The late Roger Sawtell wrote about the church shingling project in 1992.
“I have made some enquiries and am told that oak shingles are virtually unobtainable and, if you could get them, are terribly expensive – in the region of £1.50 each.” This, a quote from a letter from the National Trust, dated February 7th 1978, among other correspondence was a challenge.
We tracked down a retired shingles-maker in Leicestershire, where he demonstrated his craft and we took photographs early in 1979. Thus prepared, with two local craftsmen, Paul and Andrew Wright, we felled one of Dr. Bill Wheeler’s oak trees, cut it into logs and made some shingles. This crude feasibility study gave us confidence to encourage the Leicestershire shingles-maker and his wife to come to Newdigate in May 1979. Ernie Harris taught the Wright brothers his skills and at the end of his week’s stay in the village gave them some of his tools and equipment.
The art of cleaving shingles from oak is that the cleaver follows the grain of the wood and does not cut across the fibres as with a saw. Following the grain gives the shingles a stable and waterproof quality. With oak that means splitting on the radius. The tree must have at least a two metre girth and have a straight, branch-free stem. Logs the length of the shingle (30cm) are split into eight cheese-like wedges. The curved sapwood and the centre point are cleaved off. The remaining block is only roughly square but the cleaver is able to divide it, always splitting in the middle to equalise the pressure. The shingle, about 1cm thick, is finished off with a draw-knife.
Our estimate of 12 – 15 thousand shingles proved to be spot on, with the shingles varying in width from 6 to 9 cms. The Wright brothers needed to maintain their bread and butter activities, so shingles took second place. Creditably, they maintained their enthusiasm and they completed the task of making all the shingles, but it took six years! In all twelve oak trees were donated or obtained at little cost by Paul and Andrew Wright.
The Newdigate shingles project provoked much sympathetic interest and support, notably from Alec Clifton-Taylor, whose B.B.C. television series was then being shown. He referred to oak shingles as no longer being obtainable. The Sunday Times Supplement featured our project and Bob Danvers-Walker recorded a B.B.C. programme. This publicity gave us encouragement and helped with our fund-raising. The generosity of past and present residents of the parish was added to by at least one City Livery Company, by two charitable trusts concernd with the preservation of buildings of historic interest, and finally by the Department of the Environment who undertook to top-up the fund.
Keeping the pot boiling whilst the shingles were being made presented a problem. Our Diocesan-approved architect Bevil Greenfield ARIBA had consistently supported the project. The steeplejack who was introduced by the architect Mrs. Penelope Adamson ARIBA, appointed by the D. of E. to review our project, was involved early on with the production of the shingles, with which he was well pleased.
It was the steeplejack, Peter Harknett, who pointed out that it must be unique in the twentieth century for a church spire to be clad in shingles made in the village by village craftsmen from village oak trees.
The skill and dexterity of Peter Harknett and his two young assistants as they worked suspended from the top of the spire in their ‘bosun’s chair’ was a compelling attraction for spectators and photographers. The steeplejacks’ pride in their work is fully justified and is a guarantee of a job pleasing to the eye for generations to come.
Steeplejack Peter Harknett and one of his assistants.
Ernie Harris demonstrates the craft of shingle-making.
Paul and Andrew Wright start the huge task of making thousands of shingles.
Peter Harknett and his team start re-shingling the church.
The completed steeple
The view from the top of the steeple.
Some original film footage of the work.
It was discovered in 2016 that the oak shingles on the spire had not lasted as long as expected and were showing signs of deterioration. Experts were called in, including steeplejack Peter Harknett who although over 80 years of age is still working. It was decided that as an emergency measure the top six foot section of the spire would be replaced with cedar shingles. Here are a series of pictures showing the state of the spire and the men working.