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Meet Oliver Thompson, stonemason in the making

The Cathedral’s project, Common Ground in Sacred Space, gives us the opportunity to support students, volunteers and paid staff in heritage related careers. Over the last year, we’ve offered training in heritage project management, schools’ and public engagement, and collections and archives work. Now we’re delighted that we’re able, through funding from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, to support a young school leaver employed by our contractor, Historic Property Restoration. We think it’s crucial that young people are able to learn practical skills and heritage crafts which are fast disappearing; talents upon which the future preservation of our magnificent cathedrals and other historic sites depend.

Project Manager, Lindy Gilliland, catches up with 17 year-old Oliver Thompson as he gets to grip with his new tasks at Newcastle Cathedral in advance of his Stonemason Apprenticeship.

HPR tells me that short term placements can’t provide the level of skills you need, so an apprenticeship is special as it gives you a solid grounding. What attracted you to work in the construction sector?

Olly: I’ve come straight from school at Walbottle Campus and I wanted to do something really hands-on. I have connections with the construction industry through distant relatives. There aren’t many apprenticeships available either and I jumped at the chance to work with HPR.

What other sites have you worked on and what skills did you learn?

Olly: Between September and January I worked with HPR at Seaton Delaval Hall. I was one of 60 workers and I learnt a range of basic labouring skills in an amazing location. I really enjoyed it.

What do you like about heritage buildings and history? You’re following in the steps of ancient tradition going back to medieval times when master craftsmen trained apprentices from a young age until they could take up the business.

Olly: I didn’t study history at school, but I really like the architecture and the detail of old buildings, like the little carvings in the nave. I’m lucky to start my apprenticeship in such a central city landmark.

Stone masons often made small self-portraits in their work or left their mark upon the stone. Spandrel carvings often depict clergy, grotesque figures or the Green Man, but this could, with a bit of imagination, be the Master Mason himself looking down on us from around 1300.
Photo by Mike Quinn, 2014 Public domain photo

How does working at Newcastle Cathedral make you feel? Is it special in any way?

Olly: It’s really good and very different from Seaton Delaval. It’s interesting seeing how a complex building project works in a historic location. I want to leave a mark and I’ll have a sense of pride when I come back thinking that I laid that slab or I helped to cut that piece of stone.

What’s your favourite part of the day?

Olly: The early morning when I get to find out what jobs I’ll be doing that day. I arrive about 7:30 or 7:45am and find out who I’ll be following for the day to lay bricks or lift slabs, for example. The guys show me how to use tools, how to raise and lower the ledger stones using straps and chains. It’s a shame when the site dies down towards the end of the day.

How does COVID-19 impact on what you can do on site?

Olly: I’ve only come back off furlough recently and usually come by Metro. I had to wait for a buddy system where I could get a lift by van. On site, I’m helping with everything including clearing out the old floor ducts and digging out the debris – we just have to remember to stay two metres apart and protect ourselves. I’ve recently completed my first health and safety awareness certificate and we have tool-box talks too so I know what’s right and wrong.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Olly: I like sport, boxing, gym and walking. I’m a member of Grainger Park Boxing Club and recently won the Tyne Tees and Wear Championship at my level.

What’s the first thing you’ll do when COVID-19 is over?

Olly: Go and see my family, especially my grandparents. We’re having a weekend on-line quiz at the moment.

What are you looking forward to during your apprenticeship?

Olly: Everything – learning how to cut delicate stone, how to place the ledger stones, how to use chisels, being shown to ‘try it this way’. I’ll be gathering a range of skills and I’ll start at York Technical College in September for their three year stonemasonry apprenticeship programme. I’ll stay in York for blocks of two weeks at a time and then come back to site for six weeks to try out what I’ve learned.

How do you manage being out in the cold?

I have to wear six layers!

Note from HPR

The company policy with apprentices is for them to start with HPR as labourers for up to one year in advance of starting their apprenticeship. This results in a better selection process and the drop-out rate during the early parts of the apprenticeship reducing from about 40% down to just 10%. With the level of investment we make to their training it is always our ambition to retain them as long term employees and we have a very good success rate over the last 20 years. Two of our earlier apprentices are now site managers at HPR.

Paul Knotts, Site Manager:

“Apprenticeships are very different from when I did mine. I had to live away from home in a caravan for a month with seven older men! I had to carry all the tools up the scaffold and clean them up at the end of the day as the others left early for a pint! I remember being told not to put my hand under a stone and I did and then it crushed me. I never did it again! Olly will be learning alongside us and we’re all fair to each other. He’s really coming out of his shell now”.

Everyone at Newcastle Cathedral would like to wish Olly good luck with his apprenticeship!

Our Project Support Officer, Alice Massey, has written a fabulous article which delves into the medieval origins of apprenticeships and the work of stone masons. To read her article please click here.