A Chip off the Old Block

by Karen Pereczes

As appeared in 'The Craftsman' magazine, April 2005 - copyright Karen Pereczes 2005.



When Hugh Sawyer was offered early retirement from his job of 38 years in the Civil Service, he took the opportunity to enrol at college to learn something new. Following in the footsteps of his ancestors, he decided to study the traditional skill of stonemasonry...

Inspired by a Celtic knot stone carving he had inherited from his great uncle Albert, a stonemason who died in 1959, he explains: "The piece had been passed on through the family over the years. It was so intricate that I was frightened to even hold it in case it broke, and so I just stored it safely away and forgot about it.

"The idea of carving stone never entered my head until I retired. I don't know when the 'Eureka!' moment really hit me, but I had the idea that I would like to make a twin of the Celtic knot and found out that Bath College ran a stonemasonry course. I paid them a visit and, once I had seen them in action, I knew that I'd found my destiny."

Oddly enough, Hugh's surname - Sawyer - is actually one of the stonecraft occupations. This is the name for the craftsman who uses saws to cut huge stone blocks down to usable sizes. Although originally this was a task done by hand, this is now achieved mechanically.

"I don't envy the old hands," Hugh sympathises, "I've tried it and it's hard graft and a long, slow process!" 

For Hugh, working with stone has even deeper family connections. Hugh's grandfather, Frank Sawyer, was a builder who ran a family business - F.Sawyer & Sons - from the village of Box in Wiltshire during the Victorian era.

Box is home to the largest stone mine in the country, running for approximately 30 miles of interconnecting passages. Here are quarries of freestone (also called 'Bath stone' from being extensively used in the city) - long renowned worldwide for its excellent building properties. Hugh remembers:

"As a boy, I lived on Quarry Hill in Box. Against my parents' warnings, I loved to go into the old mine entrances to explore. I was fascinated by these warrens - like snapshots in time linking back to the original miners, with countless drawings on the walls and graffiti from another era. Luckily, unlike some of my friends and younger brother, I didn't get lost!"

The mines evolved in a haphazard manner and, incredibly, pass over the top of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's famous railway tunnel through Box Hill, which was created in 1841. Reputedly, Hugh's ancestors used bricks that were surplus from the building of the tunnel to build Valens Terrace in Box.

The process of both mining and quarrying is extremely impressive. Massive blocks of stone are cleaved from the earth, and have provided the raw material for the beautiful architectural features throughout the country.

"This is a difficult process - even with the machinery available today," explains Hugh. "Think what it must have been like in the old days, with pickaxes and handsaws!"

Following the College syllabus, Hugh started by carving masonry pieces of set design in both Bath and Portland stone. As a side venture he tried his hand at ornamental and letter carving as well as successfully replicating his great uncle's Celtic knot.  

Hugh at college


"I enjoyed gaining the stonemason's skills, although at my age taking written tests was a bit gruelling!" Hugh grimaces. "I never went to college or university as a youth, and I liked the atmosphere of learning in an environment where you are given respect."

Additional to the course, Hugh helped to restore a dilapidated 19th century monument rescued from Rocks East Woodland, near Colerne - an ornate fountain about 10 feet tall; with two large bowls standing on slender carved plinths.

"Some of the parts were repaired, but others were badly damaged or missing and needed to be replaced," explains Hugh. "It was fascinating work, and it was hugely rewarding to see it re-assembled to its former splendour. I can't wait to see it returned to its original site."  

Rocks East Fountain - before and after restoration.


Hugh left college with an NVQ qualification and has since joined forces with one of his fellow-students, Marcus Mitchell to work on stone-carving projects including several fireplaces. Says Hugh:

"Our most impressive achievement has been the re-building of a gable-end in Bath stone, which had been dramatically demolished by a fierce storm. The challenge was to replicate exactly the contours of the mouldings of the coping-stones, and to re-erect it as an identical copy of the original.

"Having your handiwork so impressively on display to the world is very satisfying, and gives a great sense of achievement - although when comparing it to some of the work I have seen in churches and ancient buildings, it is quite humbling. I find myself looking up at building structures much more now which, when accompanying my wife on shopping expeditions in Bath, can be quite distracting!"

Another project Hugh has in hand is to install a tracery window in his own house. He has carved this from Portland stone, building on one small section that was a college project and adding the jambs and sill to match. "One of my daughters is skilled with stained glass, and is going to design and create a decorative window for it. Maybe we should set up in business together and build churches!

"After that, who knows?" he grins... "I can always start work on my own headstone!"              


Further information:

Contact Hugh Sawyer: (01225) 709334.