TRADITIONAL skills could be lost for ever without investment in training apprentices and supporting the livelihoods of talented craftsmen and women, the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) warns.
The charity, which cares for 356 churches, has launched an appeal to save dying skills, such as flint-knapping (the shaping of flint in masonry) and lead-working, which are vital in the restoration of historic churches. Both are on the Heritage Crafts Association’s “critically endangered” list of crafts, which also includes bell-founding. Thatching is another concern, although it is categorised as currently viable.
Countrywide, there are an estimated six to ten professional flint-knappers, a number of others who do it as a sideline, some amateur makers, and between 11 and 20 trainees.
Some recent work — including flint work on the western face of the landmark tower of St Mary’s, Bungay, in Suffolk — has been enabled by a grant from the Government’s Heritage Stimulus Fund. The CCT has been able to employ more than 70 firms of local heritage contractors and subcontractors, resulting in direct and indirect employment to more than 300 trades- and craftspeople around the country.
The future of lead-working — notably on church roofs — is considered to be especially precarious: the country is believed to have fewer than ten professionals left. Technical colleges are acknowledged to have discarded all their traditional lead-working plumbing tools, and to have no lecturers or craftsmen to teach the skills. Without intervention, the forecast is that, within another five to ten years, no senior practitioners will be left.
The chief executive of the CCT, Peter Aiers, said: “We need to act now, as there is a real risk that these skills could be lost for ever. To keep our historic buildings and, particularly, our historic church buildings in good repair, there needs to be a trained and skilled workforce.
“We think it is vital that our work is able to continue to support apprentices, and these apprentices in turn will ensure that our churches, and other historic buildings, benefit from sensitive and appropriate repairs well into the future, to inspire the next generation.”
Heritage learning officers from the CCT go into schools to encourage interest in the sector. “It isn’t something they normally consider for themselves,” Chana James, a spokeswoman for the CCT, said on Tuesday. “There are specialist colleges, but not all heritage skills are learned in college; for many, it is learning on the job, as an apprentice. It’s important for us to tell schoolchildren this is a potential career route.”
The Craft Skills Appeal is open until May 2022.