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

Norfolk - - INSIDE - WORDS: Rowan Man­tell PHO­TOS: Si­mon Fin­lay N

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.


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

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