They used to call it the forest.
That maze of wooden framework which sat atop every self respecting gothic cathedral? The men of the guilds, the mediaeval stonemasons and carpenters and craftsmen – they called it the forest. It was a complex maze of wooden beams designed to support the lead roofing on cathedrals, and, alas, it was just as susceptible as its namesake to fire.
Thus fire has ravaged the roofs of many a beautiful towering cathedral.
However, it is not the reason a great roof-frame has been growing, organically, pole-by-pole, on the lawn outside one of our greatest cathedrals: Winchester.
But the elements are to blame. The lead on the roof at Winchester Cathedral was last replaced when Queen Victoria was still on the throne. And it is showing its age, this tall, impossibly graceful building which began life sitting on a raft of beech in this beautiful little city in the South of England, not far from the water meadows and Winchester Boys’ School.
It may have all the stature of Father Time, but the cathedral is leaky. Rain, that most British of elements, has insinuated itself into the structure of the Presbytery High Roof. It is creating havoc beneath, in a timber vault decorated roundabout the time Henry VIII was a young man with lavish heraldry, some linked to the young king.
The lead must be removed. It must be melted down – a simple matter – and re-moulded to create a safe, watertight protective cover for the priceless art beneath.
Roofs are tricky places at the best of times, cathedral roofs veritable shelves before a precipice. And so modern might and technology have combined to find a safe way to restore that lead.
They have constructed a frame to sit over the Presbytery High Roof like a hat. Shortly, it will be hoisted high above the cathedral and supports constructed and joined from below. Though the frame is already constructed and on the lawn nearby, it will still take a day to get it in place.
And three years to use it to restore the roof.
But what a huge relief that we will not lose such irreplaceable treasures, because some ingenious engineer designed and grew from seed a scaffold fit for a cathedral.