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Last Updated: Monday, 3 September 2007, 10:03 GMT 11:03 UK
A Grade I classroom for heritage
By Victoria Bone
BBC News

Stonemason at work
Stonemasonry is one of the crafts in need of revival

A shortage of skilled craftspeople is threatening the fabric of the UK's historic buildings, and only a recruitment drive can save traditional skills.

"Kids come to me and say, 'I don't want to go to university, I want to do something with my hands. But what?'"

Far from being stumped, Stephen Davis revels in this kind of question - he even hopes to provide the answer.

Mr Davis is the driving force behind the Cotswolds Heritage Academy - a dedicated centre set up to teach traditional building skills.

He plans to let young stonemasons, carpenters and the like, loose on the Grade I-listed whose trust he manages - Woodchester Mansion near Stroud in Gloucestershire.

"There are a lot of young people who want creative careers as well as lucrative ones," Mr Davis says. "Not everybody wants to be a merchant banker.

"In mainstream education kids know the possibilities. They know about Oxbridge, even if they never go there. But in the vocational sector they don't know what's out there.

"We have to make the career progression very clear. They need to see there's a career there for them and at the moment they don't."

'Living classroom'

The South West has 115,909 listed buildings. On top of that there are 535,000 pre-1919 houses in the region, all of which have to be maintained - and for this, a new generation of craftsmen is desperately needed.

I believe passionately that our historic environment stimulates all of us and unites us as a society, but we're not getting enough craftspeople to look after it
Stephen Davis
Cotswolds Heritage Academy

When Mr Davis took on the role of chairman of the Woodchester Mansion Trust in 2000, the site already had a tradition of training masons.

But he wanted to do more, so in 2005, he arranged a conference called One Big Room to thrash out some ideas.

Out of it came the notion of using Woodchester - and other buildings like it - as "living classrooms" where college lessons could be brought to life.

These classrooms will garner two lucrative funding streams - that earmarked to protect listed buildings and that designed to train and accredit young people.

Last year, the Cotswolds Heritage Academy was formally launched and Mr Davis even persuaded the Prince of Wales to become principal backer.

Next generation

The CHA is still in its early stages, but young stonemasons and carpenters are already learning on site.

Most recently, the Prince of Wales's Building Crafts Apprentices were there. These are young craftspeople who are getting the chance to learn traditional techniques thanks to Prince Charles, who is patron of Woodchester.

Renowned stonemason Henry Rumbold is one of the teachers.

"The academy is a brilliant opportunity," Henry says.

"We all go on about the craftsmen of yesteryear, but these young people could be just as good, or better - all they need is the opportunity.

"They are the master craftsmen of the next generation and the future of our heritage in their hands."

One of the apprentices is carpenter Troy Mixon, 29, from New Orleans. He was picked out by the Prince of Wales when he visited the city after Hurricane Katrina.

"I have never worked on anything like this before," Troy says. "It's very inspiring to learn how to do things without cutting corners as people so often do these days.

"I can put my name to work that will last for hundreds of years, just like craftsmen did in centuries past."

Careers advice

Start-up funding for the academy came from the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment, and industry body Construction Skills.

Donations have also come from businesses, including instrument manufacturers Renishaws.

Other key partners include Cirencester College and the Royal Agricultural College in Stroud.

Mr Davis is now working on a website and a prospectus to attract young people. Once there, they will be able to learn stonemasonry, lime skills, roof-tiling and timber-framing at the new masons' lodge, currently being built by the prince's apprentices.

And in the future, the academy will also promote careers in the heritage sector to primary and secondary school pupils and adult career-changers.

"I believe passionately that our historic environment stimulates all of us and unites us as a society, but we're not getting enough craftspeople to look after it."

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