The next chapter of Cathedral renovation

Words by:
Caroline Bingham
Featured in:
August 2023

The Cathedral’s Chapter House is half shrouded in scaffolding and Caroline Bingham was invited to see the vitally important work which is taking place behind the netting.

Although I have visited Lincoln Cathedral many times, a guided tour is always the chance to learn even more about this magnificent medieval building. To begin, I was meeting Stuart Welch, head of the Cathedral guides – all volunteers. Stuart heads a team of approximately 40, who share their love and knowledge of the Cathedral with visitors on a daily basis. How lucky I was to have an exclusive tour in Stuart’s company.

Star vault
The Chapter House, which dates from 1220, is situated next to the east front of the building. Its distinctive decagonal shape is supported externally by flying buttresses, and internally the dome is supported by a large central pillar, from which run 20 radiating ribs. In each of the bays are two lancet windows, featuring Victorian stained glass, which on sunny days throw glittering colour across the stonework. The building was designed as the meeting place for the members of the Cathedral Chapter when the Diocese of Lincoln extended from the Thames to the Humber. Once a year, on St Hugh’s Day on 17th November, the College of Canons still meets in the Chapter House but it was also the venue for one of the earliest meetings of Parliament called by Edward I in January 1301. The early 14th century saw a further three Parliaments held here by Edward II and Edward III. After their suppression was decreed by the Pope, the trial of some of the Knights Templar was held in the Chapter House in 1310. An occasion which today is marked each year by Lincolnshire Day on 1st October is the Lincolnshire Rising. The local leaders, who were resisting the Reformation, gathered in the Chapter House to hear Henry VIII’s response to their demands. The Rising petered out but Henry’s retribution was swift with many local dignitaries beheaded, including Lord Hussey, the King’s Lieutenant, Thomas Moigne, the City Recorder and the abbots of Kirkstead and Barlings.

Stuart showed me a wooden panel in the floor facing the Bishop’s Oak Throne, which covers a deep but slender round hole, believed to be where the monarch’s standard was positioned. This would be raised in his presence in the Chapter House. The base of the Oak Throne dates from the 14th century while the canopy is a Victorian restoration. As we walked towards the door, which would lead to the roof stairs, we faced the large circular window above the doorway depicting meetings of the early church. Beneath my feet were nine grave slabs which a 1955 exhumation revealed are all clerical graves. Three contain headless bodies and one of these dating from 1200 contains a body from a later second burial from around the time of the Reformation. Stuart explained that the mystery is whether this later reburial could be the body of St Hugh. Was this a ploy to hide the real saint from the impacts of the Reformation? What an intriguing thought.

Heart of oak
We climbed the internal stairs to arrive inside the roof of the Chapter House, where a single vertical beam atop the central pillar supports a maze of oak beams and timbers which support the conical roof. Stuart explained that the design of the roof has changed through the centuries, which may account for the abundance of supporting timbers. I could see why the outside buttresses were needed to carry the weight of the stone dome, also clad with lime mortar in the roof, whose great weight pushes to the outer walls.
There is as much beauty to admire in the rafters and architecture from this privileged roof view as there is from the inside of the Chapter House itself.

A bird’s eye view
Stuart guided me back down the stairs to the outside of the Chapter House where in the Portakabin office I was introduced to Mike Graves, the acting clerk of works. Mike sized a hard hat for me and we started to climb the scaffolding staircase. We passed newly carved pinnacle blocks which were waiting to be hoisted into place. Mike explained that the Cathedral quarry is depleted of the quality of stone required for these projects so although these ashlars come from the same seam, they are imported from France.

The renovation of the exterior of the Chapter House is planned in two phases. I was seeing the first south side phase which began in spring 2021 and will end in September. The scaffolding and netting will then be dismantled and erected on the north side of the building for a similar process to begin again. In the last two years the stone work has been steam cleaned and masonry detail abrasive cleaned to remove the centuries build-up of discolouration and lichens. Mortar joints have been repointed and windows cleaned. Lead pipework has been repaired. Some of the roof pinnacles had been removed in recent years to mitigate the danger of parts falling but now the new pinnacles will be hoisted and fixed into place. As we climbed higher and higher, the view across the east lawn and Pottergate became more visible and the huge expanse of the lead roof towered above the walkway. There was an intriguing view of the east front of the Cathedral too. This closer perspective also made evident why this face will be the next renovation project which the Cathedral will undertake after the completion of the Chapter House. The damage caused by weathering and pollution was clear to see here too.

Mike outlined that while air pollution may be less than in the last two centuries, climate change is having a severe effect on the stone, with far greater extremes of rapid heating and cooling effects leading to greater risk of fracturing of the stonework. This is one reason to use the most durable stone they can source. The work being undertaken by the Works Department, all the stonemasons and technicians, is of a quality specified to be a lasting legacy for the building and forthcoming generations. The aim is always to do the right thing by the building and the hope is that this work will last for hundreds of years but the cost of the Chapter House renovation alone is £1.65 million.

It was a glorious day so I was happy to stay on the scaffolding for a time to appreciate the impressive view of the roof, take pictures and admire the surrounding areas of the city. I slowly descended again, recognising where detailed corbels and carvings have been replaced.

The final part of my visit was with Matthew Tarling, the Cathedral’s fundraising manager. It is his responsibility to secure the monies for the Fabric Fund, approximately £5.5 million a year, to enable the programme of renovation to continue. Lincoln Cathedral is vast and is the only Church of England Cathedral which is entirely listed on the Historic England Heritage at Risk Register.

Although Lincoln Cathedral’s Corporate Body is an ecclesiastically exempt charity, support is sought through applications to charitable foundations, donations, trusts and legacies as well as through innovative local fundraising.

There is still time to immortalise your own signature on a stone which will be built into the fabric of the building. Adopt a Stone costs £25 and you use a Sharpie to write your name on a square on the ashlar. A recent innovation is that donors will be able to arrange to go onto the scaffolding to see the stone put in place and in two or so years the final pinnacle to be replaced on the Chapter House renovation will include a time capsule with the names of all the donors to the project. This will be a 21st century legacy for the stonemasons of the future, who may revisit the work in the next few hundred years.

A new programme of Cathedral Tours has also been launched recently. These include walking tours, graffiti tours and guided access to the roof. Events are an important source of income and since the completion of the Cathedral Connected scheme there is a wide choice of venues from the Nave itself, to meeting rooms, the Education Centre and exhibition rooms. Many of these events rely on the skills Cathedral volunteers bring to the building. There are more than 200 volunteers with a range of over 20 different skills. You can find out more about becoming a volunteer by visiting the Cathedral website.

Finally, Matthew acknowledged the love local Lincolnshire communities have for the Cathedral. This manifests itself not just in the volunteers and frequency of visitors but also the legacies left to the Cathedral. Legacies are usually for the benefit of the Fabric Fund or Cathedral music but after the collapse of part of the Wren Library ceiling a new fundraising challenge to find £260,000 for these repairs has now been given to Matthew. Repairs to the Cathedral really are a constant undertaking for everyone concerned.

You can find out how you can donate towards the work of the Fabric Fund at:

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