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Thursday, 31 December 2015

Norwich Guildhall: stones that speak

In 1404 Norwich gained its charter granting it status as a county in its own right. As part of the civic elites' ambitions for the city construction of the guildhall began soon after this date. 

Although it had key civic functions - for instance hosting the Mayor's Court and the Common Council - as you can see from this excerpt of a transciption from the city's 1449 'Ordinances for Crafts' (shown below) it was also used by the craft guilds.

Please click on image in order to enlarge

A few things we note from this:
1. As with our apprenticeships, in the medieval city it was recognised that there are no short cuts to mastering one's craft ie seven year terms are stipulated.

2. It is interesting to note that the role of women in the crafts was expliciltly recognised. We are very proud that we are training female apprentices in what is still a male-dominated industry. 

3. Upon completion of their apprenticeship craftspeople were ceremonially enrolled within the chamber of the Guildhall. This is a tradition we would be very keen to re-establish. After all, our guild is founded in traditions going back to 1096 and beyond. In other words, we are not re-enactors: the Guild of St Stephen & St George brings genuine authenticity to this guild hall. 

Moving on, let us take a look at some of the techniques used in the building's construction...

Working with flint is immensely difficult. This silica-based material is incredibly had to shape by hand. Here, flints have had their faces flattened but retain their round shapes. To prevent ugly great expanses of mortar distracting from the glassy black flint finish the builders have used flakes of flint as a filler - a traditional technique known as galletting. 

In some sections of the wall (which are most probably nineteenth century restoration work) the flint is flattened and squared leaving very fine joints. Impressive and expensive work!

Moving around to the side facing the market - quite literally, the business end of the building - there is a lovely nineteenth century tympanum with female angels supporting the city's coat of arms. With some careful conservation this would clean up a treat! 

Likewise, the drinking fountain, bequested to the city by Charles Pierre Melly in 1859, would greatly benefit from sensitive conservation. We assume that the water source for this is the well that is now culverted (covered up) and was located near the nearby taxi ramp. 

Finally, here is the doorway that was relocated to the guildhall having once been the entrance to a house on London Street (formerly, Cockey Lane) owned by goldsmith, John Bassingham. He lived during Tudor times and, as with many merchants during the period of the Reformation of the 1530s, it is likely that he came into possession of this from an ecclesiastical building that was 'dissolved' at the time. Certainly, the late perpendicular style of the 'four point' arch suggests a fifiteenth century date, whilst the (now empty) statue niches would be typical for a door of a church, monastery or friary. 

Whatever it's provenance, however, the work pictured her, replete with civic heraldry, belongs to a later period - most likely, the nineteenth century. 

You sometimes hear people plaintively say, "if only stones could speak."  Well, as you can see from this, to us they do. 

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

View from a Tower: St Mary's, Happisburgh

Here we are looking up at the great west tower of St Mary's, Happisburgh (pronounced, 'hays-borough') on the north Norfolk coast. We are going to climb the 133 steps of the spiral staircase and ascend to the top. 

It takes a bit of legwork and puff, but I think you'll agree it is worth it. Here we are looking out to sea. The tower is 110 feet (33.5 metres) high and 180 feet (just shy of 55 metres) above sea level. 

Moving around to the next face we can see the magnificent Happisburgh lighthouse a short distance away. 

Moving around to the next face we are looking inland. See how small the gravestones appear from up here!

It is interesting to look down and get a real sense of how high up we are. There, below, is the roof of the church's south aisle and the porch. 

Looking eastwards we get a great view of the nave, aisles and chancel roofs. From up here it is clear what a huge structure this really is. From our perspective, it is also testimony to the fifteenth century masons who designed and built this magnificent church. 

Please note:
Subject to weather conditions, the church tower will be open to the public on New Year's Day. Please click on link for further information:
Happisburgh Church Tower

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Minster Church of St. Nicholas, Great Yarmouth

I am in Great Yarmouth on business today. I deliberately arrived early in order to visit the amazing Minster Church of St Nicholas in the town; an enormous building that vies with 'The Stump' at Boston, Lincolnshire, to be given the mantle of largest parish church in Britain. 

This is the view to the left of where I am sitting; a cavernous south aisle. This church really is too impressively spacious to be captured in a photograph, but here's my attempt, via a panoramic shot:

Although founded in the Norman period under the patronage of Bishop Herbert de Losinga, much of the fabric of the current  building dates from the post-war period. On the night of 24th June 1942 the church suffered devastating damage by German bombers. The fierce heat of the ensuing inferno left only the external walls and a (structurally unsound!) tower, with the interior limestone being calcined beyond repair by the heat. 

Whatever your opinions about the subsequent restoration, I think anyone would be impressed by the sheer scale of the church. It also has an affordable café staffed by friendly volunteers who made me feel very welcome. I recommend you to come and visit and experience this for yourself. 

Guild's Christmas Procession

Here are some photographs from our recent Guild of St Stephen & St George Christmas procession through central Norwich:

*Thanks to Eureka Wellbeing Photography for the images!

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Where Time Goes Slowly Past

Filmed within the stonemasons' lodge of the Guild of St Stephen & St George in the medieval St. Clement's Church, Norwich. It was December and outside the city of Norwich was experiencing it's Rush Hour. Meanwhile, here time moves at a different pace...

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Christmas Carving

Our carving workshops make great Christmas gifts...

Genuine Expertise!
Interested in turning your hand to some stone carving? We are offering you the opportunity to learn some skills under the guidance of our Master Mason who not only has over thirty years of experience behind him, but is also informed by more than nine hundred years of tradition handed down from master to stonemason within his guild. 

Contribute as you carve...
We are offering whole day sessions with stone and use of tools included for just £50 per day. Make a Paypal payment of £50 via HERE then contact us via to arrange a mutually convenient date. All proceeds from these workshops go towards the work of The Stonemasons' Training Partnership in supporting our apprentices on their journey. 

"How often do you get the opportunity to learn under the guidance of a genuine Master Mason? Amazing!"

"I felt so welcome carving at the stonemasons lodge. It was like stepping back in time."

"I surprised myself at what I managed to achieve. I cherish my carved piece. Great value - recommended!"

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Close-up of Norwich Castle Donjon Walls

We have been taking a close look at the external walls of Norwich Castle donjon. 

The castle was re-faced with Bath stone, with work beginning in 1834 under the supervision of Anthony Salvin. This was done with huge square blocks which were subsequently 'chased' with a chisel and motar blackened with fire ash used to create the illusion of rectangular blocks. If you look at the photograph above you will see the tight joints of these square blocks continuing underneath the vertical black mortar line. 

However, the mason's attempts to 'trick the eye' with false joints had consequences. According to our Master Mason,
"the black is ash we call black ash. The modern term is PFA (pulverised fuel ash). Many burnt materials have a pozzalanic property giving lime mortar a faster set. (From Pozzalan a region in imperial Roman Italy where volcanic ash was used for same purpose sometimes even helping mortar set under water for aquaducts etc.)"

He goes on to add,
"PFA  is from power stations; it is burnt at a very high temperature so all the impurities have gone. The Ash these masons used was just from a fire and has all sorts of impurities in it as well as sulphur which is very good at breaking down limestone - hence the damage we can see here."

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Norman 'Calendar' Font - Burnham Deepdale

Here is the fantastic Norman period 'Calendar' font at St Mary's, Burnham Deepdale on the north-west coast of Norfolk. Hewn from a single piece of Barnack stone, the carved panels show the seasons of the agricultural cycle, depicting toilers of the period working in the fields. 

Here we see the north face of the font. The season here is winter into spring...

January: man sitting in a chair, drinking from a horn. 

February: man sits in a chair - what else can you do in February? 

March: digging the fields

April: pruning what appears to be a vine

The 'flat' two-dimensional friezes are typical of the Norman period. Whilst, technically, the carving is unaccomplished - rustic even! -, it remains aesthetically pleasing. Likewise, the interwoven tailed lions are actually quite accomplished for the period (I have seen many carved lions of this period that more closely resemble Chinese dragons than lions). A fascinating artefact!

April: pruning what appears to be a vine

The 'flat' two-dimensional friezes are typical of the Norman period. Whilst, technically, the carving is unaccomplished - rustic even! -, it remains aesthetically pleasing. Likewise, the interwoven tailed lions are actually quite accomplished for the period (I have seen many carved lions of this period that more closely resemble Chinese dragons than lions). A fascinating artefact!

Friday, 4 December 2015

Guild Procession

Guild processions would have been a familiar part of the rhythm of life in the medieval city of Norwich, both, through the civic guild of St George and the individual craft guilds. Today, in keeping with this tradition - and our own medieval antecedants - the stonemasons' Guild of St Stephen & St George will be processing in the footsteps of those who have gone before. 

At 12:30 today our apprentices, officers of the guild, other crafts people and friends of the guild will be gathering outside the west front of Norwich Cathedral. From there the procession will wend its way to Norwich Castle. We will pass around the huge medieval donjon (begun, incidently, in the same year our Master Mason's guild was formed), before making our way into the heart of the city at the guildhall. 

We look forward to making our presence felt within the city and to celebrating our apprentices long journey to excellence. 

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Norwich Cathedral at Night

Officers of the guild were delighted to enjoy an open evening at Norwich Cathedral. The light and shadow of the stonework was of particular interest to us and contributed greatly to the spectacle within this great structure.