Meet the skilled stonemasons working to keep York Minster’s legacy alive

A cracking place to work - not the visitor view! 

A cracking place to work - not the visitor view! - Credit: Kevin Gibson

You have to know your crocket from your quatrefoil and have a passion for the grotesque. Welcome to life at the sharp end of stonemasonry at York Minster yorkminster.org

The craft of the stonemason has a certain romance to it. After all, it has changed little over centuries. 

Perhaps the safety kit is more crucial and the workplace more refined, but the craft remains one that is revered for its complexity, technique and dexterity. 

Today a stonemason’s job could be described as essential, certainly crucial as a means to preserve our most treasured historical buildings. 

Stonemason York Minster

Stonemason York Minster - Credit: Kevin Gibson

This resonates with Lee Godfrey, a lead stone mason, who has worked at York Minster for thirty-one years. 

His interest stemmed from the profound impression of seeing Italian architecture during his childhood.  

‘I was inspired to become a stonemason during a visit to Milan when I was a young boy; I remember seeing masons working on the carved pinnacles which surmounted the cathedral roof and experiencing a feeling of awe and wonder.’ 

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During his career at York Minster, Lee has been involved in a variety of projects including the restoration of the Minster’s West Front and the complete replacement of the West doorway which included a modern interpretation of the genesis cycle. 

‘Perhaps, my favourite project was the repair of the East Front and the Great East window - in my mind the project was a high watermark of craft and creativity. The stone work framing the glass of the Great East Window flabbergasts me with its beauty and meaning.’ 

That’s the height of job satisfaction few can reach. Literally. The stonemasons are up close and personal with the magnificent Minster every day and enjoy a very different view of it to the average visitor or passer-by. Their job is also an example of ‘slow’ living.   

Due to the complexity in every aspect of the stonemason’s work, each project normally lasts a decade. ‘Consequently, I joke that I have a medieval understanding of time - something that I feel incredibly lucky to have experienced in the modern world’, jokes Lee.  

Acquiring knowledge of specialist tools and methods from previous generations, requires precision and concentration, combined with an artistic ability to create modern pieces which are sympathetic to the past.  

Through these talents, and an enduring programme of conservation, York Minster’s stonemasons ensure that their legacy will stay at the heart of the city for many generations. 

Alex McCallion, Director of Works and Precinct at York Minster 

Alex McCallion, Director of Works and Precinct at York Minster - Credit: Kevin Gibson

Since 1913, the Minster’s Stoneyard has been located on Deangate behind the East End of the Minster – a strategically important and symbolic location as Alex McCallion, Director of Works and Precinct explains. 

‘The location of the yard has a very real practical purpose but it also facilitates an affinity between the craft / trades people and the building, thus creating a strong place-based knowledge that is essential for the effective continual renewal and maintenance of the Minster and its Precinct.’ 

Currently, as part of a ten year, £11m restoration project due for completion at the end of this decade, the South Quire Aisle, built in the Perpendicular style, is being preserved for the foreseeable future by the Minster’s historic masonry team. 

‘Many of the stones are like-for-like replacements of weathered crockets, quatrefoils, finials and of course repairs to the window tracery and mullions’, says Alex. 

‘The interesting and creative part of the restoration is the design of new grotesques; when the masons remove the weathered projecting sculpted figures, there is only an echo of the original design left so the masons use information from our extensive archive as well as taking inspiration from carvings elsewhere in the Minster to create an interpretation of the original piece.’  

 New designs, such as the grotesques new permission from the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England in consultation with York’s Fabric Advisory Committee. 

In addition to eight other cathedrals, the Minster supports stonemasonry craftmanship through apprenticeship schemes.  

This shared knowledge in design, repair and maintenance will protect the cathedral’s stonework for future generations. 

‘Currently, we have fourteen stonemasons from first year apprentices to our Master Mason who has cared for York Minster for over forty years; the collective knowledge of the team is extraordinary, the wonderful thing about our apprentice programme is that the next generation of craftspeople share this knowledge and continue to develop it and will carry it into the future - a tradition that dates back to the eleventh century.’ 

James Digger completed a four-year apprenticeship

James Digger completed the Cathedral Workshop Fellowship programme after a four-year apprenticeship - Credit: Kevin Gibson

James Digger completed the Cathedral Workshop Fellowship programme in July this year after a four-year apprenticeship. 

 Currently, James is working on the most complex piece of his career to date, a tracery springer stone for one the Minster’s windows. ‘Due to its complexity, it feels like a test of all the skills I have learnt over the course of my apprenticeship as it involves a number of complex mouldings that will be seen from both the inside and outside once it is fixed into the window, therefore both sides of the stone will require attention.’ 

Magnesian limestone is sourced from Highmoor Quarry in Tadcaster in keeping with the Minster’s original materials.  

Replacements and repair work are the job of the Stoneyard’s Master Mason. 

He develops new geometrical drawings that aim to recreate their original appearance and produces templates for a rough block.  

Then the stonemasons apply the templates to their stones and work out the most effective way to work the stone. Using traditional hand tools, the stonemasons will then work to produce an accurate stone piece that will replace the existing, damaged pieces.’ 

Processes include ‘roughing out’ which removes the majority of waste before working to the lines of a design as well as ‘chamfering’ – a technique for hitting masonry lines and ‘marking up’, the process of applying lines and templates. 

 ‘A variety of chisels are required for these processes, there is also a need for various mallets and hammers, straight edges, bevels and box trammels amongst others’, says James. 

On a new piece it is vital to ensure that the stone block is square in order to accurately apply templates. ‘Then, the main challenge is to think of how you’re going to work the stone from start to finish, deciding upon which processes need to be used when and where’, says James 

‘When you begin working the stone, now you’re faced with the challenges that the material itself presents - stones can often be full of vents that open up as you work. You need to maintain focus  but when you finally finish a stone and reflect on all the challenges faced, it is rewarding to feel proud of your work, knowing that it is going to last in such an iconic building for a few hundred years.’ 

One the most artistic aspects within the department’s work, is the design of a new grotesque

One the most artistic aspects within the department’s work, is the design of a new grotesque - Credit: Kevin Gibson

In addition to projects involving restoration of stonework such as pinnacles and buttresses, one the most artistic aspects within the department’s work, is the design of a new grotesque. ‘This is a creative process which is produced by the hands and mind of the carver. The pose and form of the grotesque which has been replaced will inform the scale and outline of the new carving’, says Lee Godfrey. 

The carver will research adjacent carvings, books, casts and the internet for inspiration for the embellishment and story of the new grotesque. 

This research will be translated into a clay mask for inspection by the Architect and Master Mason, who checks the theme is appropriate for the Minster. 

READ MORE: 5 weird and wonderful things to see in York Minster

‘As such, the grotesques are modern designs carved in the medieval spirit’ he says. 

As well as past grotesque work, within the Minster’s current restoration project, Lee has enjoyed working on a perpendicular foliage design on the cornice of the South Choir Aisle Transept.  

‘The foliage is deeply undercut so posed some technical challenges in the casting process. Foliage carving is a disciplined process which requires you to really observe the original - in doing this you truly learn to respect the medieval carver. 

‘Consequently, this process of casting and carving new foliage is passing on the design of past generations to future generations which I feel, is a magical experience that embodies the whole meaning of the Minster’ adds Lee.  

He believes there is a resurgence of interest in maintaining this legacy of craftmanship through courses and workshops which teach traditional skills such as stonemasonry. 

‘I think it is in response to the advances of the modern world; people are increasingly aware of the environment and mental health - I think people are looking to the past for inspiration and see that traditional crafts are more in tune with people and the planet.’ 

As for Alex, he feels that the most fulfilling aspect of being involved in major restoration work such as the current South Quire Aisle project ‘is playing a small part in the very long history of this very special place.  

‘We all share an affinity with the building and as a team we work together to do our best to make sure it is cared for in the best possible way so future generations may enjoy it as we do today.’ 

You can see the stonemasons at work outside of the Minster or take part in a scaffold tour. yorkminster.org.uk 

Hundreds of years of histroy 

Hundreds of years of histroy - Credit: Kevin Gibson

York Minster stonework detail 

York Minster stonework detail - Credit: Kevin Gibson

A steady hand

A steady hand is needed - Credit: Kevin Gibson

Alex in the workshop 

Alex in the workshop - Credit: Kevin Gibson

A cracking place to work - not the visitor view! 

A cracking place to work - not the visitor view! - Credit: Kevin Gibson

York Minster stonework detail meticulously repaired 

York Minster stonework detail meticulously repaired - Credit: Kevin Gibson

Stonemason 

Stonemason - Credit: Kevin Gibson

The team of stonemasons 

The team of stonemasons - Credit: Kevin Gibson

The craftsman's kit has changed little 

The craftsman's kit has changed little - Credit: Kevin Gibson

Reference drawings for the stonemasons 

Reference drawings for the stonemasons - Credit: Kevin Gibson

York Minster

York Minster - Credit: Kevin Gibson

A unique workplace 

A unique workplace - Credit: Kevin Gibson

Stonemasons painstakingly repair ageing pieces 

Stonemasons painstakingly repair ageing pieces - Credit: Kevin Gibson

Tools of the trade

Tools of the trade - Credit: Kevin Gibson

York Minster-James

York Minster James - Credit: Kevin Gibson Photography