They dangle from ropes high above the ground, finding footholds on the facade as they painstakingly repair and restore the statues and stonework gracing the west front of Salisbury Cathedral.
“It’s hard work but fun,” said Philip Scorer, who is leading a team of climbers spending the summer assessing and repairing the facade, as well as the steeple and parts of the tower. “Occasionally it gets scary but as soon as you’re concentrating on the work, you’re fine. I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years so if I’m not used to it then I’m in the wrong trade.”
A major restoration project on the west front was completed in 2000 but Scorer, a director of Vitruvius Conservation, said checking and fixing the statues was needed regularly. “The stone can be damaged by thermal stresses, frost/thaw damage, pollution and so on. It continues to decay.”
It is neither practical, nor desirable, to keep erecting scaffolding. “Scaffolding can be intrusive. You have to attach it to the building and you don’t want to do that too often on a historic structure. It’s also demoralising for the public and fundraisers to see scaffolding.”
Instead, the climbers are called in. So far, the west front has been found to be in good condition, though one statue – St Sebastian – has caused particular concern. “There are fissures in the crown of his head. There’s a danger of it falling off but frost and lichen can get in and further push it apart.”
Scorer said it was a privilege to come eye to eye with the statues that for most are seen only distantly from the Cathedral Close. “And it’s rewarding to know you are preserving him, keeping him going.”
Once they have finished their work on the west front, the team will focus on two of the transepts, then check two sides of the tower and, finally, the 123-metre-tall spire, the highest church spire in the UK.
Climbing the 332 steps to the base of the spire can be a particular challenge. “It’s quite a commute. Your harness and bits and pieces weigh 5-10kg and you can be carrying another 5kg of tools and materials. We call it the Salisbury diet: by the end of the summer you are beach body ready.”