JM: You were responsible for the stonework on the cathedral weren’t you?
AV: Yes. I first heard of St Edmundsbury Cathedral’s plans in a Sunday newspaper in 1998 and asked for the tender for the stone. We got it in 1999.
JM: How did you decide what stone to use?
AV: When I went to Bury I looked at the old tower there (the Norman Tower) and it looked as though it had been built from Barnack. When I first got involved I immediately thought: ‘What stone are we going to use?’ I thought it had to be a Lincolnshire stone because traditionally they’d been taken into East Anglia for ecclesiastical work through the water systems. I desperately wanted to find stone similar to Barnack so I first looked towards Europe and to the Clipsham quarries.
JM: No-one had used Barnack for 500 years – how did you manage to find it?
AV: It was only by chance that I remembered about six years before I’d been to a small quarry outside Barnack which had a lot of large blocks but there was only a small amount. Years later when we looked at this project I thought I’d go back and have another look. I discovered there were beds in there and I thought it looked like Barnack, cut like Barnack and tasted like Barnack. The Building Research Establishment concluded this stone was Barnack.
JM: Why was it so important for you to use Barnack for the outside of the tower?
AV: I think it was great historically for the cathedral because there is a long history of Barnack being used in East Anglia in ecclesiastical works. It’s great to have the new Millennium tower in Bury made from the same stone as the town’s old (Norman) tower. Here we are, hundreds of years later, being able to do it right.
JM: How special was this project for you?
AV: To me it’s like big boys with toys. Not many people can say that they’ve built a cathedral. Building a cathedral is something that has got to be the highest achievement in a stonemason’s career. You can say you’ve achieved something that will last for centuries… and something that is a worthy, spiritual and a personal thing to carry out.
We did have a lot of problems along the way. The Northern Gothic style is very intricate and very complex. But I thoroughly enjoyed the project and to have carried it out so well has meant a lot to me. It’s been fantastic to do that.
JM: Where did you carve the stone?
AV: It’s so unlike medieval times when you had hundreds of men on site carving the stone as it went. Instead, we have drawing work, a saw yard and masons far removed from the site of the cathedral. That means everything has to leave here absolutely perfect so it fits together a bit like Lego – in layman’s terms. You can’t have a saw works and hundreds of men carrying stone around the yards of Bury St Edmunds Cathedral. It all has to be done automatically with a certain amount of discipline that is not usual to other trades.
JM: How were the stones carved?
AV: The quarry blocks, that weigh anything from 7 to 14 tonnes, come into a big building. They’re cut by a 3 metre saw. They’re placed on tables where they’re slabbed and the quality is assessed to see if we can use it or not. From there it then goes into the secondary saw sheds. From there it’s made into cubes. They’re sawn exactly to the millimetre. After that they go to the mason’s shops to be finished and hand-carved. There’s two mason’s shops – one at either end of the yard. We have about six guys working in each shop. It then comes out into the yard and into the packing shed where it’s all palletised, wrapped up, numbered, coded, recorded and put on lorries down to Bury.
JM: How much stone did you use?
AV: We used about 1,800 tonnes of Barnack. 2,800 tonnes of Clipsham, 600 tonnes of Doulting and 300 tonnes of Ketton.
We used over 40,000 stones. Some took over a week to carve.
JM: What was the most difficult part of the job?
AV: We were going to drop a new tower on top of the existing concrete and around the concrete ringbeam. We had to make it go from slightly out of square rectangle to perfect square. We couldn’t see through the concrete wall so we needed a lot of mechanical instruments to record and plot the exact the positions of everything on the existing cathedral so we could then drop a new tower on top. It was an immense amount of work.
Concrete was a lot of trouble to the project because it was in a bad way. It had what they call ‘concrete cancer’. It was a concrete disease. At one point they thought about removing the concrete completely. They brought in concrete experts who came up with the solution to treat the concrete. We had to wait for that to be worked out before we could carve the stone.
Because we were working to such high tolerances we were waiting to see just what the preserving finishes to this concrete base would be. It might not seem much but if they put a coating of something that was a ¼ of an inch thick or an 1/8 of an inch thick it made a tremendous difference to the tolerances and accuracies that we had to work to.
That was the most worrying time for us. If that went wrong… well we wouldn’t have known where we were going to go. It had to go right. With such tight tolerances (small margin of error) in the maths, the geometry, and the physics of carving the stone it was a terrifically 6 or 7 month period. The complexity of the geometry was just mind-boggling and you wouldn’t even want to start modelling it on a computer.
The other major problem we had came from the fact that we had to build the outside of the tower separately to the outside. Both had to rise from the concrete base separately and then marry exactly at the windows.
JM: Did it all turn out OK?
AV: I’ve got to be pleased with my men on site – the engineers, the draftsmen, the masons all achieved a terrific amount because those windows sat absolutely perfect and we ended up with an absolutely perfect tower. That was quite some achievement.
JM: The inside of the tower is also coated with stone isn’t it?
AV: Yes, but it was originally going to be rendered instead – to save money. I always said it would have looked like an Italian Renaissance cathedral because only a small amount of stone would have been used, and a lot of render. I didn’t feel it was right. I think to have put stone inside has been a remarkable decision made just at the right time.
Anyone going into the cathedral and sees the beautiful mellow tones of Ketton all the way through the tower will see it’s now a complete tower, whereas with a cream or white render it would have been a completely different feel. In my opinion, Bury now has a complete cathedral.
JM: You’re not religious… but would you say this has been a spiritual project for you?
AV: Yes… for me and my men.
I’m a great believer that it’s good for one’s spirit and for your inner self to say that you can do these things and you can achieve these things. My work force are immensely proud that they’ve done that. You can ask them: ‘OK boys… what do you want to do for a living? Do you want to build a cathedral or do you want to do a bit of cladding on a shop front in town?’ Of course they’re going to want to do the cathedral. So what I mean by spiritual is that it’s that inner-self and that subconscious confidence it gives you. It’s everything – not just the religious part.