Mick Teale is studying masonry at college in York. Courtesy English Heritage
Large old stone structures like Byland Abbey in North Yorkshire may look pretty solid, but the truth is that without conservation work, the structure would crumble to the ground over time.
It’s an ongoing challenge for English Heritage, which looks after the 12th century abbey near Thirsk, but the latest series of repairs are drawing to a close and have proved a success for both the building and a mason in training.
A £100,000 project to repoint crumbling joints on the nine metre (30 feet) tall north wall of the abbey’s ruined church has been carried out with the help of ex-bricklayer, Mick Teale, who is studying masonry at a college in York.
The project at Byland is just one of the monuments that Mick has been able to work on to learn age-old techniques such as repointing with a medieval lime mortar mix.
“Few people get the chance to work on ancient monuments,” said Mick. “It’s a world away from the building sites I used to work on after I left school. Apart from Byland, I’ve worked at places like Fountains Abbey, near Ripon, and Brodsworth Hall. People are really interested when I tell what I do.”
Just like his medieval counterparts, Mick carves a unique sign, called a Banker’s Mark, onto some of the stone he works on. Historically, these marks formed the basis for calculating a mason’s wage and many can still be seen at Byland, chiselled centuries ago by craftsmen working under the stern gaze of the monks.
The latest project has also relied on new technology such as modern surveying techniques like photogrammetry and digital photography. Masons from a specialist firm, Historic Property Restoration Ltd (HPR), have completed the three month job on time, ready for the site’s re-opening to the public on March 21 2008.
Courtesy English Heritage
“Byland’s stonework is a mix of limestone and sandstone, making it especially vulnerable to weathering,” said Timothy Baldock, English Heritage Project Manager. “The abbey also nestles in something of a frost pocket, and when water gets into the walls, it freezes and expands, which can dislodge masonry.”
High wall tops are also being consolidated to prevent water seeping through.
“The abbey was never meant to be an open roofed building, so it’s vital we carry out work to consolidate the fabric. It also underlines the need to preserve traditional skills,” continued Timothy.
“We can’t halt the march of time, but we can work to limit the rate of decay and keep buildings in good condition.”
During its medieval heyday, the Cistercian monastery of Byland vied with Rievaulx and Fountains abbeys for wealth and power and supported over 200 monks and lay brethren. Today it retains one of the largest floor plans of any English monastery, located in idyllic countryside under the western brow of the North York Moors.
According to English Heritage, more people are needed to train in traditional crafts like masonry to overcome skill shortages in areas related to building conservation.
To address the issue, a regional steering group in the north of England has been established under the auspices of the National Heritage Training Group. It is developing a skills action plan and is exploring the need for a Heritage Skills Academy and Traditional Building Skills Training Centres.
Shortages exist in areas such as slating, thatching, lead-working and glazing. A regional skills co-ordinator based at the University of York, joint funded by English Heritage and the Hamlyn-Feilden Fellowship, is also working to compile a database of existing skills and training and to highlight gaps and shortages.