A momentous crossroads has been reached in the transforming renewal of Worcester Cathedral.

After 20 years and an investment probably exceeding £10 million, the major programme of restoration has been completed.

But that’s only half the story. The Dean and Chapter and its permanent workforce now face an equally demanding and challenging programme of maintenance and conservation work on the ancient building.

This will be constant and unending and involve no less time, effort, craftsmanship and finance than the restoration programme of the past two decades.

The renewal, repair and replacement work so far has been of a scale not seen since the comprehensive Victorian restoration of nearly 150 years ago.

It was in 1989 that Worcester Cathedral launched a local and national appeal for £4 million to carry out the most pressing and crucial repair of the centuries-old building which was in a desperate state structurally with its tower in real danger of collapse.

The first task to be tackled was clearly the strengthening and restoration of the 4,500-ton tower which was displaying ominous signs of cracking and movement and was shown to have large and dangerous voids inside its supporting columns.

Much material was used to fill these voids while strengthening work was also carried out to make the imposing landmark structure safe and sound again as the city’s pinnacle of pride.

Afterwards, the fund-raising appeal was enlarged to £10 million for a 15-year programme of restoration, and year on year the Dean and Chapter has been matching significant grants from English Heritage.

Clearly, however, the Cathedral’s preservation and maintenance places an inordinate financial burden on the Dean and Chapter, especially in these times of financial crises and with English Heritage having just ended its restoration grant aid for cathedrals nationwide.

Lorren Wyatt of Worcester Cathedral’s Development Board and Chairman of the Fabric Fund-raising Committee, explained: “While the Cathedral is in much better shape than it has been for a long time, there is an urgent and continual need to raise funds to ensure it stays this way.

“The annual cost of maintaining the building is in the region of £250,000. Following the English Heritage axe on funding, we are now alone in raising funds to maintain this wonderful 900-year old historical and ironic place of worship.”

I went to learn all about the restoration programme from the man who has been at its heart for the past 12 years – Darren Steele, the Cathedral’s Workshop Manager and Master Stonemason. He heads the seven-strong team in the Cathedral Workshops, officially opened by the Queen in 1989.

“It’s hugely satisfying to record that the major restoration programme has been achieved but we now move on to the maintenance and conservation work which will involve no less work nor be any less challenging,” stressed Darren. “Everywhere you look there are lots of areas of stone that need attention.”

The past 20 years of repair and restoration were to confront and combat a whole series of destructive elements to the Cathedral’s imposing structure of sandstone and limestone.

The use of ironwork with the replacement stone of the Victorian restoration had caused much erosion and damage while the elements had buffeted (and continue to assault) the Cathedral on three sides.

The sandstone of the West Side endures the westerly winds and suffers wind penetration eating into the stone. The North Side, rarely seeing the sun, seldom dries out, even in summer, and has suffered damp and algae.

The East Side is battered by “Siberian winters” and penetrating frosts. Only the South Side enjoys any relief from the elements, getting the most sun.

Darren Steele and his team have spent the past decade or so striving to redress the effects of the elements on the external stonework.

The restoration was phased in a clockwise rotation from the West End. It has involved replacement or conservation of the weathered and badly eroded sandstone while extensive areas of limestone, particularly the window surrounds, have been effectively cleaned. “We had to learn the technology for cleaning the limestone and only did it at 80 per cent cleaning efficiency so as not to overdo this work,” explained Darren.

However, the effect has been dramatic, giving the illusion to many that the limestone has been replaced and renewed on an extensive scale, not simply cleaned painstakingly. Darren derives much satisfaction from this appearance of the limestone “coming up new.”

Interestingly, black-spots and blackening of the Cathedral limestone had been caused down the years by emissions from the former chimneys of the nearby Royal Worcester Porcelain Works!

Throughout the restoration programme, finding replacement stone on “a like to like” basis has meant travelling to quarries up and down Britain to discover stone of the correct colour, quality and durability. For instance, sandstone from Scotland and Cumbria has been brought in together with stone from the Forest of Dean and other specialist English quarries.

And throughout his travels to quarries far and wide, Darren has used his own sounding tests on stone. Hitting samples with a hammer produces a tell-tale sound which reveals the true quality of the stone. A dull sound means it is of inferior quality while the higher the ringing sound the better the stone. In this way, blocks of stone have been earmarked for delivery to “the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral”!

“Children visiting our Cathedral Workshop are always fascinated by the tests on stone and quite surprised by the sounds,” said Darren.

The highlight of his career to date was the production of two new and substantial pinnacles for the North East corner of the Cathedral. The originals were taken down as decayed and dangerous in the early 1930s. Replacing the missing pinnacles meant much research into the plans and old photographs of the original pinnacles and Darren spent “sleepless nights” worrying about the intricate operation of 2000 to 2002.

“Each replacement pinnacle involved 360 pieces of stone and, despite all my anxieties, they went up well. We carved ball flowers and were allowed by the Dean and Chapter to ad lib with their design and also with the carving of the gargoyles for the pinnacles. One depicts our Cathedral Gardener Chris Filer who is shown clutching a garden fork and with a discreetly placed fig leaf. Chris is quite pleased with this image of himself and with the knowledge that it will be probably in place for 200 years or more.

“Being born and bred in Worcester, it was fantastic and the highlight of my career to put something back on the city skyline for posterity,” Darren told me.

Extensive restoration on the Chapter House came next and Darren’s team is currently in the latter stages of a two-year programme on the Cloisters involving all four elevations of the Cloister Garth. The team is managing to retain and clean much of the stone but where replacement is necessary it is being done with stone historically correct in colour.

Another recent tricky and nerve-racking operation for Darren and his team was vital work for the installation of the Cathedral’s new £1 million Quire Organ.

“The work had a big impact because it meant knocking through four metres of 13th Century arches and stone to produce huge openings for the organ sections. Over time some of the stonework had moved up to 24 inches out of true and gave dull tones from my sounding tests, which signalled we undoubtedly had big problems. Overall, it was an extremely demanding operation and required structural engineering advice.”

Darren emphasised to me his team’s return to “traditional values” in all their work. “Not for us are any power tools. All our hand tools are modelled on those traditional ones used down the centuries and we shun new practices adopted in commercial masonry. Portland Cement often used at the Cathedral in the 20th Century was much too hard and we now use only a traditional mortar composed of pure lime and soft aggregates. We have returned to these traditional mortars which have stood the test of time over 1,000 years of the Cathedral’s life.”

Traditional skills and talents are also used by him and his team in the most intricate carving and sculpting.

Darren formerly worked for stonemasons Ben Davis Limited of Worcester for 17 years. He felt particularly privileged to work on the restoration of the beautiful façade of Worcester’s Queen Anne Guildhall.

His Works Department team is composed of stonemasons Martin Reynolds, Carl Cox, Rowan McKay and James Robinson plus sawyer and soon to be stonemason Mark Richards and apprentice Nicholas Bragg, now in the third year of his four-year apprenticeship and already the winner of several prestigious national awards.

See how they did it

A fascinating flavour of the superb craftsmanship invested in the past 20-year restoration of Worcester Cathedral by its permanent team of stonemasons will be on offer for five weeks starting on Saturday October 24.

This exhibition, displaying samples of the exquisite workmanship of the team, will be mounted in the Dean’s Chapel of the Cathedral until Sunday November 29. Visitors will be able to marvel at the precision and delicate detail achieved by the stonemasons in pursuing their traditional centuries-old craft and in emulating their dedicated predecessors.

It will be the same level of workmanship that will be injected into the large-scale and constant repair and maintenance of Worcester Cathedral over future decades.

  • For further information about the ongoing work of the stonemasons and how you might help in the continuing vital fund-raising for the Cathedral’s maintenance, please contact Lucinda Wray-Wear, Development Manager, on 01905 732912 or e-mail lucindawray-wear@worcestercathedral.org.uk