Conservation of the Cathedral

Exeter Cathedral was founded in 1050, and the construction of a Cathedral on the present site began in 1114. The two towers and the lower part of the Nave walls of this Norman (Romanesque) building survive in the present Cathedral. A major rebuild, in Decorated Gothic style, was carried out under six bishops between c.1270 and c.1350.

Carefully conserving and restoring this ancient place requires a significant programme of ongoing major works, carried out where possible by a team of skilled stonemasons under the guidance of Clerk of Works, Chris Sampson. Traditional techniques and original materials are used wherever possible.

Some of our recent, current and future projects are detailed below.

Lead Roof Cresting

An extensive project to repair and reset lead crestings along the Cathedral roof was completed in 2014.

The leadwork, comprising over 400 single pieces, each in the shape of a fleur de lys, is a unique feature of the Cathedral’s roof. Over the centuries some of it had slipped and there was a significant risk of lead falling from the roof.

Work was carried out to remove and examine each piece, and cost £70,000. Part of the project was funded by the First World War Centenary Cathedral Repairs Fund.

Restoring the Statue of St Vladimir

Stonemasons working at Exeter Cathedral have finished restoring a damaged statue from one of the building’s war memorials, just in time for the commemorations of the centenary of the Armistice.

The statue of St Vladimir, one of a group depicting the patron saints of the western allies from the First World War, was dislodged from the north side of the medieval building during a late-night act of vandalism in July this year.

Originally installed in 1920, it has been painstakingly restored and cleaned, and was fixed back onto the ‘north porch’ of Exeter Cathedral earlier this week.

Restoration work included a complete reconstruction of the halo, and reattachment of the head, both of which were badly damaged. The Cathedral’s stonemasons also took the opportunity  to clean the stonework, before the statue was reattached on Thursday morning. The work was partly funded by donations from members of the public, and was inspected by the Dean of Exeter, the Very Revd Jonathan Greener, before scaffolding was removed.

Exeter Cathedral will become the focus of the city’s Remembrance Sunday commemorations next month, with a host of special events, lectures and acts of worship taking place.

Conservation of the West Front

The West Front Image Screen of Exeter Cathedral is one of the great architectural features of Medieval England. The addition of the image screen around 1340 marked the completion the re‑building of the cathedral in the Gothic style. Work continued on the screen with the additional top tier completed about 1470.

In 2016 a specialist survey (carried out every five years) examined the state of any remaining colouring (the original polychrome) as well as investigating the condition of the carved statues.
This survey informed a phased programme of works around the following areas:

  • Non-invasive cleaning of the polychrome areas
  • Repairs to the statues with lime mortar to prevent water from pooling around the stonework and, where possible, halt further decay. The cotton wool used around these repair sites prevents the mortar from drying out too quickly and failing.
  • Application of a sheltercoat to protect the image screen from the weather.

The work was carried out by the Cathedral’s own stonemasons, supported by The Prince of Wales who made a donation through The Prince of Wales’ Charitable Foundation.

Misericords

The back rows of the 19th century choir stalls contain 49 medieval tip-up seats known as ‘misericords’. They were carved in the mid 13th century and form one of the oldest surviving sets in England.

During Sir George Gilbert Scott’s reordering of the Cathedral in the 19th century, the ancient misericords were incorporated into the new choirstalls (the third such time that they have been rehoused). These new seat boards are flexing when sat upon as they are too thin, and this is forcing the misericords to either bend with the seat board or break the joint with the seat board. These seats are also in constant use, so every day the joints are being tested.

The misericords are detaching from the new seat boards and some are now splitting. As a number of misericords have already been reglued, this indicates that the misericord has detached either completely or to a dangerous extent. The same fate can be expected of a number of others.

A programme of specialist conservation is now required to save this significant part of the Cathedral from further damage.

South Quire Clerestory

The Cathedral stonemasons have commenced the repair and conservation of the stonework and glazing to three bays of the South Quire ‘Clerestory’.

If you are able to contribute towards the cost of this vital piece of work, then we would love to hear from you.

A new roof for the chapel of St Andrew and St Catherine

Scaffolding was erected around the chapel of St Andrew and St Catherine (on the North side of the Cathedral) in May 2015 as part of a project to reduce the moisture content in the chapel and its structure, which was hastening the deterioration of the fabric.

This work involved the removal of the 20th century roof (reinforced concrete, covered in asphalt) and the installation of a new, traditional, lead-covered timber truss roof in its place. Plenty of stonework was repaired replaced and re-pointed by the Cathedral’s stonemasons, and the drains that take the rain water away from the Cathedral on the north side were repaired and replaced, having also been in poor condition.

An ancient tiled floor (pictured) described as the ‘finest medieval tile pavement surviving in Devon and Cornwall’ was uncovered during the work. It is in a room above the chapel, which in the Middle Ages was used as the Exchequer and in the 20th century as the Song School for boy choristers. The decorative tiled floor has intricate patterns and was laid in the late 13th century.

Work on the internal masonry of the chapel and the 14th century stained glass window in the adjacent north quire clerestory was also carried out.

The project cost over £280,000 and was part-funded by the First World War Centenary Cathedral Repairs Fund.

Great East Window

Above the pair of arches behind the high altar soars a splendid display of stained glass, the Great East Window. Much of this glass, including the nineteen figures, is medieval.

Nine of the figures date from 1304. Three of them are located at the top of the window. They still have their original faces and, from the lettering on their scrolls, are identified as Abraham, Moses and Isaiah. The six outer figures of the bottom row are also from 1304, but the faces of these saints are not original.

By 1390, the stonework of the original window had become unsafe. A new window was constructed in the perpendicular style and the tracery of this window remains today. Original glass was included with new glass when the new window was glazed in 1391.

The window also contains many coats of arms of bishops, royalty and prominent families, some of which date from 1391.

The medieval glass from this window was among the precious items removed from the Cathedral and stored safely during World War II. Almost all of the glass which remained in the Cathedral was damaged beyond repair during the bombing of Exeter in 1942.

Gallery Images: Diane and Malcolm Walker

A Medieval Quarry Provides Materials

A Devon quarry that originally supplied stone to build Exeter Cathedral over 800 years ago re-opened in late 2016, thanks to a partnership between the site’s current operator and the Cathedral’s works department.

Materials were previously extracted from the Dunscombe Manor site in the 1980s but the recent acceleration of the major works programme had depleted the Cathedral’s stockpile of Salcombe stone which is used to replace original, decayed material on a like for like basis.  This type of work is essential for the Cathedral’s current phase of its restoration, due to last for at least 10 years.

In 2013 an approach was made to Craig Morgan, who manages the land as a caravan park and holiday cottage business on behalf of the National Trust, to begin the process of securing permissions to re-open the site. He said:

“I was very excited at the prospect of re-opening the quarry as being associated with the restoration of such an important and beautiful building is a great honour. I remember the last extractions ending in 1986 as if it were yesterday and always wondered if the next quarrying phase would be commenced in my lifetime. So, to be consulted and asked to assist in the project was a fabulous opportunity which I am more than happy to agree to.”

Under the terms of the latest agreement (which also includes a formal permission from Devon County Council) up to 5 cubic metres of stone can be removed each year to provide materials for upcoming restoration projects. Extraction is supervised by Chris Sampson, the Cathedral’s Clerk of Works, who said:

“We’re extremely grateful to Craig and to Devon County Council for working with us to re-open this historically significant site. Gaining a sustainable supply of Salcombe stone of this quality is important in providing our masons with the best materials as we continue to progress our current programme of major works which will ensure that the Cathedral is passed on to future generations in a cared-for condition.”

Salcombe stone was used to build the majority of the Cathedral, including the Norman towers and parts of West Front. It was extracted at several sites around the village of Salcombe Regis (near Sidmouth) from which it takes its name. Records show that it was transported by sea to Topsham and then into Exeter by barge.