Page last updated at 17:23 GMT, Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Repairing the nation's cathedrals

By Nick Higham
BBC News

Lincoln Cathedral
Lincoln has been given a 250,000 grant

English Heritage says six cathedrals need major repairs in the next 10 years, including Lincoln.

Seventy feet up the scaffolding on the south side of Lincoln Cathedral on a crisp morning, clear blue skies and the rising sun lend a warm amber glow to the Lincolnshire limestone of its tower.

The stone was dug out of the cathedral's own quarry, a mile or so out of town. It's the stone that Lincoln Cathedral's original builders used in the 11th and 13th Centuries, and it's the stone that is still used by their 21st Century successors.

A team of 30 stonemasons, glaziers, joiners and lead-workers is permanently employed at Lincoln. The stonemasons in particular have had their work cut out repairing the ravages wrought by time on the soft local building material.

They are chipping away at the rotten and eroded stonework high up between the two transepts and replacing it with fresh new blocks.

One man is sawing through the mortar between two blocks in one of the flying buttresses that support the walls of the chancel. The mortar and perhaps the stone will have to be replaced.

Medieval craftsmen

A few feet away the modern masons have replaced one of the medieval gargoyles with a stone portrait of Stewart, the cathedral maintenance man, complete with his hoodie, bag of tools and giant ring of medieval keys.

Damon Ayer, one of the senior masons on the team, is an admirer of his medieval predecessors. "When we see the old work we know how they worked and what chisels they used. Having that connection is fantastic," he says.

"What we're trying to do is similar to, but not necessarily replicating, what they did. We're putting our own twist on it."

A stone dragon which adorns Lincoln Cathedral
Cathedral stonemasons also produce new carvings such as this dragon

Mr Ayer, an American, has been at Lincoln for seven years. Now he is contemplating returning to the States to pass on what he has learnt to craftsmen there.

The Very Reverend Philip Buckler, the Dean of Lincoln, says it is vital to continue repair and restoration work like this, not simply because without it the cathedral fabric might decay to the point where it's actively dangerous, but because it's important to maintain the skills.

"If we were to pause or lose members of staff that would be quite critical," he says.

"We have a team of craftspeople all with skills honed over generations since medieval times. They're a very balanced team. To lose any would completely disrupt our programme for years to come. You can't just replace them off the shelf. These skills are handed down from generation to generation."

The good news is that Lincoln has just been given a £250,000 grant by English Heritage towards this year's instalment of the restoration programme.

The programme should see the teams repair the whole of the exterior of the building over the next 100 years - the custodians of Britain's great cathedrals tend to take the long view.

Repair shortfall

The other good news is English Heritage believes most of the UK's 60 Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals are in good condition thanks to the £250m spent on them since the early 1990s.

The bad news is that six cathedrals - Canterbury, York, Salisbury, Winchester, Chichester and Lincoln - still need almost £60m between them over the next 10 years.

But English Heritage has been forced by a government funding squeeze to scrap a scheme which guaranteed £3m a year for cathedral repairs.

Cathedrals now have to join the queue with every other kind of historic building and only the most urgent and important repairs are likely to get funded.

And as they have found at Lincoln, the costs of restoration are rising faster than their income.

English Heritage used to fund around a third of the cathedral's repair costs. But this year's grant is only about a fifth of the £1.25m repair budget.

Better and safer scaffolding and safer working practices have contributed to a significant increase in costs. The shortfall has to be made up from the cathedral's endowment income and from donations.

So if anyone fancies taking up the cathedral's offer to sponsor a stone for £25, they would be delighted.

Print Sponsor

Cathedrals 'require 100m work'
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