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History at height: Chester Cathedral project takes visitors to the skies

Restoration specialist William Anelay carried out a range of work at height at Chester Cathedral to prepare the building for a new visitor experience from above.

The Chester Cathedral at Heights project is intended to give visitors to the cathedral a unique, behind-the-scenes look at the cathedral and its surroundings by granting access to some of the building’s most interesting and previously hidden features.

But before the public can access these areas, including the bell-ringing tower, the roof and Victorian organ, restoration specialist William Anelay carried out a range of work to prepare the cathedral for its new visitors at height.

“In some instances we were creating access, others improving very old stone spiral staircases, installing handrails or adding lighting,” says William Anelay site manager Gary Shea.

The cathedral tower, roof tower, bell-ringing chamber and bell frame chamber have all been prepared for public access in the £1.3m project funded by Cheshire West and Chester Council. The work included:

  • Transformation of the bell-ringing chamber into modern exhibition space – including a new staircase;
  • Conversion of the bell-frame chamber into a multi-sensory visitor area;
  • Renovation of the tower roof – including a new visitor walkway;
  • Repairs to the tower spiral staircase;
  • New lighting;
  • Stonemasonry along elevated galleries.

“We made it into a visitor experience,” Mr Shea says. “In the high-level galleries we had to install new handrails.

“Because a lot of the stonework was pierced, we had to introduce a very fine stainless steel mesh in front of all of those holes for health and safety reasons, so people couldn’t lose cameras, shoes or anything else through the gaps.”

External scaffolding solution

To minimise the disruption to the cathedral throughout the building process, which ran from August 2013 to February 2014, the team opted for external scaffolding for most of the access on the project.

“A lot of the work we did was either in the bell chamber, the bell-ringing chamber or on the roof, so we built scaffolding up the outside of the tower and installed two hoists,” Mr Shea says.

“We couldn’t have got everything we needed in through the spiral staircases, so we had to find another way in”

Gary Shea, William Anelay

“One went up to the roof level, then the next went from roof level up to tower top level, so you’re probably going up about 70 m in two separate lifts.”

Maintaining access to the high chambers from inside the cathedral would have proved extremely disruptive, and this solution was one of the reasons William Anelay was successful on the project.  

“It was Charles Anelay’s idea to erect the scaffolding on the outside of the tower; we were trying to keep the cathedral as a working cathedral throughout,” Mr Shea says.

“We couldn’t have got everything we needed in through the spiral staircases, so we had to find another way in. Rather than tying up the central part of the cathedral, most of the items went up the outside.”

Bringing up the bells

Part of the work involved hoisting a carillon back into the bell tower as well as a clock mechanism, which did require scaffolding inside the cathedral.

“The biggest challenge during our six months on site has been transporting a carillon, a framework that allows for automatic bell ringing, up the tower,” Mr Shea explains.

“Removed in the 1970s, the half-ton carillon was hoisted up using a 2-tonne mechanised block and tackle within a 35 m-high scaffolding structure erected up the side of the tower.

“Working in Chester city centre and having to get all the deliveries through quite a small archway was a challenge”

Gary Shea, William Anelay

“That was quite a moment!”

Both the clock mechanism and the carillon had to be broken down into smaller components before being hoisted into place through a small hatch in the ceiling.

Sympathetic additions

The contractor also had to sympathetically add safety features, walkways and lighting to certain areas of the cathedral, in close consultation with the architect, Donald Insall Associates, the cathedral and project managers Turner and Townsend.

“There were some steel handrails already installed in the cathedral, so we spent a lot of time making sure we got the right steel, the right diameter bars,” Mr Shea says.

“It had to be carefully worked out, bent, then left outside so it starts to age artificially, so when we put it in it looks like it’s been there 100 years already.”

All additional aspects, from the lighting to the handrails, were carefully considered and various options investigated before installation.

“We always want to make sure the client gets what it wants, but we have quite a lot of input because of our expertise and our knowledge of doing this sort of thing before, so we’re able to offer our point of view and our experience.”

Another challenge the team faced was working in the confined city centre site, particularly during the busy Christmas period.

“Working in Chester city centre and having to get all the deliveries through quite a small archway was a challenge,” Mr Shea explains.

“We put tonnes and tonnes of steelwork – including a new metal spiral staircase – into the bell-ringing chamber.

“There were a few different challenges to overcome, but we managed it.

“We’re a conservation contactor so we’re used to working on huge buildings and using large scaffolds; we’ve worked on many towers and cathedrals, so this doesn’t pose a problem for us. It’s what we do.”

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