Scholars and Fellows: Where are they now?

We recently caught up with 2012 Fellow and stonemason, Samantha Peacock. She talks about the survival of traditional craft techniques and their important place in conservation.

I currently work as a conservation stonemason in the south west. Having worked and trained as a banker mason (mostly workshop-based), I increasingly found the philosophies and complexities of the issues surrounding the conservation of historic buildings more challenging and appealing than the new-build industry. I was encouraged to apply for the Fellowship by my then employer, Simon Armstrong of Wells Cathedral Stonemasons, and was awarded the William Morris Craft Fellowship in 2012.

The Fellowship was fantastic. As a group of 6, three Fellows and three Scholars, we travelled the country, learning about the many building materials involved in historic building conservation –from dry stone walling in the Lake District to wood carving in Stirling, Scotland; we visited forges, threw bricks, split roofing slates, cut mortise and tenons at a timber framers and even thatched a cottage. We visited many historic buildings where we could discuss their conservation and repair with the architect or engineer.

Samantha helping to conserve the 14th-century statue of St Peter at York Minster

Samantha helping to conserve the 14th-century statue of St Peter at York Minster

My favourite part of the Fellowship was spending a summer evening in the Welsh countryside burning limestone to make lime with the architect Stafford Holmes. Not only was it great fun, but I got to really understand a material that I use frequently in my work.

After the Fellowship I worked at York Minster, experiencing the issues of historic building conservation first hand. I was part of the team of masons repairing the Great East Window and conserving the original 14th century statue of Saint Peter.

Conservation is not just the physical act of repairing the historical fabric of a building but it’s also about preserving our built heritage for future generations. The issues of conservation can also be found in a form of intangible heritage, such as in the arguments of authenticity and significance, and how these are interwoven into the tradition, continuation and re-enactment of traditional craft skills. These skills can only be passed on if building material is replaced and opportunities are created for craftsmen to practice their trade. Balancing both these concerns often creates a conflict of interest between the replacement and retention of the fabric of a building. Wanting to explore these arguments further I undertook a master’s degree in the Archaeology of buildings at the University of York.

I am now self-employed and I have worked with a small conservation company, Minerva Stone, on a number of churches such as St Peter and Paul in Kilmersdon and St Mary the Virgin at Yarlington, combining both conservation and replacement of stonework. Over the summer of 2015 I have been back working with Wells Cathedral Stonemasons on the 18th century coade stone panels of the Radcliffe observatory in Oxford. The work I do is often varied from banker work, letter cutting and conservation, to setting out and carving pinnacles, but it will be difficult to beat working at York Minster.

The Fellowship has shaped my career immeasurably. It directly influenced the direction that my career has taken and given me the confidence to be assertive and confident in my craft.

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Past Scholars and Fellows: Where are they now?

In June we met up with Gail Haddow, 2007 Fellow and plasterer, onsite at Pound Farm, Midhurst. Gail has her own lime plasterwork and historic building repair business, Earth and Lime Ltd.

S&F_Gail HaddowGail began along her chosen path purely by accident, she says. She started out in landscaping and horticulture and she just knew that she couldn’t work in an office. Gail says ‘I always had my hands in the dirt somewhere!’

Whilst working for St Blaise Ltd Repair & Conservation of Historic Buildings in the late 1990s, Gail began cleaning stone monuments, and carrying out small repairs to decorative plaster work and water damaged ceilings. Gail credits St Blaise with kick-starting her passion for lime; there she was able to take on larger plastering jobs. When she started out most colleges didn’t offer training in lime, she says, so she learned on the job.

The Fellowship supplemented her hands-on lime training and offered Gail more of what she loved about working with historic buildings, the opportunity to enjoy parts of buildings that the public don’t often get to see.

Looking back on the six month country-wide tour, Gail says the Fellowship gave her a huge confidence boost. An integral part of the Fellowship is collaboration and camaraderie, to have your opinions challenged by the other Fellows and Scholars in a supportive environment. The site visit that really stuck with Gail was Chapter House in York Minster and climbing up through the building’s amazing timber frame roof.

Since the Fellowship, Gail has worked across England from Hereford to Hampshire to North Wales. Gail says that a plasterer gets to know the local material, ‘you get used to the way that your local sands behave with lime, you know what you can and can’t get away with! Going to a new area, you definitely have to re-learn a lot of that’. Gail has a very refreshing approach to her work and says that ‘it always seems that Mother Nature gives you exactly what you need to build with, wherever you are’.

Gail is currently working on the plaster repairs at Pound Farm, a 15th century building with 17th century and late-Victorian additions. During the tour of the site, Gail was keen to point out the smoke-blackened wattle and daub cross frame with woven hazel rods. Up in the roof space, Gail enthused about the 15th beams, ‘Here you can tell that the craftsman working on this beam had a ding in his axe, it has marked the wood in a unique way, I can tell exactly what beams he worked on’. The Fellowship fosters this love of craftsmanship and the place it has in protecting our heritage.