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24 September 2014

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Stone mason at work
Stone mason at work

Carving the future for Norfolk's buildings

One of Norfolk's last remaining stone masonry firms has been saved from closure. Jenny Kumah went to Norwich Cathedral to meet some of the masons who work to preserve our historic buildings.

One of the last remaining stone masonry firms in Norfolk has been saved from closure, thus preserving the future of many of the county's historical buildings.

AJ Woods started business back in 1889, but a few months ago, it looked as if the firm wouldn't survive the 21st century.

Luckily, Lady Fairhaven who runs a Cambridge based conservation firm, stepped in and bought the ailing company. Not only did this save 10 jobs, but it has given a dying trade a new lease of life.

Intricate designs

Lady Fairhaven and Owen May
Lady Fairhaven and Owen May

Eighteen-year-old Owen May is in a unique position - he is the only stone mason apprentice in Norfolk.

When I meet him, he's working on a special piece for his new boss, Lady Fairhaven.

It involves carving out her family crest, an intricate design of a flying bull. Owen has been given a lot of responsibility in his job, but he told me he was confident he wouldn't make a mistake.

"I haven't so far! If it's a bad mistake I'll have to start again. If it's only a little mistake you can glue it back together again," he said.

"I have made some bad mistakes and I've had to throw the stone away because it's not repairable. But a lot of fully qualified carvers, they make mistakes and have to throw all the things away," he added.

Job satisfaction

Owen will undergo three years of on-the-job training and college courses, after which he can expect to earn around £300 a week.

One of Owen's colleagues, John Spauls explains that although the salaries aren't high, it's a very rewarding job.

Jenny Kumah meets the stone masoners
Jenny Kumah meets the stone masoners

"It's appealing if you like doing artistic things and working with your hands rather than working with a computer, " he said.

"I know you get more money on a computer than what you would in my job. But if you get satisfaction out of your job that's the main thing," he added.

Although John worked in the industry for several decades, he left the trade temporarily to work at Lotus.

"Basically it was more money than what you could earn in this trade. I came back four years ago because I was made redundant. I missed working with stone," he said.

The trade is looking to attract more women to it, so I give it a go - albeit rather cautiously as I was too worried about chopping off my fingers!

Preservation of buildings

The good news for those contemplating going down this career path is that there will always be work.

"We basically work on churches and cathedrals and there's a lot of them in Norfolk and East Anglia, so you can keep going and going and the trade will never die out because there'll always be there," said John Spauls.

This is one of the main reasons that Norwich Cathedral architect Anthony Freeland was delighted that one of the last remaining stone mason firms in Norfolk would survive thanks to Lady Fairhaven.

"Cathedrals made of stone continually need to be maintained and repaired. Limestone of which this [Norwich] cathedral is made, doesn't last forever. It gradually erodes away," he said.

"In a way that's part of the charm of the buildings. Having local masons is very important and some of the individuals working for this firm have been involved with the cathedral for a long time and the firm itself has been involved for decades. So it’s very good news that it will continue," he added.

Traditional skills

As well as working on Norwich Cathedral and many churches across the county, firms like Woods Masonry play a big part in the conservation work of many buildings in the county such as Holkham Hall, Somerleyton Hall and Blickling Hall.

Lady Fairhaven has said her firm aims to keep these traditional skills alive for the future.

"It's vital, absolutely vital. I mean think of Norwich Cathedral, if there hadn't been the masons over the hundreds of years, the place would have fallen to disrepair," she said.

"Like Ely Cathedral, York any of these enormous buildings need constant care. So hopefully we will be here to constantly care for it," she added.

Listen to Jenny Kumah's report:
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last updated: 30/05/06
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