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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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