Salisbury Cathedral, a giant amongst us
A slice of local history with a twist from Mark and Hugh
With Covid dominating the news AGAIN Mark and Hugh are wary and weary: whatever angle, be it face masks, the relief at getting back into the pubs, in the same way that all roads lead to Rome, all media leads to ... Covid. Their friends are bored with it and they thought you might be too!
So for some informative and entertaining distraction this weekend, read on!
Salisbury Cathedral, stones and masons...
"I could bore you with well-worn vital statistics and facts and figures regarding this magnificent building but I won’t. Instead I want you to stand at the front of the cathedral and try to imagine yourself as a stone mason of the 12th century. You won’t look out of place, there’ll be plenty of other visitors stood there, like you, silently admiring the building. Pick a block of stone, any block, and just try to imagine how you would get it there. How you would source it, how you would cleave this enormous block of stone from the face of the quarry? How many horses and what type of cart would be needed to pull the thing? You have no access to steam, electric, hydraulic or any other kind of power. This is a job for muscle and hand tools.
Archimedes once said, ‘Give me a big enough lever and I could move the world’. In your case you are trying to move a block of stone weighing around five tonnes. To give you some idea of the task you have set yourself, a modern small car weighs around 1.5 tonnes with a classic Mini at just 0.6 tonnes. Somehow you need to find a way of multiplying the effort that is available from your average worker or that piece of stone won’t be moving anytime soon!
Quality control, medieval style
The most respected trade in the 12th century was that of the stone mason. The title of Master Mason was one of enormous importance and social cachet. The Master Mason controlled the site. He was in charge of all of the trades including carpenters, joiners, glaziers and blacksmiths. The fate of the thirty-eight-year long project lay in his hands, his judgement and his choice of workers.
Masons were, by the nature of their work, itinerant workers, their lot was to work on site, wherever that site happened to be. They would begin their trade as an apprentice, then after around four years, whilst learning from the Master, sit an examination in front of a board. On passing, the young mason would be granted a specific mark. This would become his unique life-long stone signature. We can be sure that a mason would leave his mark with the pride that comes from a job well done. After all, his next job might well depend on the quality of the last one.
When a new mason turned up at a site, he would have to prove himself before the Master Mason, only then could he begin to earn some money. In those days if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat, unlike today. In our modern times Quality Control is unbelievably complex requiring a mound of documentation showing all manner of detail from the qualifications of the tradesmen to the provenance of the materials. In ancient times our Master Mason managed all of this by eye, by feel and by using his immense experience to select the right tradesman and the right materials for the job.
Heavy lifting of the human powered kind, welcome to the treadwheel crane
In order to lift these enormous blocks, human power operated what was effectively a large hamster wheel. Two men would walk inside the wheel winding a rope around the axle generating lifting power of three tonnes per person. By contrast the ancient Egyptians required fifty persons to move a two and a half tonne block up a ramp, and that’s not even a lift. At the time there was little in the way of workers rights and health and safety but if the Master Mason ran a dangerous site his tradesmen would go elsewhere and so these cranes were carefully crafted, probably over-engineered, strong and safe. Incidentally the word crane was taken from that of the bird, because of the similarity in shapes.
Once the first level was completed the crane would be dismantled and then rebuilt on the floor above. In this way the crane continued upwards with the construction of the building. If you take this to its logical conclusion, the crane that built Salisbury Cathedral ought to still be in the spire, which, excitingly, is exactly where you’ll find it. If you can face the climb up the many steps that have been deeply worn by the passage of thousands of feet over the last eight-hundred years, you will be rewarded with magnificent views of both Salisbury and our Forest.
The devil is in the detail, not the most apt phrase but there we go
Now that you have come to terms with the very basics of laying just one stone, you need to look at the decorative detail. Masons of the 12th century, itinerant, probably illiterate with just their mark to identify their work, have left us the most beautifully detailed carvings. Inside there are soaring spiral fluted columns with no discernible deviance of line from one block to the other, a superb feat of craftsmanship. Today, the stonemason’s skills have not been lost. In fact, if you want to get up close and personal to the world of a present-day mason there are tours of the workshop that are run by the cathedral which can be booked on-line.
Pay a visit, stare at a stone."
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More entertainment from Mark and Hugh
If you'd like to read previous articles on diverse subjects written by Mark and illustrated by Hugh's cartoons here they are, just click the links embedded in the titles:
Pond Life in our Forests
Rufus Stone and Sir Walter Tyrrell
Graffiti through the ages
Freedom of the roads
Watch the birdie
Unstoppable momentum of nature
Socially distanced socialising
Calshot Spit, a curse for mariners...