Romancing the stone

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Peter Ayling has worked in plenty of high places - from church spires to the most prestigious of palaces. He tells Rachel Jones abut the lofty world of the stonemason

It’s not unusual for householders to want to know more about the work that’s being carried out on their homes.

Peter standing outside The Chapel of St Mary and St Nicholas at Lancing College

Peter standing outside The Chapel of St Mary and St Nicholas at Lancing College

But when the client in question is the Queen and the home is Buckingham Palace, the request for information takes on a whole new meaning.

Peter Ayling found himself demonstrating his craft as a stonemason to Her Majesty when he managed a job at the most famous royal residence.

‘The stone had eroded and we gave her a little display of the stonework and some of the templates and moulds. She was extremely interested, she wanted to understand everything that was happening,’ says Peter, a historic building restoration site manager.

Peter works for the Cathedral Works Organisation (CWO), which has carried out stonework on some of the UK’s most treasured buildings.

He was at the Palace for 18 months, managing the team working on the east elevation within the quadrangle.

The work involved liaising with architects and restoring the stonework of that part of the building, constructed in the 1840s.

‘I was really proud to be working there, I think we all were,’ says Peter, who is 57 and has been a stonemason since taking up an apprenticeship at the age of 15.

‘But I would become so engrossed in what I was doing that I’d almost forget about it, and then every now and then I’d think ‘wow I’m at Buckingham Palace.’ Then I’d realise the responsibility. But we had a great team of people.’

Of course the palace continued its business while the work was going on.

‘Occasionally we had to stop if there was a ceremony nearby, you couldn’t have drilling and things going on. And we were aware of who might be able to see us, of course we were. It was a very well-behaved building site,’ he laughs.

Peter, who lives in Portsmouth, received a commendation in the Project Craftsman of the Year category at the recent National Stone Craft Awards and Chichester-based CWO won the Restoration and Repair category for the Buckingham Palace project.

Extensive research was required to match the French Caen stone and the project demanded the most careful restoration and repair techniques. Parts of crumbling stone had to be replaced and the job also involved carving of ornate parts of the building.

But, as Peter says, the art of the stonemason is knowing when to stop.

The craft involves working stone into accurate shapes, as well as more intricate carving work. But the aim of restoration and conservation experts is to keep as much of the original building as possible.

‘You can get carried away and keep replacing and replacing, but the ideal is to keep as much of the existing stonework as you can. It might not look great but it’s still the original piece and the most important thing. If we can treat it, repairing fractures and doing small mortar repairs, we will,’ says Peter. ‘But also we have to be thorough because we want the work to last.’

The work – whether restoring small sections with matching stone, conserving original stonework or building something new – is incredibly precise and detailed. And while sometimes it’s carried out in workshops, stonemasons must practice their craft in the most inconvenient places.

While most of us are sat in warm offices, Peter can be found cramped between scaffolding and a vaulted ceiling or battling the elements while working on a church spire.

Not surprisingly, he has a head for heights and doesn’t mind spending his days 250 feet up, sometimes in windy weather.

‘The scaffolding around a spire is small but you get used to it. Health and safety is pretty strict these days. But we have to get a job done so we try not to let the weather stop us. On one occasion, though, we were blown off our feet and landed on our backsides. At that point we decided it was best to come down,’ laughs Peter.

But the biggest hazard for a stonemason is dust, although modern machinery has extractors and stonemasons wear masks and work outside as far as possible.

‘Health and safety has improved greatly since I started, like it has with everything else,’ says Peter.

‘The only thing is, when you have the gloves, the masks, the goggles, ear defenders and hats, it’s sometimes more difficult to do the work.’

And the jobs are tricky, especially when the stonemason is working around a beautiful stained-glass window or taking care not to damage neighbouring stone.

Peter has experienced it all during his long career. He has worked on local structures including Southsea Castle, Boathouse No 6 in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and All Saints Church in Ryde on the Isle of Wight.

And his extensive list of projects also includes Chichester Cathedral, Eton College Chapel, St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, the Ministry of Defence building at Whitehall, Mansion House in London, the House of Commons and the chapel at Lancing College.

But he doesn’t have to think about which job has been the most memorable.

‘Buckingham Palace, I’m finding hard to think of a job that’s going to beat it. You don’t really get much better than that,’ he says.

Cathedral Works Organisation

Chichester-based Cathedral Works Organisation is celebrating scooping three Natural Stone Craft Awards at a ceremony held by trade association the Worshipful Company of Masons.

The company won the restoration and repair, large-scale monument carving and small-scale monument carving categories, as well as receiving a commendation in the stone cladding category.

The awards recognised the CWO’s work on the east elevation within the Buckingham Palace quadrangle, London’s Monument, St Lawrence Jewry Memorial Fountain in the Capital and the Richard Green Modern Gallery in New Bond Street, London.

Founded in 1965 to look after Chichester Cathedral, CWO now carries out stone restoration, conservation and specialist cleaning on churches, stately homes, monuments and other historic structures in London and across the UK. The company’s stonemasons also work on new building projects.

CWO’s other winning projects


The free-standing column in the City of London that commemorates the Great Fire of 1666 was the winning project for the large scale monuments and carving category. Repairs to the Monument are carried out approximately every 100 years. This latest 18-month conservation project involved cleaning and repairing the stonework, re-gilding its famous golden urn and adding a new lightweight viewing cage and specialist stairwell lighting. All the restoration work was carried out by CWO as principal contractor under the direction of Julian Harrap architects and structural engineers Hockley & Dawson.

St Lawrence Jewry Memorial Fountain

CWO worked as the principal contractor on St Lawrence Jewry Memorial Fountain, the winning project for the small scale monuments and carving category. The fountain was originally erected in 1866 outside the Church of St Lawrence Jewry near Guildhall. The project involved restoring and re-locating the fountain to the east end of Carter Lane outside St Paul’s Cathedral, under the supervision of Freeland Rees Roberts architects.

Richard Green Modern Gallery

Richard Green Galleries commissioned Adam Architecture to design a new gallery to house its modern art collection. The stone facade was recognised as being central to success of the project. CWO was appointed as stonework contractor to manufacture and construct the facade on a very constricted site with very large units.