Canterbury Cathedral restoration project

Restoration work on a building the size of Canterbury Cathedral, which over the centuries has been destroyed by fire, demolished and then rebuilt under the instruction of several architects, is never easy and rarely straight forward.

The current programme of work, known as The Canterbury Journey, is arguably one of the biggest restoration project ever undertaken in such a relatively short period during the Cathedral’s 1400 year history. It is one that has attracted funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund (£13.8 million) and from generous donors in the UK and all over the world (£10.9 million) including from the Friends of Canterbury Cathedral (£250,000).

Although the very visual aspect of The Canterbury Journey is the work on the Cathedral roof with its seeming mathematical maze of scaffolding, the brief of The Journey team extends far beyond lead, timber and stone. When The Journey reaches its finish in 2021, a new Visitor Centre with Community Studio will have been built; the main Cathedral entrance, the Christ Church Gate, will have been restored; new exhibition spaces created to display some of the Cathedral’s rich heritage and landscaping carried out at the south and west ends of the Cathedral Precincts. In addition, running alongside the current work is a programme of community engagement with evidence already gained that new audiences are being reached with the story of the Cathedral and its role in history and the world today.

Restoration work on the building began in January 2017 and the first milestone – the unveiling of a new roof over the 66-metre long Nave was reached in May 2018. Repairing the roof had become an urgent problem. At times of high rainfall, water could be seen streaming down the inside walls of the iconic Bell Harry tower and there was evidence that the ingress of water was causing serious damage to the building’s stonework.

Before work started on a new roof, a safety deck was installed under the 15th century Nave vaulting primarily to catch any debris and dust falling from the underside as the roof was being worked on externally. Measuring 53 metres long, the 33 tonne platform is the size of three tennis courts and sits 16 metres above the Nave floor, supported by aluminium beams and 1.9km of scaffold tubes

A feat of engineering in itself, the deck also serves the dual purpose as a platform for other work to be carried out on the hard-to-reach areas just below the vaulting level. Cathedral stained glass conservators have removed windows for essential work to be carried out on the stained glass and the opportunity has been seized to delicately clean the vaulting itself and the roof bosses – previously an area only reached with mobile platforms.

It had been feared that visitors would be disappointed at not being able to see some of the vaulting but many have been fascinated by the area created by the safety deck and special tours up to the deck to see the marvellous views afforded from the platform have been arranged for visitors and those who have given money to make the work possible.

Once an external tent-like structure was in place to protect the roof and workforce from the worst of the elements, the task of stripping off the existing lead began. Sixty tonnes were removed, rolled up and sent up for smelting at a plant in Leicestershire and the recycled lead later returned to the Cathedral.

Battens on the roof were then removed which allowed specialists to get a closer look at the condition of the timber used over the centuries to construct and repair the roof. It was known that the roof had been rebuilt during the 19th century but there was to be a surprising and exciting discovery about the age of some of the timber.

In consultation with the Canterbury Archaeological Trust, it was agreed to commission a dendrochronologist to confirm a suspicion that some of the timbers may be medieval in origin. Samples were taken from the likely timbers and dendrochronological dating suggested felling had taken place in the 1370s or 80s. It is possible that the timber was stockpiled, perhaps following an earthquake in 1382, and used later in the 14th century.

The timber conservation and repair was completed in March this year, allowing the new lead roof sheets to be installed.  Alongside the construction, the Cathedral’s own team of stonemasons worked to repair and, in some cases, replace damaged stone. They also coated some of the conserved stone with a protective layer to ensure its resistance to the worst of the weathers that south-east England has to offer.

In addition eight new lion head gargoyles have been carved in Caen stone as replacements for those which have been worn away by the rain water which they direct away from the building. The new gargoyles were designed in-house and are based on the faces of lions depicted in the bosses in the Nave vaulting.

Project Director Mark Hosea explained: “It is an amazing experience to work on a building which is steeped in such a wealth of heritage. The Cathedral’s own workforce has fully embraced the requirements of the restoration work as have the contractors working with us – many of which are Kent-based – who have been delighted to be involved in the restoration of such an iconic place.

“The work itself is challenging enough but you have to remember that it is not being carried out on an empty shell. It is being completed whilst enabling the Cathedral’s pattern of daily worship to be maintained and allowing for special events such as graduation ceremonies for our local universities which are attended by thousands of students and their families. In addition hundreds and thousands of visitors and pilgrims make their way to the Cathedral every year and all involved in this project are very keen that their visit should fill them with the same awe experienced by the many generations before them.”