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Interview: Michael Graves, head mason, Lincoln Cathedral

27 August 2021

‘The works we carry out today will for ever be regarded by future teams working on the cathedral’

My job means working with other heads of departments and professionals, like architects and structural engineers, to plan upcoming works, as well as maintaining the quality of works coming through the workshops and on site. I also manage the health and safety of the department, and the individual needs of the team.


I work closely with the team when planning works, because they have the first-hand knowledge of what happens on site, and any limitations that may arise. Their site experience, and my own knowledge and experience, enables us to plan works to the best of our ability.


Lincoln is still the only cathedral on English Heritage’s at-risk register. Nothing’s falling down, but there are things that need attention, and we have a 50-year plan. A high-level abseiler and drones help us constantly survey the building. Our next big project will be the whole of the east end, incorporating a lot of different trades; but we’ll have to do a lot of fund-raising before we start.


We’re the only cathedral to have our own local quarry, but we only have an eight-year stock left; so I’d like to find a new source of local stone. That’s something I’m involved in with geologists.


We sieve our limestone dust into fine powder to make lime-mortar mix. We don’t have to wear masks, but we do wear them, and have good extraction machines to get a good air-flow.


Limestone has quite a lot of antiseptic properties; so, if you cut your hand, it’s already healing itself.


I became an apprentice stonemason in 2002. I’d always wanted to carry out a practical vocation, and I had an interest in historic buildings and did an A level in archaeology. But, although I lived within eight miles of the cathedral for my whole life, I never knew it had a works department.


Individuals tend to stay a long time, and the cathedral becomes your own. Not only do you get to work on an amazing building, with varied works from all aspects of masonry, but there are sometimes once-in-a-lifetime training and work opportunities. The cathedral works department and cathedral close are also a tight-knit community, which makes it a nice place to work.


I trained for three years in Weymouth, on block-release with on-the-job training with experienced masons. The cathedral may keep a trainee in for an improvership of two more years, focusing on the areas of stonemasonry they’re most interested in.


I always enjoyed setting out the stone: measuring and making drawings of each stone that needs to be replaced. It’s the responsibility of the most senior member of the team, because, if they’re wrong, the whole project’s in jeopardy. I’ve just set out a large pinnacle, with 800 stones, 300 of which had to replaced. It’s not perfect geometry, because there’s been settlement and movement. It would be easier to replace the whole thing, but we keep the old stone wherever possible.


I enjoy planning large-scale works with the other teams, and trying to see any potential problems beforehand. I also take great pride in being one of the first people to visit certain parts of the cathedral that were, perhaps, last visited centuries ago, as a scaffold goes up and we see areas for the first time. I get to understand past works: the works that have lasted the test of time, and the works that haven’t, and why, so we can rectify them.


We tend to be replacing the interventions of the past. The Victorians saved a lot of buildings, but they tended to use cement or iron, which is much stronger than the stone; so it doesn’t move with the building. That has accelerated decay. The original stone and nice lime-based mortars often survive well, and the quality of unseen areas is amazing. The Victorians’ low-level work was beautiful, but, higher up. . . Money and time probably became an object. Nowadays, we have to balance that, but fortunately we set our timeframe based on our principles.


I can’t think of any parts of the job I don’t like, though, as I get older, I do find myself a bit more cautious of heights. I spent many a gale and torrential downpour out on site. I can honestly say I don’t miss that; but, with the PPE and clothing available these days, you can be quite comfortable even in the worst conditions.


My proudest achievement at work has been gaining a foundation degree, through the Cathedral Workshop Fellowship, in stonemasonry, which helped me become the head mason. It’s the ultimate goal for some of us, and it’s a position that rarely becomes available. Then, you can hopefully become part of history for future generations, because our decisions, and the works we carry out today, will for ever be regarded by future teams working on the cathedral.


I was born in Lincoln Hospital, and spent my childhood in Wellingore, a cliff village on a limestone ridge going round Lincoln, messing around with friends in the hills. I was lucky to have six sisters and a brother, who all still live locally. Now, I live close to the cathedral with my wife and two daughters.


I attended Navenby Church of England Primary School, and was christened in my early years. I’ve always attended church through school and for other various services. My wife teaches in a Church of England primary school, and our children also attended Church of England schools, and we encourage them to realise how important this is.


I’ve always respected religion and what it means to others. I think the moral values of Christianity are a great grounding for us, and develop in our childhood and adult lives. The sheer amount of works that went into the cathedral is testament to the belief that people had, and it’s hard not to feel in awe of it.


I’m content with my life. I’m lucky to have a profession and job that I love, and a great place to work, with my wife and children and the life we have built together. But I’m always ready to learn and take on new tasks. So we’ll see what the future brings.


I’m a very level-headed person. There’s not a lot that makes me angry.


I’m happiest spending time with my family at home in the garden, or going on days out or on holidays.


The pandemic’s meant we’ve had to change our usual routine. Making sure that we all stay safe is key. Regardless of what others were doing, we maintain our own rules as a family to ensure we all stay well. My wife became a key worker, and having a understanding employer was vital. It’s been important to realise that we all have important parts to play in this life, but, sometimes, others may require that little bit of extra help.


It’s enabled us all to take a step back and understand what’s important: people, and especially your family. For some of us, spending too much quality time with our nearest and dearest is difficult, as, before this, we’d have at least seven hours of socialising and working with other people every day; but we’ve enjoyed the time together as a family.


I’m lucky to live in the middle of the city with a secluded, large garden that has large trees and other greenery. I enjoy the sounds of nature, from the birds and bees to the screeching of a peregrine falcon and owls at night. It’s nice to just be able to sit and listen to these while the kids play in the garden.


I’d probably choose someone like Bob Mortimer to be locked up in the cathedral with. He’s someone I enjoy watching. He’s very good at telling stories, and I think he’d be someone who, no matter how bad a situation was, would always be able to make you smile.


Michael Graves was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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