York Minster: God’s glasshouse

The Great East Window completed
The Great East Window completed
  • It has been shrouded from view for over a decade, but with the restoration finally completed, Phil Penfold meets the master craftsmen behind York Minster’s Great East Window.
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For more than 12 years now, York’s own citizens and thousands of visitors have passed the East End of the city’s great Minster with scarcely a glance.

They have dawdled past on warm, sunny days, dashed along through the drizzle, been protected by an umbrella when the rain has been lashing down relentlessly. And the reason is simple. The glittering gem has been shrouded in scaffolding and plastic sheeting while a full restoration has been painstakingly – and meticulously – progressing. But now the work of architects, masons, labourers and surveyors is slowly being revealed.

Half of the scaffolding has now been removed from the York Minster East End project.

Half of the scaffolding has now been removed from the York Minster East End project.

The statistics scarcely do it justice. Two dozen masons alone working at the height of the project. Sixteen miles of scaffolding tubes on which they stood in all weathers. A staggering £20m of investment over the past five years alone, which was generously supported by a grant of £10.5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Tons of stone either replaced or salvaged and restored. Thousands of man hours in the labour. Even more in the preparation and the planning.

Only a few days ago, the last piece of carved stone was finally slid into place. It was a carving from the crest of the Percy family, who were one of the greatest benefactors to the Minster 500 and more years ago.

Welsh-born John David is the master stonemason at the Minster, who arrived in the city more than 30 years ago. “I thought I’d give it about five or so years,” he says with a wry smile, “and…well, I’m still here. I’m 65 next year, and I want to keep on going – I will, as long as I am of some use.” John’s pastime, when he isn’t working flat out in York, is travelling to other great churches, cathedrals and minsters all over the UK, and looking at their architecture and wonders.

“Very much a busman’s holiday,” says John, “but it does give you an insight into the mind of the men who built them, and how they achieved it all.” And he points out that during the great glory days of building – from just after the Norman conquest until the advent of Henry VIII – stonemasons were very much a peripatetic band of brothers, who, when they finished what they had been doing at one house of God, would make their way to their next assignment. “Incredibly, we know that some of the masons who worked here also worked in Trondheim in Norway. The influences are evident in both buildings.”

Stone Carver Dave Willets puts the finishing touches to a helm, based on the Percy family crest

Stone Carver Dave Willets puts the finishing touches to a helm, based on the Percy family crest

It is also worth remembering that the masons and builders of 600 years ago weren’t working to meticulous architectural plans and drawings. Instead, it was the priests and prelates of the day who decided what styles and influences they wanted and left it to the craftsmen to convert into reality. It all took time. The east wall of the Lady Chapel was begun in 1361 (the nave vault of the Minster had been completed the year before) and King Edward III was on the throne of England. His little son, William, who was born at Hatfield, near Doncaster, is buried within the Minster, his age unrecorded. It is on record, however, that the chapel was almost finished by the late 1370s when Edward’s grandson, the weak and malleable Richard II, who later starved to death in Pontefract Castle, had succeeded to the crown. However, it wasn’t until more than 30 years later that the Great East Window was fully in situ. According to historians, it was quite normal for such splendid tracery windows to be inserted in a large arched opening, well after the major construction work was completed.

“It’s a bit like someone saying: ‘Here’s your framework, now colour it in’,” says John. And what colours and patterns they used. Major restorations of sections of this east front were carried out in Georgian and early Victorian times, and in 1902 the parapet gables were also renewed.

In his workspace above the Mason’s Yard of the Minster, John contemplates hundreds of metres of meticulous perspectives of sections of the building, and the Great East Window, many of which have to be drawn on a scale of one to one. “I’ve lost count of the rolls of paper that we’ve used,” he admits.

He is himself a master draughtsman, and several of his own drawings are there, framed on the wall, stunning in their detail. But there are also offerings from one of his predecessors, William Shout, who surveyed the fabric 200 years ago and went on working on his beloved building even when his own health began to fail.

“When the scaffolding and sheeting coming down it is indeed the end of an era,” says John, a sentiment that is echoed by his colleague, stonemason Dave Willets, who has been responsible for carving so many of the fine capitals on the window and the accompanying “niche heads”, all of which are intricate pieces of artistic sculpture in themselves. It doesn’t matter that some tiny carved stones are little more than detailed fragments of a mind-bogglingly complex jigsaw, and that they may never be seen again, close to, for another 200 years.

“If we’ve done our job properly,” reflects John, “I think that it’ll be as long as that before the window needs further work. At least, I hope so, and I also hope that it will be a lot longer. The real judges of our worth and skills haven’t even been born yet.

“It’s perhaps a little bit strange for you all to appreciate, but until the scaffolding started to come down a few days back, we’ve in effect, been working up close and personal with the window. It’s as if we’ve been in a two-dimensional environment. There was no way that we could get that grand overview. With the sheeting and scaffolding disappearing, we are, at last, getting the 3D effect. And I have to say that I find it stunning”.

The achievement is made even more special because by and large the Minster team has conformed almost entirely to traditions laid down by the masons of so many years gone by. Of course there have been computer images, and yes, some of the pulleys and lifts used to get people, and stones, up and down the Great East Window have been electrically hauled.

But everything has been guided by tradition – John even has some wooden templates for carving that Shout made and used himself. They hang in pride of place on his office wall, next to the more modern Zinc ones of today.

“It’s been like doing a vast jigsaw puzzle,” he reflects, “but one where all the pieces keep on moving and reshaping themselves.”

The stone is magnesium limestone, which comes from a seam that roughly runs from South Yorkshire up the length of today’s A1. “A beautiful stone to carve,” says David, whose personal favourite among the ancient stones is of a medieval man, his dog at his side. Both owner and mutt peer down from a promontory on the right-hand side of the Great East Window.

“Who was he?” wonders David. “Why did the mason put him there? Was he a mate of his? What was the dog’s name? Lovely little mysteries like that have made this a wonderful project to work on.”

It has been, says John, “a privilege and an honour to work with this incredible team, and to learn a few of the building’s secrets. But I am still learning, and that makes you feel very humble. You have to have humility. But yes, also, I’m proud of our achievements. I do hope that we have the approval of those who have gone before, and shown them that indeed we do care.”

So, with one mammoth restoration project complete, can the Minster masons rest on their oars? John looks horrified.

“Good grief, no,” he insists. “There’s the room over the porch and the Minster shop, where the choir practises, that needs attention now. And a couple of the buttresses look a bit dodgy.”

Just a slight pause. “And then there’s the tower itself. The railings up there aren’t as good as they should be. You never ever stop work on a building like this. It is a constant, never-ending vigil.”