The restoration of St Peter's Church in Brighton
PUBLISHED: 11:35 13 February 2018 | UPDATED: 11:35 13 February 2018
The church of St Peter's - known locally as 'Brighton's cathedral' - is undergoing major restoration works. Simon Montebello meets stonemason Jon Sadler and discovers that the recent changes at the church are far from being purely cosmetic
With each tap a puff of dust is thrown in the air, then quickly snatched away by the wind. It’s breezy at this height.
“It’s a humble trade,” says Jon Sadler, foreman stonemason at DBR Ltd, a specialist restoration company. “I’m a small part of a bigger picture, just following tradition,” he continues as he carves the beautiful foliage running up the building.
Jon’s had this particular mallet and chisel for a couple of decades now. They are fairly battered tools, which tell of a hard life. He uses them with light, monotonous precision, like the ticking of a watch. In his artful hands they have helped shape buildings up and down the country, including Buckingham Palace and Salisbury Cathedral.
We’re more than 100 feet up, amid the bristling, newly restored pinnacles of St Peter’s Church, Brighton. The restoration is gathering speed, and there’s a fresh impetus to finish this top level of the scaffold. This level is being taken down next week.
The St Peter’s Heritage Restoration Project is a huge undertaking, and not expected to be completed before 2020. Known as ‘Brighton’s cathedral’ and built in the Gothic Revival style between 1824 and 1828, St Peter’s is a relatively young church, a mere 190 years old.
But the years have not been kind.
The south-westerly winds drive rain through the Bevendean valley, the salty atmosphere and past use of cement have all helped to age her prematurely, but by far the most destructive element has been the iron cramps.
Originally designed to tie the stone together like staples, they have rusted and expanded in the salt air, and are now prising her apart.
Roland Luke, contracted by St Peter’s to oversee the works, tells me: “The building is riddled with iron cramps. The precise restoration costs are unknown.”
The project is supported by The Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage, The National Churches Trust, Garfield Weston, All Churches Trust, and The Sussex Historical Churches Trust, as well as public donations.
There are plenty who are willing to help, but there is still a huge funding gap.
“It’s already cost more than £1m and we expect it to exceed £3m,” says Roland. “We’re trying to raise funds for the next phase now.”
Where possible all original stone is retained. Iron cramps are removed and replaced with stainless steel. Then comes the difficult decision: where to replace damaged stone, and where to repair it.
Simon Dyson, of Hanslip, Mercer, Dyson and Weedon Architects, has decided to replace damaged stone in the most critical areas, and where the building sheds water; otherwise a lime mortar repair is used to conserve the original stone.
“You don’t always get the opportunity to restore buildings the way they were built,” says Jon. “In a fast and fickle age, it’s good to do it properly. Solidity and longevity, not just a quick-term fix.”
There is a kind of time-honoured resolve to Jon: he’s seen it all before.
Every stone is replaced faithfully, like for like – more than 200 done with almost parental care. Each with its own shape, size and number, no two are identical.
Some are more than 150kg in weight and it is difficult to imagine how they were lifted this high without a modern hoist.
“They would have used a series of ropes and pulleys, like rigging on a ship,” Jon explains. “These masons of old – they did a fantastic job. Their quality of work is superb. It was a hard living centuries ago, I’ve got a lot of respect for what they achieved.”
Jon tells me how the prestigious Portland limestone would have been ferried along the coast to here. The masons would have carved the stone on-site, adding their individual banker marks as evidence for payment. He shows me one on a stone that has been removed: a simple cross with an additional line – the signature that marked him apart from others. Something tangible of the person is revealed. I am in touch with the man from nearly 200 years ago.
Back then, there would have been a lodge on-site to house the masons. Journeymen in a long tradition of travelling far and wide, they carried their tools on their backs and their skills in their hands.
The unique skill of ‘setting out’ buildings, using just a square, a compass, and a knowledge of mathematics, is believed to have given rise to the secret Masonic society.
Such magic continues today. Jon does much of his work using the same tools and techniques as those used a thousand years ago.
With her weight of history, it is sad to think that all was almost lost eight years ago, when the church faced closure. “We had a congregation of ten or 12,” says Toby Lancaster, who co-ordinates the day-to-day needs of the Safehaven Ministry, which operates from St Peter’s.
“In 2009 a young woman, a rough sleeper, overdosed and died on the steps.
“We reopened the church to hold a memorial service for her, and from that Safehaven was born.” He is visibly moved recalling the story.
There are now 20 churches throughout Brighton and Hove, and further afield in Sussex. They provide a hot meal, a safe bed, and breakfast for rough sleepers. “The congregation raised the initial money which started the Heritage Restoration Project. We used to use fallen bits of masonry as doorstops.” Toby jokes. He is excited about the project. “It makes a huge impact on the community. It shines a beacon that God is alive.”
He tells me that now the congregation has recovered, and is up to 1,000 over four services – and they no longer collect doorstops.
Soon the beacon might shine a little brighter with the recently approved Valley Gardens project – a public square and gardens, designed to complement St Peter’s, and rejuvenate the area.
Jon and I wind our way down the scaffold. He has been up since 5am and is still full of enthusiasm. He darts to a quoin stone that holds some special quality, and delights in telling me its significance.
Every stone is individual, with some characteristic that marks it apart from the hundreds of others. He cares for each, dressing them in hessian to protect the lime from frost damage.
There is a greater sense of responsibility to some, beyond the job description and the architects’ specification.
What is being achieved at St. Peter’s is healing and long-lasting; both above her roof, and below it.
Good to know
The Safehaven Ministry runs specific shelters throughout the week, aimed at men, women, mothers and babies, worship and musical events. Toby Lancaster is the co-ordinator for St Peter’s: firstname.lastname@example.org; 01273 698 182.