The Heavenly Scaffold

Pic from the Hampshire Chronicle

Pic from the Hampshire Chronicle

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.

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24 thoughts on “The Heavenly Scaffold

  1. It boggles the brain to realize how much money it must take to keep these old building habitable. With congregations dwindling, do they raise money from admission fees, venue rentals and the like? In the US, several of our old downtown churches have been converted to private residences. I’m glad they’ve come up with a top solution for Winchester (though I’m sure plenty of folks still attend it.)

  2. Forest is the perfect term for those timbers – never knew that. Steep roofs are tricky – and working with lead. WIll be interesting to see what/how it is done. Does the National Trust maintain any of these old cathedrals? So much history involved here.

      1. Thanks for the link. This is a worrisome situation. The cathedrals are not just religious places – so much history, architecture and art – humanity. Only by standing in them, can you really feel it. Tourists need to know repairs are critical and money is needed. Most assume there’s a fund somewhere. If all left a little donation it would help. Thanks for your post and response

  3. According to this BBC report,

    http://www.bbc.com/news/business-23467750

    the Church of England has some £5.2 Billion in investments. Surely this generates sufficient profits to pay for the upkeep of their cathedrals.

    To my way of thinking it seems wrong that church is looking for assistance, I trust that the British taxpayers are not asked to foot the bill as I think it is unconscionable for the C of E to expect members of other faiths and atheists to fork out when they are not exactly scrapping he bottom of the barrel when it comes to assets.

    Agreed that they are magnificient structures but if they belong to the church and they have the wherewithall to maintain them then it is their responsibilityif they want to keep them and enjoy any revenue that they might generate. If they expect the cost of upkeep to come out of the public purse then all income should be paid into the public purse.

    As you might imagine I’m an atheist 🙄 still I wouldn’t mind having to manage on the income derived from a £5.200,000,000.00 portfolio, I’d be quite happy to slip them a quid or two 😀

  4. Lead was always an unsound material – get some proper Welsh Slate 😉 I hope the restoration goes well – thanks for the heads-up Kate 🙂

      1. I think it was an engineering decision – Lead weighs significantly less than slate and the builders of cathedrals always struggled to stop their high walls from spreading outwards under the weight of the roof – hence things like flying butresses!

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