Ahead of Durham Cathedral's central tower re-oepning to visitors on 1 June 2019, we caught up with Sam Chapman, one of the stonemasons who has been working on the central tower restoration project, to ask him what it has been like working on such a significant project.

Sam Chapman stonemason at Durham Cathedral, County Durham
 Image: Sam Chapman at the top of the tower in December 2018. Reproduced with kind permission from The Northern Echo.

A little bit about Sam…

My name is Sam, I’m 30 years old, I grew up in Yorkshire and I’m a stonemason at Durham Cathedral. I have been working here for a year now. I started stonemasonry back in 2006 on a full time course at York College. As I progressed through my course, I applied to several firms to start a masonry apprenticeship, eventually gaining one with York Minster. I worked at York for 6 years gaining the knowledge of stonemasonry and the day-to-day running of a cathedral.

In this time, I finished my apprenticeship and furthered my education by completing a Cathedral Workshop Fellowship Foundation Degree with Gloucestershire University. The course, available only to cathedral tradespeople at that point in time, took my education a step further, providing more than I would have got from a college environment, as it involved subjects that aren’t covered by ordinary curriculum. 

The work I carried out at York Minster was mainly on the East End Project, where several stones that I masoned, carved, fixed or drawn are now situated. I always feel a great sense of achievement and excitement knowing that the work I have completed will be there for many generations to come.  I also wonder who the mason will be that eventually replaces my stones. Will they wonder who I am, as I do with the stones that I now replace at Durham? I now carry out masonry at Durham Cathedral and the same questions still go through my mind, wondering who the people were that came before me and what they have gone on to do.  It is always a wonderful feeling when you come across a mason’s personal mark, which we still put on our stones today as a signature.

stonemason marks at Durham CathedralImage: Modern Masons’ marks are shown, one for each of the Stone Masons that worked on the Central Tower

How do you find working at Durham Cathedral differs to that of York Minster?

There are many similarities between working at York and working at Durham but there are also differences. York in its current form is much younger than Durham, being an entirely gothic building, whereas the Durham style is Romanesque, starting after the invasion by the Normans. The central tower is one of the few gothic parts of the cathedral, however it was in need of repair.

The complex nature of the conservation work means that the in house masonry team have significantly expanded their skill-set. Tells us about the new skills you have learnt over the last three years.

The project to repair masonry of the parapet and the bell chamber has been ongoing for 3 years. Since I started at Durham Cathedral in March 2018, my skill-set has definitely expanded.  During this time, I have been involved in masoning three tracery pieces, these are intricate stonework pieces that surround and support the glass in a gothic window, as well as carving a piece for the surround of a window, fixing several stones in the windows of the bell chamber and completing some mortar repairs inside the bell itself. 

Close up image showing the restoration work of the stonemasons at Durham Cathedral

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced during the restoration work?

In our role we are governed by the weather, if it’s too cold we can’t fix stones and if it’s too hot the mortar takes a lot of looking after to make sure that it doesn’t fail. The wind also has a profound effect on the work, as the only way to get stones and materials up is via the hoist and if it’s too windy then they can’t be used. When this happens, the 325 stairs of the tower are the only way up!

What has been your highlight of working on the tower project?

When the sun was shining and the skies were clear, the views simply could not be beaten. That was definitely a highlight for me. 

View from Durham Cathedral's central tower

Can you tell us what it has been like working on a project of such scale and importance to the community of Durham?

Working on a building as important as Durham is a real privilege. Whenever I tell people where I work and what I do, people are always interested. In my short time here, it has become obvious that the cathedral is a central part of the community of Durham. I was asked on many occasions, when the scaffolding was going to be down, so that the tower could again be seen. I can now happily tell people that the central tower project is complete and that the famous view of the cathedral that you get from the train, as you cross the viaduct, is no longer spoiled. 

Image showing before and after of work by stonemasons at Durham Cathedral

What work have you got lined up next at Durham Cathedral?

The work is complete on the central tower, but that doesn’t mean that masonry work has stopped altogether. The property department are as busy as ever. The other stonemasons and I have been working on an archway in the grounds of the cathedral and conservation work is being completed on the North and South doors. This is just a small insight into the fifteen-year plan, which details planned work around the cathedral precinct. 

I have enjoyed my time at Durham Cathedral so far and I hope that I will be involved in many more projects over the years to preserve this building and its grounds for future generations to visit and appreciate.

To see Sam's work up close, you can visit the central tower at Durham Cathedral from 1 june 2019. Click here to read more >> 

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