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“I became an apprentice stonemason, and here I am twelve years later!”
Harriet, our stonemason
Harriet Pace’s York Minster journey began at age 14, when she completed a work experience placement in the graphic design department. Fast forward 20 years and she is now an experienced stonemason in a team responsible for the upkeep and conservation of the Minster’s impressive stonework.
We find out what made Harriet choose a career in stonemasonry and what her favourite project has been so far.
How did you become a stonemason at York Minster?
“I actually have a long history with York Minster. My mum used to work in the finance department, and I got my first ever job at the age of 16 in the Minster shop. Always fond of making things, I studied product design at Sheffield Hallam University.
“After studying, I returned to the Minster shop part time, whilst managing freelance set design and prop work for the likes of York Theatre Royal and Opera North. I enjoyed it, but I wanted a career with more routine. Then came a Minster Stoneyard open day, which gave visitors the chance to meet and talk to some of the Minster stonemasons. I thought it looked interesting and was surprised that it wasn’t just seen as a ’man’s job’.
“Inspired by the open day, I applied for the next stonemasonry apprenticeship, which I unfortunately just missed out on, but knowing I was keen, the Minster gave me some work experience so I could get used to the chisels. Eight months later, I became an apprentice stonemason, and here I am twelve years later!”
It sounds like you have a lot of family history with the Minster, can you tell us more about that?
“Whilst doing work experience at the Minster, I worked alongside the head carver at the time, who actually knew and had worked with my grandad, who was an architect. My dad was an art teacher at York Technical Art College, and York Minster used to send stonemasons to him, including our current head carver Lee Godfrey, so that my dad could teach them model making.
“As an art teacher, my dad did everything from life drawing, welding, to making things out of wood and a lot of the skills he had, are ones I use today. My dad sadly passed when I was 11, so I actually followed in his footsteps without realising, but I certainly get my creativity from him.”
What do you get up to as a stonemason?
“Primarily we look after any stonework in terms of keeping it clean and repairing and replacing stones, but we also prepare the Minster building for other craftspeople, like the glaziers, to come in for repair work.
“In terms of stonework, we not only mason but carve as well. The masonry element includes working on the geometric shapes you see on the stones, whereas carving is more detailed work such as leaves or a grotesque such as a person or an animal. We’ll also repair damaged stones on the Minster building, and if extensive repairs are needed, we take the stones out and replace them.
“A big part of my role is also teaching our apprentice stonemasons. As I joined as an apprentice myself, I understand how important and valuable it is to mentor junior members of the team.”
“I’m very proud of what I achieved and the fact it’ll be at the Minster for hundreds of years!”
What is your favourite project that you have worked on?
“Easily the grotesque I carved in memory of my dad. Four 18th century grotesques were removed from York Minster as they’d weathered, and I created a new one as a replacement. When carving a grotesque, it needs to replicate the old version, but we can do our own interpretation, so I was able to bring my own sense of humour and backstory to the figure.
“As there wasn’t a lot left of the original, I did a lot of research in terms of clothing, hairstyles and occupations from the 18th century and decided as a tribute to my dad, to put his face onto my grotesque but on top of the body of a medieval doctor carrying a bottle of urine! I knew he would have found it quite funny. I carved him with long hair – despite him not having a lot – so that it mimics other styles of 18th century grotesques inside the Minster, but also paired this with little nods to the present, including a Nike tick on his medieval boot.
“Carving is one of my favourite parts of my job, and I even used my dad’s old chisels and small mallet to carve it. I’m very proud of what I achieved and the fact it’ll be at the Minster for hundreds of years.”
What projects have you got coming up?
“One of our major projects now is working on the South Quire, which includes repairing and replacing stone and glass in 15 window bays. The project began in 2016 and the stonemasonry team has been busy carving new grotesques, strengthening the buttresses that support the cathedral walls and restoring pinnacles, the spires that you see on top of York Minster’s towers.”
“Every job I do has a purpose, whether it’s making the Minster more stable or helping to retain its beauty.”
What appealed to you about working at the Minster?
“I’m a very hands-on person and enjoy seeing what I can achieve. Being a stonemason gives me this satisfaction, especially at York Minster. I get to be involved in the upkeep of a building that everyone loves and every job I do has a purpose, whether it’s making the Minster more stable or helping to retain its beauty.
“The fact that our work is done by hand and is a medieval craft that’s been passed down for generations also really appealed to me. Not a lot has changed between how stone was carved in medieval times and how we do it today. We use a lot of the same tools and work the stone in similar ways, and that’s very special.”
Find out more about other members of the team here.
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