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24 September 2014
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Restoring the Rose Window
The Rose Window after the fire
The Rose Window after the fire

As the result of a good restoration in the late 60s and a bit of luck, York Minster's Rose Window survived the fire.

But returning the glass to its former glory wasn't a quick and easy task as Peter Gibson explains.

WATCH & LISTEN
See the 1984 news report on the Minster fire
Eye witnesses describe what they saw
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 Picture gallery
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FACTS

The Rose Window is early sixteenth century in date, thought not to commemorate the marriage of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York in 1486, but is really a huge symbol of the house of Tudor.

Stained glass windows are made by fixing glass into channelled strips of lead which are held together with solder. In the fire many of the solder joints melted, but the lead didn't. The melting point of lead is close to that of solder so the temperature of the window can be estimated at around 450 degrees centigrade.

I received a call to say the Minster was on fire. By that time the building was well alight and no-one was allowed back in. Finally after burning for about two hours the roof fell in.

I believe it was at that point, when there was a sudden change of temperature, that the cracking occurred to the glass.

When we were finally allowed back in I walked down the nave, which was awash with water and the immediate thing you noticed was a huge glare of light in the south transept area.

It was so sad to see the transept area looking as it did that morning, debris was piled nine feet high in places.

But in actual fact the first thing I noticed was the cross on the gable above the rose window. As a committed churchman I took great consolation that the cross had survived the fire, and I knew on day all would be well again.

The Chief Fire Officer asked me if I wanted to go and look at the window more closely. There is a walkway along the base of the window so we went up the tower, 105 steps (and I got to know everyone of those steps very well over the coming weeks) and out along the ledge to the window.

Light streaming into the Nave through the South Transept
Light streaming in through the south transept

When we got onto the sill, timbers were still smouldering and the glass was still warm. I could see the cracking of the glass and I spent about half an hour there, then the fire officer said 'Peter you've examined the window from the inside, I'm sure you want to have a look from the outside'. I didn't answer immediately.

So they brought one of the fire tenders into position central to the Rose Window. They had these huge ladders in four sections and he said 'come up with me', he put a belt around my waist and hooked me on, then the first section went up.

Then he went back down, leaving me on my own. If you've never been up a fireman's ladder it's quite scary because as each section goes up the whole thing jars, rather like a train going over points.

When I was about 35 meters up, which was really quite frightening, the ladder went up and down across the window, so I was able to do a pretty good inspection from the outside.

When they brought me down to earth, trembling slightly, a few of the media people collared me and asked what it was like. I was able to say that although the Rose Window was as terribly damaged as it could possibly be, I was quite convinced the window would shine again. And I think they were the most cheerful words spoken that morning.

See the news report

It took about three weeks to put the scaffolding up. In my initial inspection I had noticed that some of the glass had become detached from the leadwork and those pieces could fall. So while the scaffolding was put in place I went up the 105 steps to the ledge six times a day to carry out remedial work. I'm quite proud to say that no glass was lost.

Removing the Rose Window
The team carefully remove the Rose Window panels

When the scaffolding was put up the time came to take the glass out. The glass was cracked into something like 40,000 pieces. If you imagine a piece of glass the size of the palm of your hand cracked into 300 pieces, that gives you an idea.

To stop the cracked glass falling apart as we removed the window panels I stuck clear plastic onto the outside. So when the team removed the 73 panels, which took about three weeks, all the glass was secure.

Over in the workshop I was able to prepare a comprehensive report for the Dean and Chapter of the Minster on the state of the glass and costs of repair.

It was a huge job, and no one had ever been faced by a task like that. So I would be in the workshop in the evening and on weekends to examine every panel of glass.

Once the report was submitted we just had to wait. Obviously this wasn't the only report the Dean and Chapter had to consider. There was the new roof and all the associated stone work and joinery as well.

After I got the go ahead to do the work, the main problem was the repair of the multi-cracked glass. I've repaired broken glass all my life using an ordinary edge joining adhesive. But that was no good because the pieces were just too small. So I had to find an adhesive to repair the glass while it was still held in the leadwork.

It's worth noting that the leadwork was quite new. I had taken part in the restoration of the Rose Window between 1968 and 1970 when the window was put back in memory of Lord Scarborough, the first high steward of the Minster.

The empty window
The empty window with all glass panels removed

In my opinion that was why the window survived the fire, because the leadwork was in good sound condition. If it had been in the state I saw the window in 1968 it wouldn't have survived.

I wanted an adhesive that had the same refractive index as the 16th century glass. It also had to have low surface tension, in other words it wouldn't stick readily to the glass and be difficult to take off.

So working with our scientific advisor, the late Professor Roy Newton, I took 20 pieces of glass with different degrees of cracking to the Glasgow museum and art gallery. A long standing friend of mine Dr Norman Tennent, a specialist on adhesives, was based there.

We measured the glass I'd brought and because Dr Tennent had already done so much field work he was able to match up an adhesive with the same refractive index, and there it was sitting on the shelf ready to use.

Back in the workshop I fed the adhesive into the cracks using a pipette It was drawn in by capillary action and you could see it seeping in. Each panel stood for about a week to let the adhesive cure. Then the panels could be taken apart and the glass carefully cleaned. This in itself is a delicate process, sometimes under a microscope.

At this point the glass was looking pretty good, but I wasn't prepared to put it back in the window in that state because of what would happen should the adhesive fail in the future. I had to have an insurance it would not be lost.

Dismantling a panel in the workshop
The team had to carefully dismantle each glass panel

So to preserve the glass, each piece was sandwiched between two layers of clear glass cut to the same size and shape. That had to be done thousands of times (The Rose window is made up of over 8,000 individual pieces of glass).

So now all the multi-cracked pieces are in a 'Tudor sandwich' and the team then reglazed all of the panels.

When half the window was done, it went on exhibition in the Chapter House. I only wish more custodians of stained glass would do that when they have windows restored. When it's in place it might be 30 or 40 metres above the ground. It's such a wonderful opportunity for people to see the glass at close quarters. That exhibition was visited by thousands and thousands of people.

Then when we had all 73 panels ready, conservation records were made and the work we did recorded before the window was put back in place in readiness for the great service on 4th November 1988, visited by H.M the Queen.

So now that Rose Window is back again, high in the gable of the South Transept. And I know for a fact that many people come to the Minster, go into the South Transept and they don't even look up because it's just part and parcel of the fabric, they've no idea what happened to that window.

The Rose Window in 2004
The Rose Window in 2004

I'm just pleased to see it there, knowing what happened behind the scenes. I hope and pray the Rose Window will be there for the next 500 years. That doesn't mean it won't have to be taken out every 100 years or so because that's the cycle of reglazing.

All we tried to do during the restoration was to keep faith with the craftsmen who created the window in the 16th century, making sure their work lives on. It was a challenging task. Probably the most difficult and challenging restoration task ever attempted as far as stained glass is concerned, but I was just thrilled and very privileged to take part in that restoration.

Peter Gibson

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