SEE US IN A NEW LIGHT
A day in the life of Newcastle Cathedral
Lindy Gilliland, the Cathedral’s Project Manager, writes…
After so many days of working from my bedroom office during lockdown, it was a pleasure to get back on site at Newcastle Cathedral this week. Ostensibly, the purpose of my visit was a site inspection and a consultants/contractor meeting. However, watching the busy workforce loosening and lifting masonry, cutting drains, laying bricks and investigating piping brought the Cathedral’s vision back to reality. HPR’s determination to keep the site operating despite COVID-19 and the buzz of activity was uplifting.
I couldn’t help but notice the massive size and thickness of 18th century ledger stones recently lifted, cleaned and positioned in their new locations in the north aisle. The row is filling up rapidly and it will soon be time for the Stanhope Black paving to be fitted around these giant memorials. No ledger stone is true in line, several twisted in profile, and the masons use all their skill to align them together, keeping the joints as close as possible.
There isn’t an inch of empty space on the nave floor now as ledger stones lay stacked or next door to each other awaiting their new location. The sight reminds me of bodies laid out in serried ranks and I realise how many people over the centuries have passed through, and how many lives and deaths have been commemorated here. As I watch the latest ledger stone being winched up and out, I wonder how masons managed in earlier times with similar but far less robust apparatus. (The floor has been reordered at least twice before and now we’re installing underfloor heating).
My next stop is the south aisle, now under similar preparation. HPR operatives are reducing the levels under instruction from the Cathedral Archaeologist to keep an eye open for any features. Indeed, the excavation of the floor here has already produced evidence of the subfloor of the 18th century alterations; Dave Heslop will need to quickly record this before HPR lay the limecrete.
I say hello to one of the stone conservators from Skillington Workshop (Lincolnshire). She has managed to return to site after finally finding somewhere to stay in Newcastle’s re-opened B&B accommodation. She’s busy sponging down a ledger stone, carefully checking as she goes for any structural weaknesses, old repair glues or lettering infill which needs to be preserved.
Fortunately, we’ve got a budget put aside for conservation repairs. I confirm that cracks should be filled and bitumen and cementitious mortar should be removed from the surface of a number of ledger stones to improve their appearance in the new floor layout (see old repair and mortar stuck to the stone surface in the following photograph).
My next stop is the basement of Cathedral Hall where I find the Cathedral Archaeologist excavating a very ancient drain below a newly cut drain. He excitedly tells me that the ancient drain (Saxon? Roman?) made from undressed stone cut through and disturbed an early burial. There’s no pottery but he’s found an arm bone, two ribs and a finger bone which may all be carbon dated in due course. Dave’s also taken samples of soil from the drain in order to sieve out organic matter and seek radiocarbon dates for the archaeological feature. There is no coal present which indicates a date before the 13th or 14th century.
Dave tells me that he’s just about to start work where basement clay turns to soil and that an intact burial has been exposed. A skull, jawbone and leg bone point to the individual being buried on its side; could this be a Saxon burial and part of an earlier burial ground? This is the first of a number of intact burials under the concrete floor in the basement and shows how the ground slopes across this part of the site, which has not been subject to excavation at this depth. Dave advises that we’re now going to have to reconsider excavating a new drainage chamber to the east of the hall, near the old carpark entrance, for fear of encountering more burials which would all have to be lifted.
I then check out the enormous pit which has been excavated for the new lift. This will take visitors down to Cathedral Hall’s new facilities. Dave tells me that he’s removed 43 bags of charnel bone from the pit – not pleasant work at all! It’s clear that when Cathedral Hall was built in the early 20th century the burial ground was cleared and the disturbed burials were all put back in the ground afterwards. Now we’re disturbing the remains again and all charnel bone has been boxed and temporarily placed in the Crypt before future archaeological analysis and reburial can take place.
Then it’s time for the consultants/contractor site discussion which is all about where exactly to place the floor boxes for power and data, electric cabling for our interpretation sound and lighting and also the induction loops! Not exactly riveting stuff but it’s so important to ensure that the impact of new services on the ancient fabric of the building is discreet. How many people does it take to change a light bulb? I joke but Architect, Lighting Consultant, Audio-Visual Consultant, Interpretation Consultant, HPR and their electrical subcontractor are all represented – it’s a real team effort in coordinating design, aesthetics and functionality for the Cathedral’s future operation.
Afterwards, I take a tour of the outside of the building with the Site Manager and Project Architect to check on the new entrance which has been knocked through the east wall.
We also review progress in lifting the paving slabs throughout the south churchyard. It will be Spring 2021 before the landscaping plans come to fruition – we’ve still got a very long way to go!
I leave site knowing that the Cathedral’s capital works are in capable hands. Next time I visit, the Cathedral will have more stories to tell. I’m looking forward to reporting back.