Building A Cathedral Without Modern Scaffolding

On a recent holiday to Hampshire my family and I visited Beaulieu Abbey.  Whilst walking through I saw this picture on one of the information boards.


Building work on Beaulieu Abbey began in 1204 and although in the above picture it looks like work hasn’t long started, you can see that they already need scaffolding to reach up.  A completed Abbey is a huge building which made me wonder how they managed it in those days.

On my return from holiday to my home city of Norwich I began to look at Norwich’s historical buildings with a new sense of admiration.  One of our most iconic buildings in Norwich has to be the Cathedral which is a hugely impressive building whether you are religious or not.  Building work on Norwich Cathedral began in 1096 – over 100 years before Beaulieu Abbey.  Now I don’t know if you’ve seen Norwich Cathedral or not but to my untrained eye it is huge.  At the time I am writing this, Wikipedia says that the spire is 315ft and that it’s the second tallest spire in England.  I know Wikipedia isn’t a guarantee for factual accuracy but it’s probably closer to the truth than my own measurement of ‘huge’.  It was built during Norman times and in those days the scaffolding was all timber, not like the metal pipes that are used by the local Norwich scaffolding firms now. This means that the scaffolding for Norwich Cathedral was put up by the same carpenters that also did the roof – I spoke to local firm who informed me that the process has moved on quite a lot since then and carpenters and scaffolding are kept quite separate.

Now it’s at this point that I should probably point out – if you haven’t already guessed! – that I am no historian (or indeed a construction expert).  What now follows is pure speculation on my behalf!

By looking at the picture of the early scaffolding I had seen at Beauleui it looked to me that the scaffolding was joined by ropes bound round it.  Now clearly it worked for them or we wouldn’t have the great castles and cathedrals that we do, but I would not have wanted to be the poor soul 300ft up Norwich Cathedral on wooden scaffolding.  I also read on the Norwich Cathedral website that building work on the cathedral was carried from sunrise to sunset, which in the summer months must have meant a pretty long working day.  I should imagine they were exhausted by the end of the day.  I hope they managed to keep their footing on the way back down all that scaffolding.  Just thinking about all the scaffolding it took to build Norwich Cathedral over 900 years ago makes me realise what an amazing feat it is to build a building on that scale.  It also makes me realise that there’s a whole technical side to modern scaffolding that I hadn’t even considered before… with that in mind, I think I’ll now go and investigate how the pyramids were built :-)!


Shelly is a online writer and artist with an interest in both old and new construction methods.