Crafted in stone: Centuries old heritage of Norwich stonemasons
The accumulated skill and wisdom of millennia is being handed on to a new generation in a Norwich churchyard
The ring of chisel on stone reverberates across the street and a young man in a square white hat and heavy canvas apron stands at a wooden workbench. More stonemasons in hats and aprons unload materials from the lane alongside St Clement’s churchyard.
It could be a scene from 700 years ago, but this is 21st century Norwich and these are the newest members of the Guild of St Stephen and St George – based in Norwich but covering England and Wales, plus parts of a swathe of countries including France, Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Bosnia, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria.
The stonemasons learning their ancient trade in a Norwich churchyard will one day work on some of the most important buildings in world history.
As they learn about creating and restoring dramatic castles, cathedrals and palaces, stone by beautifully sculpted stone, they also take part in traditional dramas and processions – and write weekly poems.
Their training is not just in the mechanics and art of shaping stone, but in maths, geometry, languages, music, dance, poetry, physics and architecture.
“It’s all about the rhythm of things,” says guild master Stephen L’Normand, whose domain stretches from Norwich to north Africa.
Every one of the new apprentices for this vast and ancient organisation begins their seven-year training at the guild headquarters, now in St Clement’s church, Norwich.
Norfolk’s newest stonemasons are becoming a familiar sight at civic celebrations, processing and performing the ancient story of Cain and Abel (the sons of Adam and Eve, traditionally linked with stonemasons because Cain kills Abel with a stone.)
Once a year the guild also holds a ceremony in the Stone Hall of the Trinity Guildhall in Kings Lynn.
For the past few years guild master Stephen has been living in Norfolk, overseeing the renewal of his guild. He has recruited 13 apprentices and plans to take on a total of 40, plus another 40 stonemason mates or labourers, over the next five years.
“People should be really proud of this. They are going to be the elite,” says Stephen.
From Norwich they move to work in the Cotswolds before eventually completing a symbolic, and literal, journey. For Stephen, in the early 1980s, this was a three year trek, learning and working along the way.
“I set out on foot with £50 in my pocket, wearing my work clothes (hat and apron) and a household cavalry greatcoat, and carrying a duffle bag with a change of clothes and a canvas tool bag slung over my shoulder on my covered hache, or axe,” said Stephen. “I had never been abroad besides a day trip to Boulogne from school.”
He worked on the Doges Palace in Venice, got a job bricklaying in Alexandria in Egypt, and was nearly shot down during a series of terrifying flights in Africa.
Today the former master mason at Windsor Castle is recognised as the finest English baroque sculptor, and is one of just 12 guild master stonemasons in the world. He donates nine months of each year to teach the next generation of stonemasons the skills they will need to restore the
‘Learning their ancient trade in Norwich, they will one day work on some of the most important buildings in world history’
ancient and create new work.
“It’s not just a craft, it’s a culture,” said Stephen. Part of his territory is in Syria where terrible damage has been inflicted on some of the world’s most important architecture. As well as continuing to recruit Norfolk stonemasons he is working towards finding a safe place to train young Syrians, some with a long family heritage of stonemasonry, so that they can learn their own traditions and eventually return to help rebuild their homeland.
SEVEN YEARS OF STONE STUDY
Frances Elston was an occupational therapist until, wandering through Norwich on a day off, she heard the sound of metal singing against stone. Intrigued, she arrived at St Clement’s churchyard. “It just drew me in,” she said. “I asked whether I could have a go.” Eventually she moved to Norwich and is now in the second year of a seven-year apprenticeship.
Josh Morten-Brown was just 16 when he too walked past the churchyard – and was hooked. “I saw a man wearing a strange hat and an apron and asked what was happening,” he said. “I like creating something that’s lasting. I like working with my hands. People think it’s just cutting or grinding, but it’s sculpture and design and architecture and music and geology and science. I’m also learning German, French and Italian.”
Of the 13 apprentices recruited so far, two have doctorates and some have no formal qualifications at all. They are chosen for character traits including initiative, respect, resilience and hard work.
Charlotte Drewell is 18 and was a sixth-former in North Walsham with a part time job washing hair in a salon, when a client began telling her about her job as an apprentice stonemason. Intrigued Charlotte decided to find out more, went along to an open day and made her first marks in stone. “It was really cool!” she said. “I’ve always liked history, ever since I was little, but I was awful at writing essays.”
Samuel Starsmore is in his second year as an apprentice. He grew up in Wood Dalling, near Reepham, and was about to take a degree in English literature when his dad came across the stonemasons and suggested Samuel should try his hand.
“Suddenly I felt like I was doing something that mattered, something beautiful,” said Samuel.
Tobias Wright had completed a degree in agriculture and was considering joining the army when he discovering the stonemasonry apprenticeship. “I like the discipline and tradition of it, the craft,” he said, smoothing a piece of stone ready to carve a circle of three chasing hares. He is also an Army reservist and works for a food delivery company. Like most of the apprentices, he supplements his training income with part-time jobs.
For Tobias the best part is getting into the rhythm of carving. “I love the flow of it. You get really, really focused and you are making seamless decisions and you lose track of time,” he said. He was initially less keen on having to write poems. “It totally freaked me out!” he admitted. “Now I understand it better and sit and let words drift into my head and then I can start to thread them together.”
ABOVE:Apprentice stonemason Tobias WrightRIGHT:Apprentice stonemason Charlotte DrewellOPPOSITE:Apprentice stonemasons work outside all year round