It's a bright but chilly morning when I reach Stephen Critchleys East Anglian workshop after a 90 minute drive from London. I find my way the last few metres by following the tap tap tap of the masons carving. With introductions over and cup of tea in hand I am shown an amazing collection of carved urns, parts of fire surrounds and curios, all use as a resource to aid training his apprentices and the design process.
After training in London and working on Inigo Jones, James Gibbs and William Chambers buildings Stephen moved to Norfolk in 1990 and then on to the Cotswold's 5years later. He is now back in Norfolk in his new workshop. “we are keeping our Cotswold workshop going but rather than expand it. I have set up this new workshop back in Norfolk, that way we stay close to the best limestone quarries in the country and also more easily cover the eastern side of the country and London.”
Stephen workshop is all you would expect from a true craftsman, wonderfully strange looking tools and devices, jars and tins of powders, books of gold leaf, corks, lead shot and many things I couldn't even guess at. He shows me the range of marbles, limestone's, sandstone's and slates from across the world from which he and his team hand carve the exquisite fire surrounds and ornaments. “I've also built up a store of high quality stone that is no longer quarried which I use mainly for inlay work and the higher end projects such as Athelstan stone and Oxford coral marble.”
“ We mainly produce fire surrounds these day but also garden ornaments, water features and the occasional coat of arms” Stephen explains. “We also make window sills etc. If people like us keep turning down this sort of work we'll all end up with concrete and cast stone details on our properties”
To get an idea of the process Stephen gives me a short demonstration of carving on a Limestone Corinthian Capital he is presently working on. I'm amazed to see the detail forming before my eyes while Stephen explains how the design is governed by a set of rules laid down in classical times. “This and the finished one already wrapped on a pallet is for a project in Oxfordshire” he explains.
Through years of practical experience and a knowledge that only comes from a love of a subject Stephen makes works of art (actually Stephen has corrected me) works of craft from materials millions of years in the forming look, if not easy at least natural.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my visit today, expecting to find age old craft dwindling to extinction I have in fact found a vibrant craft carried out by people who although using heritage skill are confidently looking to a healthy future.