If, at any point during the next few hundred years, you happen to be walking past the eighth window of the South Quire Aisle of the Western Quire of York Minster, look up; pick out the blind tracery on the right-hand side of the window, a couple of feet down from the window’s apex. If your eyesight is good enough, you’ll glimpse the rivulets of stone leaves that fringe many of these tall windows. But does this spot look… slightly clumsy? It’s as if, after centuries of craftsmanship, the masons here briefly allowed a moron a turn with the chisel.
Which they did. This, I will happily confirm, because I am that moron. I didn’t do very much – I was simply permitted by Dave Willett, one of the senior carvers here, to chip gently into the hollow he was making between some of the leaves. This was an early stage in the hollowing out of said hollow and, in any case, all these concavities finish up smooth as a silk pillow, so it’s unlikely, to be honest, that my handiwork will be visible.
But now I can boast that, in some minuscule, cack-handed way, I helped build York Minster – which I’d probably be feeling fairly smug about if I weren’t standing here in the adjoining stone yard next to Dave. His role here, as part of a team of 14 or so, is to maintain all the masonry that comprises this ancient and colossal cathedral, from ashlars (the simple cuboids that support the rest) to crockets (small ornaments such as the leaves) and grotesques.
“It’s an animated sculpture that doesn’t spout water,” Dave says, when I ask him, inevitably, what a grotesque is. (Those that do spout water? Gargoyles). It’s the grotesques that he most enjoys making, because each of them, whether frightful demon or forgotten cathedral pooh-bah, is unique and characterful: and make them he does because, very often, the masonry needs replacement rather than repair.
“This one’s beyond help,” he says, pointing to the grotesque whose replacement he’s been working on today. After centuries of weathering, it’s impossible to tell what the sculpture originally looked like. Formless and lichen-covered, it looks like a melted, sooty ice cream. But there are clues: the hint of a wing here, a webbed foot there. Next to it is Dave’s replacement: a winged beast bursting from the stone, with an alarmed look in its eyes and a beautifully carved goose in its mouth.
“If we can tell what it is, we copy it as best we can,” Dave explains. “If we can’t tell, we will try to create something in keeping with the rest of the building.” The winged beast has the shape, roughly, of comparably placed York Minster grotesques, and the flapping ears visible on many of its peers. The goose, Dave explains, he inferred from the mysterious webbed foot. “There are a lot of geese round here,” he says.
When, after weeks of work, the beast is whisked up the cathedral wall to replace the lump (which itself will be auctioned off in support of the Minster’s upkeep), it’ll be near-impossible to scrutinise in any detail. “It doesn’t frustrate me at all,” says Dave, “because we got to make it.”
It’s tempting to think that his craftsman antecedents might have placated themselves with the thought that their work would be visible to God, if nobody else. All those heaven-facing carvings, a pure tribute to the creator.
But some things never change. “There’s some mischief that goes on,” says Dave, coyly. Olden-day masons would amuse themselves by making their carvings into caricatures of clergymen whom they disliked. One of them, Dave says, carved a man who to this day is pointing his buttocks at the stone yard. (Now that’s what they call a little grotesque.)
On the way in, I had chuckled at a mocked-up paper spliff that had been placed in the outstretched stone hand of a full-sized archbishop: the masons’ penchant for tomfoolery remains unweathered.
And now for some serious business. I am helping Dave with that aforementioned crocket. He hands me the mallet first, and then the chisel. Then he corrects my grasp of the mallet, for I am somehow holding it upside down. The chisel’s thin, curved tip makes it the right one for this job, the gouging of a hollow between some leaves, but, inevitably, I can’t replicate Dave’s smooth handling of the tools.
So my first attempts at chipping into the stone (beige magnesium limestone, like the rest of the minster, hard-wearing but fine-grained enough to permit intricate stonework) are clumsy and halting. It would take some time, I realise, to master this skill; the apprentices here need about four years to become masons proper.
In human terms, of course, this is a fairly long time but, then again: what’s four years to York Minster?