We climb up and inside the roof of Canterbury Cathedral with the carpenters appointed to work on a massive five-year conservation project.
It’s an almighty task for a small local firm but, working nearly 100 feet up, Dolmen Conservation has literally risen to the challenge! High inside Canterbury Cathedral, the iconic building at the centre of worldwide Anglican faith, Dolmen’s skilled team of carpenters have been inspecting, conserving and where necessary replacing the woodwork holding up the extensive lead roof, much of it centuries old.
The work is part of a £24.7 million five-year project called The Canterbury Journey, necessary to safeguard the beautiful building – including making the roof watertight – for generations to come. The western end of the cathedral is being both restored and enhanced, with repairs to the west towers, nave roof and Christ Church Gate. A new Welcome Centre for visitors is also included in the plan.
As a Kentish family firm just down the road near Ashford, Dolmen is delighted to have been appointed as the specialist carpentry contractors to such a prestigious project of international importance. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to showcase what we can do,” says project manager Jack Massey.
The cathedral was rebuilt from 1070 after a disastrous fire, on the site of St Augustine’s original church. There have been additions over the centuries, but some very old parts have survived. The nave, for example, is more than 600 years old. Some of the roof timbers are from trees originally felled in 1398, says Joel Hopkinson who leads the on-site team. “It’s a real privilege to work on the most important cathedral in the country,” he adds.
The first thing to be done last summer was to survey the structure. That was last done in 1860. “No-one had looked at it for 150 years,” says Joel. The lead was peeled back and problems assessed and identified, which included leaking gutters and some rot.
There is a large team working on the Canterbury Journey including a project director, a head of conservation, architects, and heritage consultants.
Dolmen completed a phase of work on the nave roof at the end of March – work which included replacing all the roof battens with hemlock, and some other structural timbers using dried oak and Douglas fir. Their own managed woodland in the Kent countryside is cut in their sawmill and joinery workshop at Woodchurch.
The team is now working above the quire to ensure the space is ready to receive new cathedral organ pipes in late summer as part of a separate cathedral project. Access hatches are being installed to make future maintenance easier.
Dolmen’s ethos is to deliver a high-quality, intelligent approach to the repair and conservation of historic buildings. They are also currently working on Westminster Hall, and previous projects include Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex. They won an English Heritage award in 2011 for Best Craftsmanship on Westenhanger Castle near Hythe. The Canterbury Cathedral contract is a real flagship project, though.
“This is the hardest I have ever worked,” admits Joel, who has worked for Dolmen for 15 years. “But it’s an honour and a privilege.”