The Stonemason by Andrew Ziminski, review: an infectious quest for English history through its architecture

A Window at North Moreton by John Piper (1982), detail
A Window at North Moreton by John Piper (1982), detail Credit: Bridgeman Images

William Morris maintained that “if a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving tapestry, he had better shut up. He’ll never do any good at all…” Yet Morris’s own poetic output, while prodigious (he is claimed to have been able to produce 700 lines a day), is really very bad indeed. It may have been praised by his willow-bough-struck contemporaries, but The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs, for instance, is every bit as embarrassing as it sounds. Nonetheless, Morris’s notion that poetry should come easily from a mind engaged in active toil has some truth to it. There is, at least, a great deal of poetry to be found (albeit in mercifully un-epic form) in The Stonemason, a new book by Andrew Ziminski, self-described journeyman mason, William Morris Craft Fellow, and ministering angel to the crumbling monuments of western England.

Ziminski records Thomas Browne’s observation that time “antiquates antiquities and hath an art to make dust of all things” – and, travelling through the West Country, the gap between ourselves and the world and workmen that produced its most famous monuments can feel unbridgeable. The 13th-century spire of Salisbury Cathedral seems distant enough, but compare it to the West Kennet Long Barrow, which has always been a strong contender for the title of England’s most important but unassuming monument. It was already an object of suspicious, even sinister, antiquity, and the better part of 4,000 years old, when the Romans came to Britain. 

Ziminski comforts us with the knowledge that our sense of detachment from the past is not a novel phenomenon. Working on Roman Bath, he is reminded of the Old English poem “The Ruin”, whose author, in the eighth or ninth century, marvelled at the “wondrous” remnants of a lost civilisation, its corrupted and incomprehensible shell appearing to him like the “work of giants”.

For Ziminski, the work of a stonemason offers a visceral and immediate means of bridging this gap. At Salisbury, he reminds us, the tower contains a 14th-century windlass that was in use as a means to haul materials up into the warrenlike spaces inside the spire until alarmingly recently. At Wells Cathedral, some time in the Eighties, he recalls being led by his tutor into the “Tracing House”, where the church’s original masons had sketched out plans on the floor: “faint scratches in the plaster showed a palimpsest of ogees, radiuses and arcs”. Throughout his career Ziminski has picked through the lunches of his predecessors – oyster shells packed into the mortar of churches across the country as the “at hand” setting material – and, at the heavenly St Lawrence’s Bradford-on-Avon, pulled out the clay they dug from the nearby river bank and pounded it “back to life for reuse and another thousand years of service”.

This historical connection is not only felt with the anonymous masons of the medieval world (or the neolithic for that matter – Ziminski recounts some admirably dangerous-sounding experiments with “diamond hard” sarsen stones and prehistoric tools to erect a backyard monolith). Some of the most moving moments in the book are to be found in a broken tomb and a benediction from the very hand of Thomas Gainsborough, or in the affectionate washing of the stony hair of an unknown Roman matron with a “gentle warm poultice”. A moment of inattention from a representative of English Heritage means the spring of Sulis-Minerva at Bath now contains another folded lead tablet invoking a particularly severe curse on whichever young miscreant was foolish enough to steal Ziminski’s “best Nilfix Axe”.

Stonemasons work on Liverpool Cathedral in 1955 Credit: Alex Dellow

Most of us cannot hope for so close a connection to the past as that enjoyed by Ziminski, whose journeys around the West Country (by pickup truck or canoe) are relayed in The Stonemason as a stream of memories: here a dissenter’s chapel whose walls he has shored up, here over the Avon or Nadder a bridge whose ancient vaults or cutwaters he has hauled bodily from the riverbed, here the long barrow where, lying on his back, he pounded the dark stones back into place with his feet. But with charm and precision, he shares his knowledge of these buildings – an intimacy of which most architectural historians can only dream – and his insight into the world that ancient monuments draw around them today. 

This might be the annual standoff between the differing archdruids at Stonehenge, gowned and straw boater-ed Rollo Maughfling and tin-crowned, sword-wielding Arthur Pendragon (ever ready to defend the henge from the maltreatment of “English Heretics”, as the sight’s modern custodians are known in Druidic circles); or, more personally, the torment of spending days strapped to the tower of St James’ Trowbridge, where “the aroma of the Ushers brewery merged with the aromatic delights of the adjacent Bowyers sausage and pork pie factory…”

In another of Morris’s injunctions to his disciples, he declared that, if they could not learn to love good art, they should at least learn to loathe a sham. Zimiski’s fanatical quest for authenticity in his work, preserving where possible “the golden stain of time”, is infectious. A particular pleasure is to be found in the pointing out of poor work, most obvious in the mortar smeared over the facade of the Royal Crescent Hotel, Bath, “as though a chimpanzee had been let loose with the lipstick on Audrey Hepburn’s face”.

And yet, running his hand across the south-west face of stone 52 at Stonehenge, Ziminski reminds us that there is more to this work than wistful elegy and criticism. There, carved into the well-travelled bluestone face is a slashed “I”, possibly an abbreviation for “Christos”, followed by the word WREN. It was Sir Christopher Wren, whose tie beams continue to keep the spire of Salisbury Cathedral from collapse, who, whether by design, accident or the same intuitive understanding of attractive space, built the dome of St Paul’s with a radius almost identical to that of the henge itself. In attempting to reconnect us to this continuous narrative of English history and architecture, Ziminski is undertaking something more profound than the charm of this delightful book first suggests. Delicate as the threads that tie us to the past can seem, thanks to work like Ziminski’s, both as mason and as author, we can hope they will remain unbroken.

The Stonemason is published by John Murray at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0844 8711514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop