectation is that the degree will elevate their skills and understanding to a level where they can work in close partnership with the other professions in their cathedral: the architect, the archaeologist, the clerk of works, even the Dean and Chapter. No longer just humble hewers of stone outside, in the cold, but valued members of the team, cherishing some of the country's greatest buildings.

"I have already learned a load of new stuff," Ian Chalmers, from Gloucester Cathedral, says. He first became interested in building with blocks when he was given a Lego set as a child. "It's making a massive difference. For instance, we've been doing geometry, something I have not looked at since school. Before, it was just some strange angles on a piece of paper; now, applying it to stone makes it real and understandable.

"I'll also know lot more about the places we work on: their history, why they are built the way they are, how they work. I'm also meeting people from different places, and seeing how they do things. Sometimes its better, sometimes perhaps not, but it all about sharing best practice."


THE course was conceived in 2006 when the eight English cathedrals that have their own stoneyards - Canterbury, Durham, Gloucester, Lincoln, Salisbury, Winchester, Worcester, and York - rather than employ outside contractors decided that they needed a training path for their young masons as they were emerging from their three-year apprenticeships.

"There was no future training and development plan that was common to all," Adrian Munns, the man who has administered the scheme on a voluntary basis for the last two years, explains. "Each cathedral was doing its own thing, with varying degrees of success. The conclusion was drawn that most of the other skilled professionals in cathedrals - such as architects and archaeologists - are degree-trained, and have a career-development path, and so should masons."

The churches formed the Cathedrals' Workshop Fellowship (CWF), persuaded the Prince of Wales to be its patron, and selected the University of Gloucestershireto provide formal academic accreditation for the degree.

The students spend just two days on campus, however, registering for their course, and getting a feel of the university ethos. After that, it is in-work training, coupled with three-day courses at each of the eight cathedrals. "That allows the students to see different cathedrals' styles, work with different stone, and understand how the building is conserved," Mr Munns says.

He is a retired Royal Navy Commodore, and a former Receiver General at Winchester Cathedral. "That's where I learned the value of stonemasons, and about cathedrals," he says. "It's just like managing a very large ship: it has so many departments, so many constituents - and it takes a long time to turn round."


THE course is essentially practical and work-based, but, to achieve the accreditation of a foundation degree, some of the study has to be done to academic standards, and two of the eight modules are classroom-based.

The modules are completed in succession, and cover a variety of subjects ranging from archaeology to quarrying. The module leaders are all cathedral staff such as master masons, clerks of works, architects, or archaeologists. A grant from Ecclesiastical Insurance funds a full-time programme manager, and the Worshipful Company of Masons meets external lecturers' fees. The students also have to complete a work-based project in their home cathedral, and make presentations to assessors of the work they have done.

The seven current under-graduates are the third set of students. A group of four graduated two years ago - appropriately, at a ceremony in Gloucester Cathedral - and seven more will receivetheir degrees this month. There are plans for a further course in 2015, with a minimum of seven, and possibly up to ten, participants.

"We are never going to create a glut of stonemasons: there is a natural throughput," Mr Munns says. "We hope they will stay on within the cathedral system, but people do go out to the commercial sector.

"We are looking to sustain ourselves into the longer term, and we are looking to see if we can achieve an honours degree with a further year or two's independent study by the foundation degree graduates. We are also inviting cathedrals to say how they can best use the new skills of the graduates we now have. Some have already become module leaders for succeeding courses.

"The object of the exercise isto sustain the cathedrals; so the students have to be employed bythe cathedrals, but it is also to give them the opportunity to work closely with the cathedral professionals, so that we are developing a generation of 'thinking' masons who can look at planning and working holistically to conserve and sustain a cathedral.


WE ARE trying to give them the development path to enable them to achieve higher levels of skill, and, if they wish, go on to higher levels of management. We effectively have a graduate-level management in the making, which we think is important. They will be able to play a more meaningful part in the process in the longer term.


"We are not saying every mason has to go though this course; we are saying it's a development opportunity for those that the cathedral managers believe have the potential to reach higher levels in their craft skills.

"The successful student will posses a greater understanding of things like stone selection, the use of stone in construction, and the conservation of buildings. They will have a much greater understanding of the architecture, the archaeology, and the development of the buildings in which they work. It's a broadening."

One module is "Understanding the Cathedral Environment". Mr Munns says: "It requires the student to interview people like the Dean, the archaeologist, and the architect, to find out how their cathedral works, how it's managed, where the money comes from, and what its governance is - aspects of cathedral life which would not normally pass the purview of a mason."

Sadly for the students, the degree does not automatically confer a pay rise. "But the cathedral knows that the student has achieved a significant increase in personal development, and is suitable for further progress, and could be rewarded accordingly," Mr Munns says.

"The investment by the cathedral is repaid, as the student goes back a much more competent and a more rounded mason, with a greater understanding of how the cathedral runs, and also of their part in the process. They are able to make a much greater contribution to the conservation and maintenance of the cathedral."


Two graduates say what undertaking the course has meant to them

DAVID LAMB's career has taken off after he was awarded a distinction in his stonemasonry degree last year. Formerly the senior stone­mason at York Minster, he flew this month, with his wife and eight-month-old son, to Ot­­tawa, where he will spend the next two years working on the resto­ration of the Canadian Parlia­ment building.

 "It would never have happened without this course," he says. "It gave me the confidence and the knowledge to take it on." 

Originally from Ulverston, in Cumbria, Mr Lamb, who is 30, worked first at Carlisle Cathedral, then spent five years at Gloucester, before moving to York five years ago. "I always knew I wanted to work with stone in some way," he says. "I was always interested in things like fossils, and building things. One day, when I was 14, I saw a TV programme about some historic-building restoration pro­ject, and just knew that was what I wanted to do. 

"I told my Dad, and he im­­mediately got out theYellow Pages, and looked up a monumental mason and asked if they wanted a lad to help out, sweeping up, and so forth, on Saturdays. That's how I started. "

 Mr Lamb was one of the "guinea pigs" on the pilot course, and initially had not considered applying. "The Minster was sending one of the younger masons, but he had to pull out for some reason; so I was asked to take his place. I didn't think it was 'me' at first, but I thought I'd give it a go."

 Taking the degree not only expanded his skills and knowledge, it also developed his self-belief. "We had to do presentations of the work we had done. I don't have a computer; so I don't know about things like PowerPoint; so I just had to get up there and talk. There was me, talking to archaeologists, and architects. It was amazing."

 The course also gave him a sense of history, and an understanding of cathedrals. "I realised I was part of a continuing process, maintaining a wonderful building, making my contribution to its future. I was working on stone that might have been in place for six centuries, but had originally been worked on by an ordinary bloke, just like me.

"And some time in the future, another mason will look at my work, and see my mark on the stone, and wonder about me. Will he complain about the job I did, or will he be impressed?"


A FELLOW student and York Minster colleague, 30-year-old Catherine James, who graduated this year, had a cathartic moment while watching masons working at Salisbury Cathe­dral. A coffee-shop manager with a degree in fine art, she was curious about their work, and wanted to see them in action.

 "It was inspirational," she says. "They were tailoring stone, cutting shapes. I told them that I thought what they were doing was amazing, and straight away asked about the job, and whether there was an apprenticeship."

 Ms James enrolled on a one-year diploma from the Building Crafts College, in east London, and visited several cathedrals for work experience. York Minster offered her a three-year apprenticeship, and then sug­gested that she join the Cathe­drals' Workshop Fellow­ship foun­­dation degree course. 

 "The programme allows every­­one to come together," she says. "It's like a national response to caring for our cathedrals. In our trade, we don't have conferences; so the CWF offers us a kind of communication. Working in different cathedrals, it's like we all speak different dialects - the stone's different, the mortar's different, the methods are diffe­rent. That's why the opportunity to visit other cathedrals is so important.

 "What the CWF does is create masons who are able to think holistically. It allows us to be aware of all the processes at work, plus the importance of teaching and learning from other skilled people. There's a danger that, as a trade, stonemasons can become too inward-looking; so it's good to be surrounded by new ideas, and thinking. It's a very inspiring environment to be in."

 She describes her job as "a responsibility, but not a heavy weight. It's inspiring. It's investing in the future of the cathedral. I think what the CWF is doing is brilliant. The course offers such high-quality information, and people. Our country needs the heritage skills it teaches.

"Unless we have programmes like the CWF, our cathedrals won't be safe, and they won't be beautiful. It's that important." 

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