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In These Stones, Horizons Sing!

29 April 2020

The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes…

They are trying to persuade me that the Cathedral’s capital works are fast ending. If I’m honest, I am not holding my breath. I’m not despondent or despairing or really that cynical. Quite the contrary! The adrenalin is running high; I’m trying to suppress a tremendous excitement that wells up from time to time – it even catches me unawares, and I have to blink hard so as not to show the pathetic emotional state that goes with the fast-paddling swan legs. Usually, I can regain some decorum, but it’s ‘touch and go’ sometimes!

So first, the positives:

I’m assured that things move fast towards the end. Looking around, I hope so. The groundwork – messy, dirty and often heavy has already been done. What is left is the polish; the painstaking finishes that add the final touch. I am moved to watch the masons grouting the new floor – intensive work, washing as they go, kneeling in rows. The floor looks beautiful, vast, elegant. The cleaning brings out the natural marking of the Elswick Grey stone from Dunhouse Quarry, which now covers much of the Nave. The black marble-like Stanhope Black surrounds the ledger stones and is expertly laid at the foot of the pulpit. Here it glistens as it provides a perfect contrast. I’ve never before appreciated the wonderful craftsmanship of R.S. Johnson’s pulpit in quite this way. Now, framed in the black stone, it stands proud in all its glory. There is a third track of stone Catcastle buff, which joins each of the columns, offering a very subtle buff contrast. The overall effect is stunning, allowing the columns to float in all their beauty uncluttered by the dark wood of the old pews. The floor work is almost finished save for the baptistry.

The font awaits its restoration and its new setting, where it will be circled with some magnificent Frosterley Marble. The new bronze inner fitment that will provide a constant flow of living water is being made in Northumberland and will soon be fitted and lit.

The font itself, cleaned of old mortar and re-assembled by the conservators, will be the welcoming feature at the entrance of the great west doors – signalling to all who visit that the Cathedral is a gateway to refreshment; to new life in Christ.

The new north porch steps are pretty much in place now, mirroring the south porch (as they did many years ago) with newly restored wainscoting and waiting for the return of the military colours and of course, the unveiling of Lord Collingwood.

The hall basement transformation to become a visitor and volunteer suite is very nearly finished. As we speak, it is flooded with decorators daubing paint on every surface; the lift was fitted earlier this week and soon, even the snazzy carpet tiles will be laid. Even a visit to the loo will be a classy adventure.

The churchyard looks amazing. Stone blocks from Portugal define the new East Terrace; new walkways around the east and south sides of the churchyard are fresh, open and elegant, and soon the interpretation ribbon will be inserted, declaring the Newcastle Beatitudes and inviting the visitor to pause for a moment and to pray.

Last week a motley crew of the Cathedral’s friends spent a day recording an audiotape that will bring alive some of the characters remembered on the ledger stones – the day was hilarious and the result fantastic; eat your heart out, BAFTA. And a newly commissioned animation is ready to be inserted in the south aisle arches, shining a light on the Cathedral’s enduring presence in the city.

So, you see, there is no shortage of good news – but still loads to do. The big reveal may beckon, but for now, the Cathedral is still a vast building site. The lighting still needs to be finished; the knight effigy to find his resting place; the shop to be installed and stocked; the AV fit-out to happen, and that all-important deep cleaning to begin. And all this in a very short time! And until it’s all finished, it feels like the place is a pile of stones – very beautiful ones, but stones. But these stones are different; these stones talk, even more, they shout if we would only but listen.

I was taught this lesson again; I should have known better but you know already that I am a slow learner. Yet sometimes, I think that God waits just for the right moment to reveal his gracious face towards us. The real beauty of the Cathedral is in the people who cross its threshold and in their encounter with God’s Spirit who loiters in every nook and cranny. It is as if the very stones shout of his glory.

Anthony from Historic Property Restoration Ltd. is our Site Foreman and a bona fide stonemason. He makes his own banker mark as he works – though I hope not to guarantee his pay!

Anthony found this banker mark in St Margaret’s Chapel belonging to Isaac Jopling of Gateshead

Anthony loves stone. Last week we dragged him out of his comfort zone to give a talk at an online heritage event about the Cathedral works. He waxed lyrical, but above all, you could not miss his love of stone –Dunhouse Bue, Elswick Grey… Give it any name you want to; the stones speak to his heart. Working in the Cathedral has been inspiring for our Anthony. Just a few weeks after the contractor’s moved in, I met him one evening just before Evensong. 

“I thought you would be home by now after a hard day’s work,” I teased. “I’ve been home to collect my lad,” he replied. “I want to show him the stonework around the Bishop Lloyd Memorial. It’s a different style to the work we’re doing. Italianate; such beautiful filigree. It’s stunning.”

We’ve talked often since, and I felt his passion; the same passion he wanted his son to feel. I was reminded of old stories of masons working on cathedrals where the craft and the work was passed down generations of families; where human stories were written in the stone; where lives were spent creating and carving beauty. I understood the effect skilled masons had on buildings like ours, but to be honest, I hadn’t really appreciated the impact that the stones had upon the masons. Anthony was teaching me a new thing. He wasn’t alone; the other lads told similar stories, and amid the radio music and the cranking machines, they too seemed enchanted. This was hard labour but not just breaking stones without purpose. This is skilled work and not just any old building. Here they were making something beautiful; they were rebuilding the interior of a cathedral – our Cathedral.

Earlier this year, the masons began work dismantling the 15th-century font. It is a fine font, made of carboniferous limestone – possibly Egglestone Marble or stone from Tournai. It separated neatly into three pieces and was carefully taken to a safe place at the side of the aisle so that it could be cleaned, restored and re-assembled. Of course, it wasn’t the first time it has been dissembled and taken away for safety. One of Anthony’s mason predecessors in the 17th century, one Cuthbert Maxwell, did just the same in 1640 to save it from destruction by the attacking Scots. The plan is to lower the font on to the newly laid floor and surround it with an intricate wave design in Frosterley Marble. I’m told Anthony has some competition from his mates as to who will get this job.

Soon the font will be back in place, but the ending of this story has still to be written. Anthony asked to speak to me, and he told me that working on the Cathedral was affecting him deeply. “What is faith? Who is this Jesus?” he asked. The stones were shouting right to his heart. “Would you consider letting me and my son be baptised in that font?” he asked with some humility. Soon, God willing, it will happen. What joy, what delight, the stones are doing our work for us. They witness to God themselves, and yet so often, we think God relies on us. But didn’t we know that already:

‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’

Luke 19.40

And yet the scriptures remind us of another even more wondrous truth, that it is God’s invitation to come and be built as living stones into a living temple. A temple of which Christ is himself the cornerstone.

I can’t wait to baptise Anthony and his young son; I can’t wait to feel the stone and watch the Cathedral fill with song and laughter; I can’t wait to welcome people into the Cathedral knowing that the very stones will shout of God’s love.

So I penned a poem to celebrate the stones.

In These Stones, Horizons Sing!

In these stones

Prayers whisper and
people linger,

Choirs sing and
angels hover.

SACRED SPACE

In these stones

Shelter is in shadows and
stories get retold

Laughter resounds and
tears unfold.

COMMON GROUND

In these stones

The past is etched and
The present rings

The future dances and
horizons sing

SACRED SPACE, COMMON GROUND

Note

The phrase ‘In these stones, horizons sing’ that inspired this poem was written by Gwyneth Lewis and put to music by Karl Jenkins. It was written for the building of the Wales Millennium Centre and forms the words made of windows that are writ large on the magnificent iconic building. Here I take the words as an inspiration to reflect on the newly refurbished Newcastle Cathedral: another great British port that shares with Cardiff a rich industrial heritage and of course, an iconic building.


Newcastle Cathedral’s National Lottery Heritage Fund project, Common Ground in Sacred Space is due for completion in summer 2021.

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