David Wilkins – Stonemason

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Life can be strange. One moment you are travelling confidently down the road towards your future career yet when you arrive, whilst it may be alright, there is a nagging feeling that something’s not quite as it should be. Some may ignore that feeling while others like listen to their inner self and make a major change. David Wilkins is one such person, giving up office life to pursue his dream of becoming a stonemason; he is now working on major projects including St.George’s Chapel, Windsor.

How long did you live in Hampshire?
‘I was brought up in Hampshire, and I have spent most of my adult life here. Education and work has taken me for short times around the country but I always return and wherever I am, I’m always a Hampshire man in my heart.

Do you have a favourite place here?
There is so much about this part of the country I love including Alresford walks along the watercress beds and the Candover Valley but ultimately if I had to choose, it would be the cricket ground at Tichborne Park, Alresford located in a field on the estate.

Having played there for 20 years I have many fond memories of long, hot summer days playing and watching games in the beautiful Hampshire countryside. There is no better way to spend a summer’s afternoon. I have gained lifelong friends through my time at the club and for me the community environment and its location typifies the quintessential essence of English village cricket. I can see why John Arlott enjoyed coming to the Park to watch matches.

What inspired you to become a stonemason?
I’ve always had an interest in history and the architecture of buildings. I am sure Winchester and the cathedral has always subconsciously had an influence. Previously, I was working in an office in Southampton and knew it wasn’t really ‘me’ or what I wanted to do. When my father unfortunately passed away it was trigger. I thought that life was too short and decided to find a new career, one where I could give something back. After consideration I decided on stonemasonry. After attending a 3 day carving course in Lincoln I knew working with stone was a path I wanted to follow. The next week I had handed in my notice and soon signed up to attend a stonemasonry course at Weymouth College.

Can you tell us about your training and apprenticeship?
Initially I was at college on a full time stonemasonry course in Weymouth when I found an advert on the National Trust website for an apprentice stonemason. Having watched a programme about one of Britain’s most famous Elizabethan buildings and the stonemasonry conducted there, I knew I wanted the job at Hardwick Hall.

A stonemason apprenticeship is three years predominately work-based in-between attending college four times a year in 3 week blocks. The qualification is a combination of on-site training working on real projects and industry-set stonemasonry projects and theory that need to be conducted at college. The The National Trust apprenticeship scheme was fantastic in setting me up for a career working with stone. An important aspect of the apprenticeship was for me to gain a qualification in Heritage Masonry. This focused understanding on how historic and vernacular pre-1919 buildings were built, the materials used and the correct approach required to undertake in the conservation of their stonework. I was very lucky as not only did I have the support of such a renowned organisation, but you can’t beat learning in the working environment alongside people who are experts in their field. No two pieces of work you get are the same, so the only way to approach a job is to actually do it.

Where are you based with the National Trust?
I worked for the National Trust for 3 years at the famous Elizabethan country house, Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. Although based at Hardwick Hall, the stonemasonry team supported the East Midlands region for the charity. During my time I carved replacement urns at Belton House in Lincolnshire through to repairing old barns and walls in the Peak District.

How do you feel about the buildings and items you
help to restore?
I am proud to be involved in working on all historic buildings, from famous structures to remote vernacular houses, they all have a story to tell so to be involved in their conservation I am helping to preserve our heritage and our history. It makes me really happy and is a privilege to be a part of that. When using traditional skills it is a nice feeling to know that I am following in the footsteps of generations of stonemasons before me and one day I hope to pass this on myself and keep the craft alive for years to come.

Do you like the feeling that your work could well be part of English architectural heritage for centuries to come?
Ultimately this is one of the major reasons why I decided to become a stonemason and carver. The grotesque at Windsor, for example, will easily outlast my lifetime and several generations after. It is a privilege and honour to have my work on the building and to know that people will be looking at it in many decades time is very exciting. It will be a nice legacy to leave and to maybe one day show my grandchildren and tell them “I made that”, would be very special.

Are there concerns regarding the art of stonemasonry dying out?
There have been. A major reason why the apprenticeship scheme was set up by the National Trust and other heritage bodies was that research in 2005 estimated that 6,500 additional crafts people are required within the built heritage sector to meet the anticipated increased demand for work. A skills shortage was identified with craftsmen retiring and a lack of people inheriting the trade.

Do you have a favoured stone with which to work?
Portland limestone specifically the Basebed. It has a nice cream colour and with its fine grain is relatively easy to work whilst having ability to hold fine detail. It was the first stone I was trained to work and has been used to embellish many of the country’s famous buildings. It is a nice feeling to know that you are working on stone that carvers hundreds of years before you would also have experienced.
Can you tell us about the project for St.George’s
Chapel Windsor?
Having changed career late I was hungry to develop my stone working skills further and made the difficult decision to leave the Trust and study Historic Architectural Stone carving at the C&G of London Art School. I was pleased to be accepted as it is the only place in the country that teaches you the traditional carving skills required to carve ornamental carving through to statuary.

Each year there is competition in place for up to 3 students at the school to design and carve a grotesque for St.George’s Chapel, Windsor. My design was based the story of John Schorne, a holy rector from Buckinghamshire whose remains reside in Windsor Chapel.

A very religious man he was said to have acted out many miraculous cures.
After his death in 1314, his shrine in North Martson became a hugely popular place of pilgrimage. His reputation grew to the extent that prayers were sought for ague, toothache, and even drowned people and dead cattle, some of which were said to have been revived by his help!

He became so popular that his remains were later moved to St George’s Chapel, Windsor to raise funds. His reputation for holiness was so great that he is believed to have cast the devil into a boot. These can be seen on medieval pilgrimage badges (souvenirs) where he is often pictured holding a boot with a devil in it – the origin of the child’s jack-in-the-box toy.

This was the basis for my design; an angry devil popping out and escaping from the boot in which he has been imprisoned. I wanted to reflect the spirit of medieval grotesques in making the carving a combination of the ludicrous and fearful.
The process involved the students creating clay models for assessment. My design was chosen and I was given the commission. I was incredibly happy, as when I first set out on my career my dream was to carve a grotesque for one of our famous cathedrals.

If you could carve anything what would it be and where?
That is a really hard question, as right now it is the grotesque and the figurative projects I am working on at the moment. Once completed I am sure it could evolve and change into something new. Long term, public sculpture to my design would be a wonderful dream to fulfil.

Name three things you can’t live without?
Cricket, My hands, Walking Boots

What is your mantra for life- the phrase/ thought that keeps you going when things are tough?
Recently, when developing creative ideas and reaching points of frustration I remind myself of the phrase “Dare to Fail”.

When drawing or modelling for a project to give yourself permission to explore different avenues through trial and error really opens you up and helps the creative process. The important part is being able to learn from your mistakes. To understand why something does not work helps you understand when it does.

As a perfectionist this is easier said than done and it can be hard to get into this mind-set, but what is the worst that can happen? It is so important to have questions answered before the carving begins as you cannot afford to make mistakes in the stonework.

What next for David Wilkins?
In the immediate future I have a memorial to carve for the family of a friend who I used to play cricket with. My next big carving project is to carve a 3ft Virgin and Child for a lovely medieval church as part of my final year project at the City and Guilds college. I am incredibly excited and honoured to do this.
I am at the modelling stage and expect this take up a considerable amount of time. I also intend to continue with stonemasonry and conservation work which I thoroughly enjoy as each project is varied and never the same.

GG

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