Guess what … my hip and I, eight months on, happily hopped up and down the scaffolding by ladder … builders’ ladders … metal and narrow … I had no idea what we were going to do ... but it seemed a wonderful opportunity not to be missed.
I had seen an advert for The Great South Window – a high level highlights tour with a look behind the scenes at the conservation aspects … and as I’d been to see the earlier Exhibition of the Ancestors at the Cathedral, as well as posting, in 2013, about the windows' travels to the Getty Museum, Los Angeles before moving to the Cloisters Museum in New York – I knew I had to go across for the tour.
|The scaffolding outside, which led to the working
area at window height, which gave us access to the repairs,
the nave ceiling etc and views from the top.
The Cathedral is in the process of having a £50 million restoration facelift – cleaning and repairing the stonework, repairing and replacing the leaded roof … what has been done looks absolutely stunning … and will continue until 2021 – as the Cathedral needs to be secure for the foreseeable future, and beyond.
When a lump of tracery fell off the Great South Window in 2009 – it was a dramatic indication that urgent repair was needed.
Cracks were discovered in the tracery stone work surrounding the 12th century stained glass panels forcing the specialists to add this urgent job to their ‘to do’ list and delay other planned projects.
|Cherry picker installing
scaffolding inside the Nave
courtesy Canterbury Trust
The foremost project was to provide a safe frame for the 12th century glass … the Window became a sandwich filling between scaffolding outside and in, so more stone-work didn’t crash down … and the precious windows could be removed for repair, storage and study.
Our group of about 18 duly met and off we went to the drawing office … where the stone mason template-maker draws all the templates that the masons have to adhere to exactly in order for the replacement stones to fit: talk about a jigsaw of all jigsaws!
|The piece of tracery that fell off - we were in
the Drawing and Design office here c/o Martin Crowther
We learnt so much … but here I can only give you a sampling of an inkling of the work that’s involved. At the end I’ll leave you with some other links to look at … which give you a flavour of the intricacies of a project like this.
Heather, the Head of Stone Masonry and Conservation, who took us round, explained that as Canterbury is one of the oldest and most famous Christian structures in England, forms part of a World Heritage Site and where the Archbishop is the symbolic leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion …
|One of the cracks being prepared
… it was essential that all agencies were duly consulted on the proposed works etc … so the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was brought in to ensure the experts’ opinions lined up.
Some basic information on the Cathedral and the Window:
|Up the ladders we went
As a note in the early days foundations were not laid … hence inevitably over time there has been some movement and settlement in the structure.
The Great South Window was built in the 1420s in the Perpendicular Gothic architectural style. Its dimensions are huge: 16.76m (55 feet) high, and 7.56m (24 feet 9 inches) wide. The window held and will hold priceless stained glass from late 12th and early 13th centuries.
Why did the window fail? As they say it’s complicated! Over time, this part of the building has tilted slightly, tipping the window forward and sideways, making it unstable.
The medieval builders had allowed for movement in the stone work, leaded glass and timbers – but when the Industrial Revolution and the Victorian ‘experts’ came along – their ideas and repair methods were not empathetic to the ancient materials … hence the damage being found today.
After we had been into the Design and Drawing office we put on hard hats, many of us! were glad of these, and made up our way up the scaffolding ladders … while being shown various aspects of the Conservation work being carried out.
|Zorobel - a biblical figure; one of the
Ancestors of Christ - dated 1180
- that was being cleaned, repaired and restored
Then we were shown into the Glass Conservators' workroom where further intricacies were revealed to us ... we were shown the crud on the medieval glass and how it is so painstakingly removed and repairs made ...
|The top right corner needing considerable repair ...
… so much detail here that I cannot possibly give due justice to these oldest panels of stained glass in England and significant examples of what was at the time a relatively new art – monumental stained glass - as well as the conservation work being done today.
The snippets that resonated with me are …
Caen limestone is still being used, but they had to source larger stone for the mullions from a site near Poitiers.
|A new mullion installed; you can see the two slits for
the glass panes to be reinstated - the precious Ancestor Window,
and the new clear protective glass ... the system is very
The conservators have created a self-containing and up to 52 mm (2.05 inch) interspace cleaning system for the restored stained glass panels: this is very high tech.
|The medieval Butchery Lane
The narrow medieval streets of the city make transport difficult … so stones are brought in a few at a time – preventing damage to both the stone and the medieval city.
The town has had to retain fire engines with smaller dimensions, than our modern day ones, which can squeeze into the Cathedral grounds and surrounding streets.
How knowledgeable those early craftsmen were … in being able to build Cathedrals, give all worshippers and visitors over the centuries that visual and cognitive impact of the stories they wanted told through their design and art work.
|Here you can see the crud and the corrosive effects of
the centuries as they rolled by
Blue Tesserae from Roman and Greek times tends not to be found … as the medieval craftsmen crushed the tessera to extract the lapis lazuli … so it could be reused by their glaziers.
|The Nave ceiling with its decorations
Yet how much in the 21st century we are realising that we need to continue researching to find out more, and to establish the best methods to protect the Cathedral with its stories and history. This work will be accurately recorded for future generations of surveyors, specialists and conservators.
Apprenticeships are being made available by the Cathedral for ancient trades and crafts; local residents are being encouraged to get involved; the community and the authorities are all working with the Cathedral to ensure the Minster is secured for future generations.
It really was a quite extraordinary day … I was bemused and in total admiration at the care and concern regarding all the research and work that went in to this amazing project as well as the intricacies of it all. It was a privilege and a joy to see …
|The Queen and Prince Philip statues - recently added
to match Victoria and Albert - outside the Nave
at the west entrance
So much to tell you, so little space, such a muddled post ... but many more sensible details can be found in the links below:
This is tribute from the Surveyor of the Fabric ... it's a PDF but is fine ... and shows lots of interesting photos and gives more detail as to the work done, and the story of it all - well worth a read ... and is where you will find Heather's story ... fascinating tale and well worth a read.
This is an article from the Natural Stone Specialist about the Conservation of the Canterbury Great South Window - again such an interesting read.
|View to the west across the city
2014 - The Cathedral's Projects and Priorities from Canterbury Cathedral's Trust's perspectives - it's also a PDF but it too is fine.
Two years ago, "Stories on Glass", after my visit to Durham Cathedral, the glass books and the story of Canterbury's Ancestors Windows going to Los Angeles and New York City ...
|Canterbury Cathedral before its
cloaking in scaffolding
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