Christian Sullivan marked the end of a four-year-long apprenticeship at a “topping off” ceremony.
Christian Sullivan marked the end of a four-year-long apprenticeship at a “topping off” ceremony.
November 26, 2016 12:00 PM CST

Cathedral Apprentice Leaves His Mark

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Salisbury Cathedral is one of Britain’s finest medieval cathedrals. More than 300,000 people visit the cathedral each year to marvel at the nearly 800-year-old building and admire Britain’s tallest spire. The finest original copy of the 1215 Magna Carta is on permanent display to visitors in the Chapter House of the cathedral.

The cathedral’s Major Repair Programme (MRP) began nearly 30 years ago. Comprehensive fabric repairs were needed. Many of the roofs were old, cracked in some places and distorted by thermal movement; the glazing, some of the finest in the country, was becoming frail and in need of re-leading, cleaning and isothermal glazing; and many of the stones in the walls were blistering, soot encrusted and eroded.

The most significant problem was the spire, through which daylight could be seen in places and where some stones were only 2 inches thick, having once been 8 inches. Work on the tower and spire (except the finial at the top) was completed in 1992; the west-side front repairs ran from 1995 to 2000; and work on the roofs, which involved 90 percent replacement, was completed in 2005.

Salisbury Cathedral is one of only nine English cathedrals to have its own Works Department, which includes a team of stonemasons, glaziers, a dedicated ecclesiastical carpenter and a lead plumber. The department takes on one apprentice every four years, a much sought-after training post in which the trainee learns traditional stonemasonry skills.

On Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, cathedral stonemason Christian Sullivan marked the end of a four-year-long apprenticeship at a “topping off” ceremony held high on the scaffolding above the cathedral’s southeast side. Sullivan, who has now embarked on a Foundation degree in stonemasonry, spent the last two months of his apprenticeship carefully carving a copy of the damaged finial for the southeast side of the cathedral. Generally, only one major carving like this is done a year. Sullivan’s finial was the last stone to be laid, marking the end of that particular stage in Salisbury Cathedral’s 30-year-long MRP.

The original finial was damaged as a result of Victorian restoration in which the masons used an iron pin to fix the finial to the stone below. The iron rusted and expanded, causing the stone to split. Today, cathedral masons use stainless steel pins, which do not rust.

Sullivan said, “I knew I wanted to make things but never saw myself as a mason in particular. That is something that has grown with the job. It is amazing to think that my work is now up there on the east side and will be for the next few hundred years.”

Also present at the “topping off” ceremony were 40 donors who participated in the Sponsor a Stone project. Donors have their initials carved into their stone, and it is fixed into the cathedral wall. They also receive a diagram that shows the position of their stone and can spend time in the Works Yard, visiting the mason who is creating it.

Work is now beginning on the Trinity Chapel, on the east face, the oldest part of the cathedral. This has remained untouched since the foundations were laid in 1220. Now, frequent stone falls mean that it has to be roped off for restoration and its beautiful interior is being damaged by rain.

For more information about the Sponsor a Stone project or the cathedral, contact Natalie Downing at n.downing@salcath.co.uk or Jilly Wright at j.wright@salcath.co.uk.


About the Author

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