How did I come to be carving letters in stone ?

Once I was told that it was simply a case of nominative determinism. Sometimes when asked this question, I just reply “Because I can’t do anything else”, which is true but not the whole story. Of course it is a bit of a long story but one that I will find both instructing and enjoyable and to tell, for myself at very least.

There is something thrilling and elemental about writing in stone, on a deep psychological level; to carve runes, the names of places, of people, to preserve those  words for as long as we can imagine, adding to the ancient and continuous legacy of stonecarving, that continues to evolve and reflect the society and the culture that it serves. What leads a person to need or want something written in stone?

In 16 years of I feel extremely grateful to have met many interesting and eccentric characters. I learnt to cut stone under Mr. Jim Donaldson, Master Mason of  Seahouseson on his swansong, a church for Br. Harold SSF: a Hermitage Church dedicated to St.s Mary and Cuthberton top of Shepherd’s Law, Glanton, a piece of romanesque tuscany landed on a hill-top in wildest Northumberland; I cut and laid stone on new-built houses and coinverted farm buildings: I worked for Capps and Capps: first at Mr. Roger Capps’ medieval farm and later with his crew of Masons on early English mouldings for the Lady Chapel Window (I did one…); I’ve been inside quarries in Carrara with local fixer Giacomo Contipelli , but mainlyI’ve been hidden away in barns and sheds down lanes carving letters in slate, at first cornish, Delabole Slate and now Welsh slate fron the  Cwt-Y-Bugail Quarry (The Shepherd’s Hut Quarry) and Pennant Sandstone (it’s available and affordable, but is it carvable? -it looks, at first sight, extremely hard and extremely abraisive, and I only really saw a bit yesterday for the first time…)

At my old school of Blundell’s, in Tiverton, Devon, the leavers (at Old Blundell’s) would compete to see how high up on the face of the building they could carve their names. In the classrooms of the new out-of-town school of the C19th old oak desks with inkwells had been savagely carved by generations of penknife wielding boys. The stone of the new buildings is a ferociously hard sandstone, extremely abrasive and would not yield to even a series of penknife blades.

It would be true to say that, though at my lowest ebb I have been sometimes unable to take pleasure in the reading of any more than the shape of a letter (though always this at least), my interest is not really so much in letters as in The Word, in the theological sense, the inner meaning of the words, the sheer mystery of The Word made flesh. The shaping and forming and arranging and massing of letters is only really of interest insofar as a message is conveyed, the power of the ghostly absence of a defaced or oblitereated by weather and time shows the other side of this: letters serve words and are  not an aesthetic goal in andof themselves, at least that is the case for me.

I was brought-up in a rather radically conservative way within the Anglo-Catholic-High Church-Book of Common Prayer overlap,  almost as complicated as it sounds but, more importantly, we were surrounded by books and words and reading and writing and the preaching of the Gospel and its solemn chanting: “This is The Word of The Lord”.  my parents met as undergraduates at Oxford and were both of quite a scholarly and academic disposition, as one might hope from an Anglican clergyman and his wife. We were seven children but I was the most bookish of them all and passed every available moment with my head deep in a book…we had, most extraordinary and mysterious to a small boy, books of Eric Gills lettering and carving and engravings.

At school there was the, what sometimes seemed rough justice or, at anyrate, hard discipline of Latin and, though at first I loved the romance and difficulty of it, Greek  and spent time staying with my Aunt in Rome…but perhaps most important in the moulding of any predisposition to the carving of letters in stone is the deep impression made on me when, as little boys in Yorkshire, by our mother taking us out of church (before I became the Boat boy, carrying the incense for the Thurifer) during Fr. Senior’s sermon and using the letters and names and inscriptions on the gravestones to help us learn to read. I remember being in our sailorsuits, Mummmy with a shawl and the snowdrops out.  These letters were from another age and survived thriough centuries to speak, with our Mother’s interpretation, of Mortality, the mutability of our condition and the comfort of God’s love.

After  attending St. David’s University College, in Lampeter and Warwick and Palermo University (the last proved rather difficult to attend), with a degree in English and Italian Literature (2:1) I commenced to chase wild geese with increasingly drastic results and kept it up for a decade. Having realised that I couldn’t be a Merchant Banker (I wasn’t interested in money then), make a career or delivering humanitarian aid, teaching english as a second language or be a Teacher, or work in an office, or be  a gardener or lay tarmac or be a  shepherd or be a chef or be a priest, I realised that I had been off on a  series of rather irresponsible escapades which had three thrice brought me home almost dead and that it was time to sit tight and not leave my home town of Great Torrington (and if possible, not leave my parents house) until I could think of a way of making a  living that was  not in an office or an organisation but that which was challenging and could fascinate. Though I had been travelling aimlessly I had always been dterninedly searching for something worthwhile to do with my life, frequently blown off-course though I was. That aim soon changed to “something that I was able to do with my life”. , because I was obviously incapable of working in offices, factories, stud farms, schools, banks, farms, fims. In short I was unemployable by organisation, added to which all I really wanted to do by now was get stoned.

Then, one summer’s day when I was in my early thirties and, as  outlined above, becoming increasingly desperate and subject to despair (having recently lost my front teeth in a set-up on a  rough housing estate in Edinburgh) and a bit more lost than usual, I wandered into the Job Centre in Wells, en route for a “Field Day” being given by my then-friend and now-wife, Polly Verity’s Mama, Judith Verity in Wiltshire. In that Job Centre I was at last given a helpful direction when I saw, for the first time in ten years of frequenting what can be very grim places, an interesting job: “Trainee Stone Restorer-apply to Strachey and Strachey”. In my ignorance I asked myself “How does one know what a stone used to look like let alone  put it back that way?” But my friend Polly had talked to me of her father Mr. Simon Verity and so not only did I know what a letter-cutter was and and seen modern-day medieval style sculpture being done, in an article in Country Life, but also I was desperate and thought that I had the right name for it.

Later that day I found myself at Chippenham Station and Polly and Jason (her then-boyfriend and my then-friend) picked me up, next day was the party, a fateful day for me and, ultimately, for Polly too.

To be continued..


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