A stonemason who has clocked up 40 years making sure Durham Cathedral looks its best says he still can’t fathom how it was built through manpower alone.
Talented Iain Wilmshurst has spent decades restoring intricate spiral staircases and windows since he started work in 1974 as a 16-year-old apprentice.
However, it is the hundreds of men who built the 900-year-old structure in 1093AD that he is humbly in awe of, despite his many decades of hard graft.
“I still just don’t know how they did it,” said Iain, whose mother and father and three daughters have also all worked at the cathedral.
“How they managed to do it years ago when you think of the stuff we’ve got now is quite something. It was just hundreds of people and sheer manpower.”
Despite 40 years of dedicated restoration work, Iain said he has no plans to hang up his chisel just yet and hopes to put in another 10 years before retirement.
He will be instrumental in the planned £3.9m Open Treasure project which starts in June, and he said it will bring him great joy to open up parts of the cathedral to visitors for the first time.
“This is about changing the monks’ dormitory and the kitchen into an exhibition area and opening up parts of the cathedral that have never been seen by the public before.
“For me, though, I still really like the inside of the building because that was the way it was always intended to be. Outside has been decorated over the years but inside is the most impressive bit,” said the 56-year-old, who lives at Langley Moor in County Durham.
Iain, who is now the cathedral’s works yard manager, got his first job fresh out of the former Whinney Hill Secondary School in Durham City as an apprentice stonemason.
At the time, his father John worked in the cathedral’s finance office, while his mother Frances worked as a laboratory assistant at the Chorister School. Those close links have never wavered either, and his wife Jackie currently works in the restaurant and his daughters Fiona, 28, Rebecca, 24, and Holly, 21, have also held part time summer jobs there.
He said: “I didn’t have any plans to go to university or college and my parents both worked up at the cathedral and heard about the apprenticeship so I decided to give it a go.”
Although he had no formal experience in stonemasonry, he started a four year apprenticeship and his first job was working on a spiral staircase for the deanery. Stonemasonry was the main focus, he also learned skills in bricklaying, plastering and drainage work.
Work on Josephs window on the cathedral’s north-side has also been his most challenging task so far.
“That was the most challenging job 12 years ago. The window is not geometrically correct because it was cut by hand 200 years ago so nothing really works the way it should and I had to make the stones fit.”
Reflecting on his 40 year career, he added: “My mum would be so proud because she really worried what I would do when I left school and I’m quite proud of how far I’ve come too; it’s a great honour to work at such a world-renowned building.”