Meet the apprentices using ancient techniques set in stone

Wednesday 05 March 2014

  • Cadw apprentices

    Cadw apprentices

  • Cadw apprentices

    Cadw apprentices

Using techniques developed thousands of years ago, having Wales’s amazing heritage in your hands and cutting stone in an environment where power tools are strictly forbidden — it’s all in a day’s work for an apprentice with Cadw, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service.

Whether it’s constructing a bridge into an ancient castle, restoring 500-year-old Tudor doors or rebuilding farm walls, everything has to be done with extreme care by Cadwraeth Cymru, Cadw’s specialist conservation team which is responsible for 129 historic sites across Wales.

The team at Cadwraeth Cymru, which translates as Conservation Wales, are well known for their skill and pride of work, and are passing these qualities down to the next generation of craftspeople through apprenticeship schemes.

'I did my apprenticeship 20 years ago and a lot has changed since then,' said Gwynfor Olsen, a Conservation Work Supervisor based in north Wales.

'There’s more of a philosophy behind conservation these days. We are far more aware that what we are doing may be improved upon in the future and we use materials that will make it easier for that work to be done.

'It’s important that Cadw is leading the field in demonstrating best practice in heritage conservation, and it’s great that our apprentices are gaining experience during this time.'

In most cases, Cadwraeth Cymru’s work is carried out in a similar way to how it would have been done hundreds of years ago — even some of the tools are the same.

From repointing to plastering, from replacing masonry to detailed stone carving, everything has to be done with the utmost attention to detail. The need for training and experience is obvious when you consider stones can weigh half a tonne each, and masons are working to one-eighth of an inch.

Stonemasons mix their own lime mortars as modern cement damages the ancient buildings, and this even includes getting the consistency right so the colours match. As artificial colourings are not used, the Cadwraeth staff use crumbled stone and dust to get the mix just right.

John Griffiths, Minister for Culture and Sport, added: 'Cadw cares for some of the most significant sites in the world, and these monuments bring social and economic benefits to their local communities.  

'Without the work carried out by the Cadwraeth team some of the sites cared for by Cadw would not be accessible to the public today. Passing these traditional skills onto our apprentices is vital to ensure the sites are safeguarded for future generations to explore and enjoy.

'Without encouraging and offering young people opportunities to learn these specialist, traditional skills there is a danger that they will be lost, therefore apprentices schemes and training opportunities are essential for future conservation.

'The team are enormously proud of their work and rightly so, as they are quietly restoring magnificent, complex buildings — from vast monuments to delicate ancient ruins, which are all part of Wales’s incredible heritage.'

Adam Jenkins, aged 27, from Aberdare, spends part of his week studying stonemasonry in Bath and the rest working on site — he considers Caerphilly Castle to be his place of work.

'My father used to work for Cadw and I used to travel around the sites with him when I was younger. This inspired me to follow the same career path,' he said.

'I started my career as a monumental mason working on headstones, but I’ve always been interested in heritage and this is completely different.

'We use traditional methods, natural ingredients and everything is cut by hand. We don’t use power tools at all; in fact a lot of tools that we use are very similar to those that would have been used when the castles were first built.

'It’s amazing to think that some of the stones we cut will still be there in hundreds of years from now.

'When you see these buildings every day it’s very easy to take them for granted but after a while you start to realise how unique they are, and I really appreciate that. Not a lot of people can say they’ve worked on buildings that are so important to the country’s history.'

Jake Baughan is 18, lives just outside Denbigh and is studying stonemasonry. He is currently working at Flint Castle, and has joined Cadw through a bursary scheme which is managed through a partnership between Cadw, English Heritage, CITB, National Trust and National Heritage Training Group, and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

'It’s great being able to work on a building that’s going to be around longer than you are!' he said.

'Flint Castle is such an incredible building and place to be learning my trade. It’s work that I will be able to come back and enjoy years from now.'

Darren Mettters, aged 18 from Llanbradach, is half way through a three-year carpentry apprenticeship. He spends his week between college in Ystrad Mynach and Cadw’s workshop in Crumlin.

'I’ve been involved in projects from building a bridge into White Castle to restoring 500-year-old doors at Chepstow Castle — every day is different here,' he said.

'I’m very lucky to be completing my apprenticeship with such a skilled team of craftspeople. It’s a really interesting job because not only do we get to use traditional methods, we’re also putting our skills to good use by helping to protect Wales’s heritage.'