3rd February 2022
Stonemason Apprentice Blog: February 2022
Hello and welcome to this, the first in a new series of monthly blog posts for Salisbury Cathedral. My name is Joe, and I am the new apprentice stonemason joining the Cathedral Works Department.
My apprenticeship started at the end of October 2021 and is fully funded for the next three years by the Hamish Ogston Foundation. I spend four days a week working at the cathedral, and one day a week at a construction college outside Bath alongside other apprentices from all sorts of backgrounds and workplaces. Having been in the job for just over three months now, I thought it might be nice to share some of what I get up to with the cathedral’s online audience, and the web team kindly agreed. My hope is that through these blog posts I can provide a bit of an insight into what traditional stonemasonry is all about, how one goes about training as a stonemason, and why it is so important that these heritage skills continue to be learnt and passed on, as they have been at Salisbury for centuries.
For my first post, however, I thought it would be polite to introduce myself. I’m twenty-five years old and originally from Coventry in the West Midlands, where I grew up surrounded by an eclectic mix of architecture – from the Gothic cathedrals of the medieval city to the Brutalist high-rises of the post-war period. In Coventry city centre there are in fact three cathedrals; the monastic priory of St Mary’s, consecrated in 1043 and excavated by Time Team in 1999; the 14th century church of St Michael, famously fire-bombed by the Luftwaffe in 1940; and the new cathedral of St Michael immediately adjacent to it, designed by architect Basil Spence and built in the 1950s in an unorthodox Modernist style. It looks like something from another planet next to its predecessor, but the combination of the old and the new side-by-side is really striking and perfectly encapsulates Coventry’s story as the “Phoenix city”. My childhood and adolescence were spent in and amongst these buildings, and it is thanks to them that I developed a love of medieval history and of architecture more generally. At Aberystwyth University, I gained a bachelor’s degree in medieval history and wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the symbolic functions of castle architecture. As well as being a bit of an all-round medieval history and architecture geek, I also love reading historical fiction, and Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth is my all-time favourite book. Those familiar with Follett’s epic novel may know that Salisbury Cathedral, along with Wells Cathedral, served as the inspiration behind his fictitious cathedral of Kingsbridge Priory (even featuring in the television adaptation). Although Follett paints a romantic picture of the lives of medieval stonemasons in Pillars, I will say that the work environment is a lot more comfortable in our workshop here – especially without the need to fend off ruthless attacks from greedy knights!
I decided to apply for this apprenticeship last summer, having worked in an administrative role at the University of Warwick for the previous three years. Throughout 2020 and 2021 I was placed on furlough for several long stretches due to the pandemic, and this gave me the opportunity to do some thinking about the kind of career I wanted to pursue. The many hours at home also allowed me time to pick up new hobbies, and I started to design and build models of medieval castles and churches. I soon found that there was a lot of enjoyment to be had from putting in the hours with your hands all day, and the sense of pride and accomplishment after finishing something that I had started from scratch was unbeatable. Furthermore, the prolonged periods of quiet concentration were almost meditative, and this was especially beneficial given the daily anxieties brought about by Covid-19. I thought it would be brilliant to have a job where I could enjoy similar feelings and experiences, and even better if I could combine it with my love and knowledge of medieval buildings.
With this in mind, I started to look around for opportunities in the conservation and heritage sectors and, as luck would have it, saw that Salisbury Cathedral were seeking a new apprentice stonemason. I immediately felt that this was what I was looking for: a chance to throw myself into something new and exciting, but also an opportunity to learn a truly vital craft, to be part of something bigger than myself, and to help preserve the beautiful buildings that have given me so much enjoyment and which have been such a cornerstone (no pun intended) of my life. I sent off an application and was invited to attend an interview at the cathedral with the Clerk of Works and the Head Mason. The week afterwards, I was asked back to attend a trial day to experience stonemasonry first-hand and see how I liked it. This was a great opportunity to see “behind-the-scenes” of how these incredible buildings are repaired and maintained, get a feel for the tools, the techniques, the workshop, and meet the team. It was a fantastic day, a real treat for somebody with my interests, and I loved every minute of it. Sitting on the train home that evening, tired and overwhelmed but happy, I felt sure that I was on the right path.
With the next three years of my apprenticeship ahead of me, I am so excited to see what challenges and learning experiences come my way as I continue in my training as a stonemason. I am so grateful to have been given this opportunity to learn the craft here at Salisbury Cathedral, and I look forward to sharing my progress with you here on this blog along the way. Coming up next month, a look into the first task for every apprentice stonemason: achieving a flat surface (it’s tricker than it sounds!).