12-days of stone at Barnard Castle

The grounds of the spectacular Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, Teesdale, were the setting for an ambitious 12 days of stone presented by the Heritage Lottery Fund-backed VAR (Vernacular Architecture Revival) and its Stone Academy last month (October).

From the 19th to the 31st, Bowes Museum saw established and developing sculptors practice their skills, watched by more than 6,000 visitors, including pupils from local schools, who also tried their hands at carving the stone (all donated by local stone quarry company Dunhouse).

Three masons from Skills UK were there for part of the event, demonstrating the skills that will take one of them to Germany next year for the WorldSkills contest. There was a geological walk and a symposium called ‘Facets of Stone’ using the Bowes Museum conference facilities. Those facilities usually cost £1,000 a day but were made available free for the Stone Festival.

Alongside internationally respected artists Richard Perry and Nick Hornby, who were sculptors in residence for the Festival, there was also a guest appearance by Louise Plant from the Royal Society of British Sculptors and Henry Moore prodigy John Atkin. Both took up their mallets and chisels to make their own contribution to the event.

Emerging sculptor Russ Coleman, a stonemason developing his artistic work, was there for the whole event and there were visits from local carver Brian Brown and French mason Jerome Budor from Les Compagnons de Devoir. Bobby Miller from Leeds University also turned up with musician Tommy Leatherbarrow to play a xylophone the university has made using stones as the keys.

The overwhelming view was that the Stone Festival was a resounding success – so good that VAR intend to make it an annual event, although next year the plan is to bring it forward to September after this year’s event ended under a layer of snow in spite of having started with everyone in T-shirts enjoying the warm sunshine.

The Festival helped VAR deliver what it had promised in order to obtain £55,000 over three years from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), £18,000 of which it spent on the Festival along with £9,000 contributed by the Arts Council.

Part of VAR’s commitment to obtain the HLF backing was to provide 15 days of community events and 15 days of education. The Stone Festival gave it its first five days of each.

VAR is also committed to training two apprentices and researching & developing the Stone Academy, which it is trying to establish in conjunction with the French training organisation of Les Compagnons de Devoir in buildings on the farm of one of the founders of VAR.

VAR was established by stonemason Peter Coverdale, Martin Clark, Peter Kempsey and Sonia Kempsey as a result of them all attending the Wallington Hall Heritage Skills Fair & Conference run by Northumberland National Park Authority in association with English Heritage and the National Trust in 2005.

At the conference, a report from the National Heritage Training Group was presented which highlighted a shortage of traditional building skills. The four founders of VAR decided to do something practical to address the problem. VAR and the emerging Stone Academy is the result.