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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 July, 2004, 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK
Diana memory carved in stone
By Fiona Murray
BBC News Online

Nestled in the heart of the Mourne Mountains, the ancient and the modern have been cast in stone in memory of Princess Diana.

The traditional craft of stonemasonry has been combined with innovative hi-tech facilities in Northern Ireland to produce the intricate stonework for the Princess of Wales' memorial fountain.

Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain
The fountain has been filled with water ahead of its official opening
S McConnell and Sons in Kilkeel, where the 545 pieces for the 3.6m memorial were cut, claim to have the most technologically advanced stonecutting facilities in Europe.

But that does not underestimate the mammoth task involved in making the designer's dream a reality.

Managing Director Norman McKibben told BBC News Online the project was the equivalent of making a feature film in one week.

"It had never been done before," he said.

"It was completely innovative and groundbreaking. We were the only people in Europe that could do this particular memorial. It took 32 weeks from when we started making it."

Cornish granite was brought to the County Down mountains where it was cut using powerful and sophisticated sawing and milling machines which are controlled by computer.

Sections of the memorial were built at a time, then each piece was numbered and transported by sea to its destination in Hyde Park, London.

Stonemasonry in its true and natural form is a hard trade
Norman McKibben

The biggest headache was the size of the computer files - the equivalent of 20,000 floppy discs would have been needed to encapsulate all the information about the stones.

"We had to shape the stone into intricate forms to resemble different moods in Diana's life," said Mr McKibben.

"The shape of the stone makes the water flow in different ways.

"The only way they could have done this traditionally, was to get the blocks of granite, formed the shape on the ground, set the stone the whole way round the park and then men would have to start physically to chip away and make the shape.

"It would have taken forever - on an Egyptian-type scale."

The Kilkeel firm cut intricate pieces for the memorial

The firm regularly uses the state-of-the-art software to produce intricate stonework for churches and older buildings.

But Lesley McConnell, 65, who has been a stonemason all his life, said traditional skills were still used on site, and to "tidy up" the stone after it has been cut by the machines.

"The profession could have gone down had it not been for the machines," he said.

"It is unbelievable how the work just changed."

The main thing about the new technology is that it has speeded up a traditionally slow skill with machines worked to their optimum capacity using the special software.

The first machine was brought in to restore the Albert Memorial Clock in Belfast four years ago, an even bigger task than the Diana memorial.

Pieces of the clock, such as the four lions at each corner, were precisely replicated using the equipment.

Stonemason Lesley McConnell:
Stonemason Lesley McConnell: "We just hammered the stone all day"

The firm also worked on Stormont Castle, which involved a delicate procedure of cleaning, replacing much of the stonework and building a new staircase.

For a project at St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh, the firm made a template of one window and then was able to make the stone for all the windows, in a fraction of the time and without human error.

Traditional skills also complement the modern in projects such as the chapel in Castlewellan, County Down.

Mr McKibben said: "We are putting two new wings onto it.

"We might quarry the stone a bit differently, we might cut it a bit differently but the guys on the site still have to pitch it and build it the same way as the boys did years ago."

In the 1960s and 1970s stonework went out of vogue as a result of a "concrete" generation.

But stone appears to be back in fashion again, and is now described as the "Versace of the building industry".

Software tells the machine exactly what to do
Software tells the machine exactly what to do

Mr McConnell, who is following in the footsteps of his father, said the profession had really changed over the years.

"The first thing I made was a flower pot. It was 12 inches and the top was nine inches. There was a three inch hole on the top. It was done all by hand," he said.

"We just hammered the stone all day. We used a hammer and chisel.

"I made grave sets - the headstones and plinth stones - and kerb stones.

"My father ordered the saw in 1983 but there was a time after the war from 1945 there was not so much stone work.

"My father found it a wee bit hard, but in 1977 we got a big job in the Silent Valley, doing the dressing of Spelga Dam.

"Then we got a second job at the dam. That started the stone back in again."
Lions on the Albert Memorial Clock were replicated
Lions on the Albert Memorial Clock were replicated

However, it appears the stone industry has been slow to adapt to new technology.

"The profession has not changed outside of us", said Mr McKibben.

"They haven't yet looked to see how they could do things. That's not our view, you have to embrace technology."

However, despite the advances it remains difficult to attract young apprentices into the profession.

Mr McKibben said: "Stonemasonry in its true and natural form is a hard trade. You have to want to work, there's no easy way of banging a stone.

"We have young fellows who come in and they are only wee skinny fellows, but once they start to work they fill out and find muscles they never knew they had."

Diana tribute reaches key stage
20 Aug 03  |  London
Work starts on Diana's fountain
25 Jun 03  |  London
Split over Diana fountain
16 Jul 02  |  UK News
Concern at Diana fountain delays
01 Jul 02  |  UK News
Poor response to Diana plan
08 Nov 01  |  England

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