You don’t need any skills whatsoever to give this a go,” said master stonemason Andy Oldfield, our tutor for the day.
That was a relief. I’m a disaster with a paintbrush, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve been charmed by those blocks of cleanly cut pale stone you often see piled up outside cathedrals and stately homes. I’ve always fancied myself as a sort of Chaucerian mason, too; transforming those slabs into exquisitely decorated corbels and bosses.
The stonemason’s yard at the grand Elizabethan Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire has been running a one-day beginner stonemasonry course for six years, each a sell-out. Andy, until recently the head stonemason at Hardwick, had a hunch that others shared his passion for carving. “Stonemasonry’s one of those skills that everybody wishes they could do”, he says. “It has a romantic image attached to it.”
It was nine o’clock on a sunny June morning and 11 of us, as excited as children waking up to Christmas, gathered in the stonemasonry yard, quizzing each other, and delighted to be among kindred spirits. We sauntered over to the workshop where each of us was given a bench, a beautifully cut hunk of sandstone the size of a five-inch thick dinner mat, and a set of tools – mason’s hammer, chisels and brush. We didn’t look out of place in the 16th-century workshop where the first foundation stone was carved for Harwick Hall itself, sliced from the on-site quarry that’s still used to repair the Hall today.
“This ancient knowledge and traditional skills are the things we need to treasure,” said Andy before we started. “Not only for the old buildings who rely on it, but also they’re the fundamentals of modern building practices. We’re carrying on a tradition that stretches back 5,000 years.”
After a lesson on holding our chisels and how to stand in relation to the stone, we set about chipping out a three-inch straight gouge and a crescent, the two basic skills of stonemasonry. A hundred tap-tap-taps filled the air with music, as from a miniature gamelan orchestra. Now I know why Andy bans radios from his workshops.
An hour later and practice was over – it was time for us to come up with our project for the afternoon. We pored over a selection of books for inspiration, from carved letters to coats of arms, bosses to a fleur-de-lys.
I adapted a simple boss, but it dawned on me that a lot of stone needed to be chipped away before I could do any detail. Andy showed me some tricks, reassuring me that no, I hadn’t bitten off more than I could chew.
Gradually our visions took shape, each of us surprised we achieved so much in so little time. As my boss slowly rose from the stone, a feeling of elation swept through me. With encouragement from Andy, we finished just before four, and slumped into tea and cake, joints pulsing with the warm glow of exercise.
“It was everything I hoped it would be, and more,” said my fellow masonry student Mark Roe, his day’s work tucked under his arm. “I thought it would be really hard, but it’s not difficult to get started. And it was great to know we were continuing a craft that’s thousands of years old.”
And with that, we hauled our finished pieces into the boots of our cars, and drove off, dreaming of another life among the gargoyles.
HOW TO GET THERE
Exit at junction 29 of the M1 and follow the brown signs to Hardwick Hall. The stonemason’s yard is near the Hall itself.
FIND OUT MORE
Hall and garden: adult £11, child £5.50. Garden only: adult £5.55, child £2.80
Hardwick Hall runs several stonemasonry courses each year. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01246 858400 for more info or to book a course.
The Hardwick Inn
Doe Lea S44 5QJ
Traditional pub by the gates to the Hardwick Estate. Lovely open coal fire and traditional roast carvery.
Hardstoft S45 8AE
This four-star B&B is two miles from Hardwick Hall. Sweat it out in their gym or indulge yourself in their sauna and jacuzzi.