The arts of flintknapping, pargeting and lead-working are at risk of extinction with only a handful of specialists left, Historic England has said.
The charity fears historic buildings are at risk of deteriorating and decaying beyond repair, unless a new generation of tradesmen take up the mantle.
Building skills from the Roman-era could disappear, but the largest one-off investment ever in heritage construction training in England will fund a training project over the next five years.
Historic England will announce this week that a grant of £4.325 million has been made by the Hamish Ogston Foundation, established in 2019 to support health, heritage and music.
The money will also train apprentices in traditional carpentry, plastering, roofing and stonemasonry.
They will help to save some of the 5,097 buildings and sites on Historic England’s 2020 Heritage at Risk Register, focusing initially on the North of England, including Grade I listed Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire.
It is undergoing an extensive repairs programme that lends itself to training people. The vast exterior requires stonework and joinery, as well as work to save historic windows. Internally, 18th-century plasterwork is cracked.
Duncan Wilson, Historic England’s chief executive, said that without specialist skills it would be extremely difficult to repair such buildings. He said: "Builders can be trained to do these things, but it does require building up a substantial volume of expertise and practical experience."
"There isn't anyone coming along to take over", says pargeter Anna Kettle
Credit: Andrew Crowley
The Heritage Crafts Association, which lists craftspeople practising specific skills as their main income, says flintknapping (the shaping of flint for masonry) now has just 10 specialists; pargeting (the ornamentation of plastered façades), has five; and leadworking (for heritage buildings) has 10 – and is an "endangered" craft, despite demand from churches. Asked how it feels to be among the handful of pargeters, Anna Kettle, based in Cambs, said: "It’s quite scary."
She added that, while one pargeter is younger, the others are approaching retirement: "There isn’t anyone coming along to take over … The worst-case scenario is that it dies out completely. The skillsets that people need are an odd mixture, which is why it’s rare. You need to be able to do lime plastering… and to be a designer, because you have to design ornamentation."
This summer, she is working on the 16th century Bishop Bonner’s Cottage, in Dereham, Norfolk.
Duncan Berry, a flintknapper of Berry Stonework in West Sussex, said: "Despite being an outdated craft, it’s actually becoming more relevant as, over the last few years, I’ve seen a big uptake in contemporary flint facings. If we lose these skills, we’ll be in an awful problem in the next 20 or 30 years."
Flintknapper Duncan Berry said: "If we lose these skills, we'll be in an awful problem in the next 20 or 30 years"
Credit: Christopher Pledger
Mr Berry said young people are wary of entering a trade as physical as flintknapping: "It’s not the easiest of jobs. It has its hazards of flying bits of flint and hammers. I put out an advert recently and had no replies whatsoever. I’ve been ready to take on new apprentices.
"Young people would rather sit in a phone shop and sell phones."
James Digger, a stonemason at York Minster, said the Ogston Foundation’s investment is significant: "There are so many buildings and so much work that can utilise our skills. It’s massive."
He noted that, despite the shortage of such craftspeople and the long training – apprenticeships last four years – they are underpaid, with experienced stonemasons earning only around £25,000.