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  • Sunday
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  • Monday to Friday
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  • Saturdays and Bank Holidays
    Check What’s On for details
  • FREE ENTRY

Capital works progress: it’s not all bad!

Lindy Gilliland, the Cathedral’s Project Manager, writes…

COVID-19 has not brought the Cathedral’s capital works programme to a complete standstill. Our contractor, Historic Property Restoration, worked hard to get building materials to site before the supply chain collapsed and the lock down took full effect. The Cathedral’s been fortunate in that the months of April and May were always allocated to asbestos strip out in Cathedral Hall. Without staff and public on site, it’s actually been easier for the contractor to make progress! A small and heavily protected workforce has worked meticulously to demolish toilets and decontaminate basement areas in advance of work starting on a new suite of wash-rooms and a room dedicated to our volunteers. Now that the basement is clear of asbestos, some members of the Design Team will get their first visit to the basement, so enabling them to confirm measurements, electrical services and other design details which, for the last two years, have only been able to be a paper exercise!

Say goodbye to this window in the ladies’ loos! Site of new east entrance.
View of the basement cleared of debris and marked up ready for cutting of the drains! In the distance, this is where visitors will descend by stairs or lift from the new east entrance lobby; to the right will be new washrooms and accessible toilet/shower; in the foreground (and off this picture) will be the Volunteers’ Centre.

It’s been more problematic to continue works in the Nave as it’s hard to keep 2 meters apart when lifting heavy ledger stones. Also, the stone conservators could no longer find available hotel accommodation in Newcastle so ledger stone cleaning had to be put on hold. We’re anticipating some overall delay to the building programme but HPR are doing their best to re-sequence the works.

After shallow excavation of the north aisle supervised by the Cathedral Archaeologist, a new limecrete floor has been laid and will cure for three weeks before ledger stones are positioned.

The Architect and Archaeologist are now working on the ledger stone layout for the south aisle, taking into account between 30 – 40 ledger stones discovered under the pews which also need cleaning, identifying and positioning. Not all will make it into the new floor layout – those which are damaged or too worn and illegible will be recorded and then buried under the new floor. The south aisle will also hold the Cathedral’s future retail operation. Small mobile shelving units have been designed to accommodate gifts and books during visiting hours. They can also be rolled out of the way for large civic events or closed up and re-purposed as bar counters for evening drinks!

Members of the Design Team are answering the contractor’s technical queries on a regular basis. The most recent conundrum was what to do with large, unanticipated, in-situ floor slabs at the west crossing which meant that any new paving wouldn’t align properly with respect to the Collingwood Monument and other monuments sitting on the current flooring. Should we take the slabs out or shave off their surface (a massive undertaking)? The Archaeologist advised that the slabs were likely to be the architect Gilbert Scott’s original flooring from the re-ordering of the nave in the 1800s. We therefore finally decided to leave the slabs be and design a new floor build-up to accommodate the new paving.

Section through the current floor showing large slabs under the existing floor level.

As the construction industry gets slowly back on its feet, HPR will be doing its best to provide a safe working environment for its workforce. The team has already started to increase in size again and it’s likely that next steps will include knocking through the new east entrance and the start of landscaping works.

Interpretation

I’m pleased that it’s been possible to re-use some of the flags in the nave outside the east entrance as part of the new landscaping scheme. This will include a stone Ribbon trail which weaves its way through the churchyard. The clergy have written ten blessings which celebrate the city and these will be stopping off points along the way, encouraging visitors to spend more time relaxing in the heart of the old town.

We’ve also been making progress with the design of a new wayfinding system for both inside and outside. This will help highlight the fully accessible entrances/exits and direct visitors to/from the new entrance. One new feature in the nave will be a tactile orientation map table which will illustrate the layout of the nave, quire and chapels, before people explore the richly different parts of the building.

Early concept for tactile map

Our consultant interpretation team has progressed ideas around a heritage ‘experience’ rather than a traditional ‘exhibition’. This will be centred on a pre-programmed light and sound show which highlights certain ledger stones in the north aisle and the histories of the related people buried in the nave. There will also be a pictorial animation of St. Nicholas Church growing in importance with the medieval town to become the Cathedral in an industrial city. A number of graphic panels will shed light on many of the Cathedral’s treasures and new schools’ programmes will be tailored to explore some of the central themes.

Looking Ahead

At the point of lockdown, we were poised to finish disposing of the Victorian pews and tidy up Cathedral Hall (still full of auctioned items). With our strong volunteer team, we were preparing to launch a spring/summer programme of tower tours, ‘My Favourite Things’, a heritage skills public event, further schools’ workshops and behind the scenes tours with the contractor. For the time being, this activity has to be on hold but rest assured, we will get back to it! We will need to reshape much of our public programme so that local visitors can return safely or make their first visit when the Cathedral re-opens. There will also be opportunity to join our volunteer team and get involved in the life of the Cathedral; we look forward to hearing from anyone up for a challenge during these difficult times!