The Cathedral’s Architect

Peterborough Cathedral, photo by Matthew Roberts
↑ Photo by Matthew Roberts

If we were to ask you who Peterborough Cathedral’s architect was, you might well assume it was someone who lived about 900 years ago. But what if we were to tell you that he’s alive and well, right now, and fully engaged in seeing the fabric of this amazing building and Precincts through the 21st century? The Moment talks to Stephen Oliver – who will be doing an online talk about his work this September – about the genius of medieval masons, keeping traditional skills alive and the proposed Victorian ‘improvement’ to the Cathedral tower that nearly changed everything...

Stephen Oliver

Stephen Oliver

Most people think of an architect as the person who is around before or during a major building project, but Peterborough Cathedral has been around for quite a while now… Why does it need one?
Every one of the Anglican cathedrals is obliged to have a Cathedral Architect and a Cathedral Archaeologist employed to care for them. So, I am there to report to Chapter on matters to do with the fabric of the building. And, every five years, I carry out a fabric condition survey of the building to report on failing roofs and rainwater pipes that need painting – all of the bits and pieces of the Cathedral that may be gradually slipping into decay, as these things do. So that’s the bare bones of the appointment, but obviously I am there to advise and assist on ongoing maintenance and repair projects, and any changes that may need to be carried out to the buildings in the whole Precinct – the buildings Chapter own around the Cathedral.

People naturally focus on the dominant structure of the Cathedral itself, but it’s quite a complex of buildings, isn’t it?
It is, yes. Peterborough Abbey was a large and wealthy foundation up until the dissolution of the monasteries, and what you’ve got is a series of buildings that are occupying the ruins of those monastic structures, some of them still standing to many storeys high. So there’s an amazing continuity, where some of the canons live in houses that would, historically, have been occupied by the monks.

Architectural principles don’t fundamentally change, but does this appointment require a particular expertise?
Yes. I’ve got a qualification beyond being a qualified architect; I’m an Architect Accredited in Building Conservation (AABC). So I have a skill set within the greater body of architecture which focuses on historic buildings, and I’ve spent all my career looking after old buildings – churches, National Trust houses, and progressing to the Cathedral.

Presumably this means you’re dealing with some quite unusual, perhaps forgotten, methods and materials?
There are many techniques and materials that one doesn’t come across every day in ordinary architectural practice – using all natural stone in the case of the Cathedral, for example. Peterborough Cathedral is made out of this amazing Barnack limestone, which was quarried just near Stamford. The Abbey owned the quarry and became wealthy by selling this amazingly high-quality stone to other building projects. Unfortunately, this stone ran out in the 16th century, and you can see the tide mark on King’s College Chapel in Cambridge where they reached a certain height, couldn’t go any further and had to find another stone! So, we don’t have Barnack any more to use for repairs on the Cathedral, because it’s long gone and the site is now a nature reserve. But we do have other stones that we can use, which are still very high-quality stones, like Clipsham. And we use lime mortars all the time, which again, is not ordinary practice in the world of architecture. Cement would be the go-to material for modern brickwork, but lime mortars are much more durable. A hundred years is the blink of an eye for a cathedral; we’ve got to be thinking about 500 years ahead.

Obviously, there are modern materials and methods that you could potentially use to improve things. Is it a delicate balance between keeping things safe and sound, and conservation?
It’s an understanding that has developed over time. In the 1960s, they did a lot of work using cement mortars, because that was the wonder material of the 20th century. And now we’re finding all the problems that using that kind of material has caused. What you want is for the mortar to decay rather than the stones, because you can replace the mortar, but even for a really hard stone like Barnack, cement can cause sacrificial decay. So, when we find cement mortars we consider removing them – but it can also cause damage removing cement mortars. It’s about understanding the technology. Everyone was using lime mortars up until the First World War, but we mostly lost our understanding of traditional materials with the decimation of skilled craftsmanship at that time, and we’re now trying to relearn it all; but it’s great to have buildings like the Cathedral that need those skills, and encourages people to still learn them.

Central lantern windows - Photo Credit Jarrolds

Photo credit: Jarrolds

When you survey the Cathedral you must get to see some parts that are not looked at very often. Do you make discoveries?
Yes, indeed! That’s where working with the Cathedral Archaeologist is really interesting. So, we might plan a programme of repair, put a scaffold up, and get to part of the Cathedral that no one’s seen for 100 years. We did this relatively recently in the crossing tower, where we had to put in some fire resistant glazing to the lantern windows. Obviously, fire is a big concern at Peterborough with its timber ceilings. We got quite excited about some of the stonework that hadn’t been seen for a while. The tower was dismantled and rebuilt in the 19th century so, comparatively speaking, it’s modern, but it’s a great work of conservative repair. They reused all the stones as far as they possibly could, and they put them back in the right order. They must have all been numbered and carefully recorded. Some of the stones had these interesting curved markings on, and we didn’t know whether this was something that was quite early or whether it was a Victorian introduction. It turned out to be Victorian, but it was an interesting insight, nonetheless. And then you find leaded light windows where craftsmen have either signed the glass by scratching their names into it, or added some rude graffiti which no one can see because it’s so high up! I won’t tell you the rudest example of that…

Sounds like we might not be able to print it anyway! You mentioned that the tower was dismantled in the 1880s… The Victorians were renowned – and sometimes notorious – for ‘improving’ things, and occasionally getting a bit creative…
I don’t think that’s the case with Peterborough. The Cathedral Architect at the time, John Loughborough Pearson, was a fantastic designer of new churches, as well as a repairer of churches like Westminster Abbey. He’s the designer of Truro Cathedral as well. But his work has had a bad press from more conservative-minded repairers in the 20th century, who said he shouldn’t have taken the tower down. Having said that, there is an engraving of the tower before it was taken down showing a huge crack in it. The crack was so large, apparently, that you could
see Ely Cathedral through it from inside the tower. So, it was a major structural problem. I think Pearson was probably right to have grasped the nettle and told Chapter that they needed to dismantle it. And it was a very brave thing to do. As cathedral architects, you’re trying to look after this wonderful building, so to be saying you need to demolish a bit of it is quite hard to take, and there was a big controversy at the time. The Archbishop of Canterbury had to rule on it. However, Pearson also made a proposal for a new spire to go on top of the rebuilt tower, doubling the height of it, which I think would have been a step too far…

Crossing Tower before 19th century rebuilding

Crossing Tower before 19th century rebuilding

How did they manage to do this at all? It’s a staggering feat…
It’s mind-boggling how they did it. If you’ve ever had a look around the upper levels of the Cathedral, you’ll see these templates hanging on the walls in the Tribune – big timber templates, 10’ by 8’ or so, which show the plan form of each of the piers. They would have popped the template on the top of the pier, on each course of stone, checking with plumblines as the next course went up. This is the way that the Victorians were able to rebuild it as accurately as they did, to make sure that the profiles were the same, without any creep. And in doing so, they also made discoveries. They found this enormous stone boulder in one of the piers, which is now outside the Cathedral. It is presumably a very ancient and venerated stone, potentially Saxon. Did the Saxons bring it in as a sign of how important this building was going to be? Could it even be pre-Saxon?

Would you take the same approach now – and did the Victorians fix the problem that caused the crack?
Nowadays, I think we would take a more careful approach to this rather than dismantling it, and use a more modern solution. At York Minster, for example, they did a lot of work in the ‘60s on similar sorts of problems where the foundations were irregular, because of the layers of history that they were built on. There’s a wonderful photograph of a concrete lorry with a hose attached to the back of it, and the hose reaches all the way up into the top of the tower, and they’re pumping grout into these medieval piers. The problem is, a huge amount of the stonework is made up of dressed stone on the outside, but the inside is all the off cuts and mortar, which they just chucked in as they went up. And over time, with little bits of settlement, it starts to filter its way down through fissures and builds up pressure. Sometimes, you can see where things are broader, because there’s pressure inside pushing them out. So, although it would still be a major concern, I think we would do it differently nowadays. And to answer your other question, there’s no evidence of any movement to the tower, so yes, they did a brilliant job. I imagine that the Victorian masons learned from the problems of the earlier masons, caused by using the offcuts in the cores of the piers. I dare say they built it up using dressed stone all the way, and they probably used a much harder mortar. But it’s absolutely solid, and as strong as can be.

You mentioned masons – is it hard to find the people now with the necessary skills to do this kind of work?
There are specialist contractors who look after historic buildings, and stonemasons who have the right kind of experience, but there are not very many of them. We’re lucky in Peterborough to have a firm, John Lucas, who, although they’re not associated with the Cathedral in any way, have won work historically, and often come in to be the maintenance contractors. But other projects have called in other builders. In the 19th century, the tower was rebuilt by John Thompson of Peterborough, who was basically the Victorian period’s best building contractor – he was based in Peterborough too, although he built work all over the country. But the question of skilled craftspeople is a problem because you’re always on the verge of those skills becoming extinct. You’ve got to keep providing the work to keep people employed, otherwise they will go and get another job. There is this issue about encouraging young people into the building industry generally, because it’s hard work standing out in the rain or freezing cold all day. Then there are the specifics of the heritage crafts skills, which is an ongoing worry. And that can be stonemasonry, it can be the Collyweston slate roofing that we have around Peterborough, it can be glazing, leaded lights, stained glass, all sorts of things. It could even be electrics. It can take a special kind of electrician to work in the Cathedral, otherwise things can go horribly wrong! There aren’t necessarily ‘heritage electricians’, but there are people that I like to work with. It just takes a particular perspective. It’s about being careful in your work, thinking, asking before you do something; it’s not like in the ordinary building trade where often the quicker you do it, the better it is. In this kind of world, the slower you do it, sometimes, is the better way, because it means that you’re thinking, the craftsman is thinking. That’s something which is difficult to explain at a careers fair to a 16-year- old. You’re not just a labourer, you’ve got a real set of skills to use, and there is a satisfaction in using those skills. It can be a good living. But it’s important to make sure that it’s an intelligent, careful operation that’s going on here.

You mentioned the modern intersecting with the ancient, and the Cathedral building itself has been used in a whole variety of new and different ways in recent years, playing host to everything from rock concerts to Tim Peake’s spacecraft. Does this create new challenges?
When we were bringing that spacecraft in, we were quite worried about the weight of it because we knew that there was a vault underneath one part of the north transept, but didn’t know exactly where. The Cathedral Archaeologist and I had to go underground in order to find out exactly where the vault was, and measure it, because we didn’t want the spacecraft to collapse it. There’s a paving slab over the entrance which is mortared in place, so it took quite a bit of work to get into it – that’s why it doesn’t ordinarily get inspected. It had last been opened up after the fire when water filled this vault, but it hadn’t been fully recorded. We had a Victorian drawing of it, and I did a drawing from my observations, and we laid them over each other and saw how they compared. We worked out that we were just able to slide the spacecraft through a gap between a column and where this vault was. And we’ve got the same issue with the T. rex that is coming – it’s got to come in through that same gap. So, we have learned more about the Cathedral as a result of its exhibitions.

Being an architect, looking at this building, you’re able to grasp the fundamentals of the structure and the stresses acting on it. But do you also still simply marvel at it?
Yes, of course! You pinch yourself, really, knowing that it’s something you are involved with. It’s extraordinary that they managed to do it. To think ahead, to think long term, is very difficult in the current environment, but they did it back in the Romanesque period.

The West Front, with its three spectacular arches, is unique among cathedrals. Was there an ‘architect’ back then when it was first built?
I guess there’s this question of how did they come up with the design of a cathedral like this? Did they start at one end and think ‘I don’t need to worry about the other end; that will be somebody else’s problem…’ Or did they have a master plan in mind right from the word go? Did someone draw a plan? I honestly don’t know the answer to that… There are some medieval drawings, but not from the Romanesque period. So, is one stonemason building one column, and another stonemason building another, and they shout across to each other to ask ‘How high are you going..?’ Did they make it up as they went along? I can’t believe that, because there is this underlying sacred geometry that cathedrals tend to have. People write PhDs on this kind of thing – but, ultimately, we just don’t know all the answers.


  • Thursday 15 September 2022 19:30 – 20:30
  • Explore the hidden spaces of the Cathedral through the lens of Cathedral Architect, Stephen Oliver, and learn what it takes
    to keep a 900-year-old building standing! Stephen will explore some of the current challenges facing the Cathedral building.
  • Tickets: £7 per viewing + booking fee.
  • To book, visit: www.peterborough-

Stephen is the founding principal of Oliver Architecture. He is appointed Cathedral Architect to Peterborough and Brecon Cathedrals and is an AABC conservation- accredited architect. Stephen is appointed architect to many churches, including Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon- Avon and Dore Abbey, as well as several National Trust properties. He is an architect member of Worcester Cathedral FAC and is an elected member of the Art Workers’ Guild. Stephen has published
his independent research on the Arts and Crafts Movement, for which he is a passionate advocate. His design for the reordering of the church of SS. Peter & Paul, Wolverhampton won the 2009 EASA President’s Award. His competition- winning design for the new Royal Anglian Regiment memorial was unveiled by HRH Duke of Gloucester in 2010. His design for the extension of Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon- Avon won the 2017 RICS West Midlands Building Conservation Award.

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