There is more to vocational education than being just another brick in the wall, David Newnham discovers, as he is taught the ancient secrets of lime mortar and flint-knapping
Here I am, crouching on the ground, talking to a man through a hole in a churchyard wall. The man's name is John, and together, we have a problem.
By the end of tomorrow, John and I need to have this hole filled in. But after an hour spent wiggling loose flints and brushing out old mortar, we have succeeded only in making it bigger. A lot bigger.
Clearly, we need to make a start. But where to lay that first stone? And which one to choose from the heap of misshapen silica nodules? With a rising sense of panic, I wonder how I got into this. It began with one of those conversations that owners of listed buildings dread. "Good heavens," said the man from the council as he surveyed what had once been a fine stretch of Norfolk garden wall. "If that lot collapses into the street, it's going to cost you."
Unfortunately, the remedy would also be expensive. People who can repair flint walls using traditional materials are few and far between. They can name their price, and that price can run into thousands. "How hard is it," I ventured, "for someone like me to do the job themselves?" I had expected derision and horror at the thought of an amateur messing with the county's priceless heritage. But to my relief, the man from the council nodded.
"Down in Essex," he told me, "they run a hands-on course in flint wall repair. The person to speak to there is Pauline Turner."
And that's how, a fortnight later, I found myself in the north Essex village of Hadstock, surrounded by crumbling masonry. For the next three days, I would be immersing myself in the theory and practice of flint and lime construction. I would learn why using hard, modern cement to repair a wall built with flexible lime mortar was a recipe for disaster, and why lime putty had to be kept moist while it set. I would have a crack at the ancient art of flint knapping, which involves knowing where to strike the stone so that it splits in just the right place - a skill developed in neolithic times. I would study at first hand the techniques used by the medieval church builders.
Most important, I would get a feel for the materials - the weight of the flints and the dryness of the mortar. Because this, after all, was a hands-on course. There were a dozen of us, and we were a mixed bunch: half bricklayers and landscape gardeners who did this sort of thing for a living, and half property owners like myself, with ancient structures in various states of dilapidation.
Simon Williams, a young craftsman with a passion for flint, was to be our tutor, and his mate, an affable Australian called Harry, would keep us all supplied with mortar. There was an expert on hand to demonstrate the caustic properties of quicklime, and another to scare us with slides of partially collapsed church towers.
Running the show was Pauline Turner, an Essex County Council conservation officer who knows that courses like this are vital if our historic buildings are to be saved for future generations. It was a decade ago, she explained, that her then boss at the council, Anne Holden, decided something had to be done urgently about the shortage of traditional skills.
"There are more than 14,000 listed buildings in Essex," Pauline said, "and Anne found herself constantly talking to owners who wanted work done but didn't know who could do it."
So, on her own initiative, she set up a hands-on joinery course, where people could learn how to repair old doors and window frames rather than replacing them with new ones.
Next, she organised a conservation brickwork course, and before long, skills such as lime plastering and timber framing had been added to the syllabus. For some years, Anne Holden managed the courses alongside her day job.
Then, in 1999, Pauline was employed as a Historic Buildings Education Officer, a full-time post that was funded entirely from course fees. Eight years down the line, the shortage of traditional skills has been recognised as a problem nationally.
"NVQs really don't stand for much when it comes to historic building repairs," Pauline said. "A youngster can't go and do a workshop-based course and then come out and do this sort of work." But to date, Essex is the only local authority regularly teaching such a range of traditional skills.
A dozen techniques are now covered: everything from long-straw thatching to repairing old stone tombs in churchyards. Pauline organises a programme of one-day summer seminars , and even children get the chance to daub plaster on to wattle during term time.
"Wherever possible, work is done on live sites - actual jobs that need doing," Pauline told me. "If someone sees a brick arch in need of repair, for example, we contact the owner and ask if we can come along and do it."
And that is what brought us all here to Hadstock where, for the past few years, Pauline's workers have been repairing the flint and brick walls around the churchyard.
Not that the parish council will be too impressed with this particular section unless John and I stop making our hole bigger and begin filling it with flints. "How's it going, mate?" says a voice over my shoulder. It's Harry, who's come to see if we are ready for another bucket of mortar.
"Well," I tell him, "so far, all we've succeeded in doing is making the hole bigger. But here goes." With what I kid myself looks like an experienced flick, I place a trowelful of his carefully prepared mixture into the yawning gap and tap my first flint into place.
An hour later, John and I are working together like two old-timers. If we are careful, and avoid any more collapses, we might just have this hole filled in by teatime tomorrow. Then who knows? With a bit more practice on our own respective properties, perhaps we too could name our price.