Making Her Mark: Stonemason

July 11, 2023

Making Her Mark: Stonemason

"It's the tactile feeling of being part of something that's much bigger than yourself."

Stonemason Rachael Wragg is rebuilding Lincoln Cathedral, one stone at a time.

Rachael Wragg is a 34-year-old stonemason who works full-time to rebuild Lincoln Cathedral. Her career started later in life, after a string of retail jobs and a car accident made her reconsider her next steps. A three-year apprenticeship from Lincolnshire County Council gave her a new appreciation for stone, one of the often overlooked creative mediums. 

Following on from her apprenticeship, Rachael became a permanent member of the heritage team at Lincoln Cathedral. Now, she pays homage to time gone by and takes leaps and bounds for women who want to explore niche creative careers. 

Rachael Wragg

Tell us a bit about your journey into stone masonry

I studied fine art at university. It was the early 2000s, during a time when you really felt the pressure to go to university. If you could, you should. So, like a lot of other people, I picked a course with no future plans in mind. 

After university, I worked at a string of shops, a post office, that sort of thing. In my late 20s, I left my job with nothing lined up. I was in a fortunate position, because my husband was able to support us both. I started doing more portrait work, and I thought, ‘I’m going to be an artist!’ 

The National Lottery Heritage Fund gave Lincolnshire County Council enough funding to train 20 people in heritage crafts. I applied for the trainee stonemason apprenticeship, which was linked to Lincoln Cathedral, and I got it! 

“Then, I was in a terrible car crash. I had to go to physical rehab for a year, which gave me a lot of time for introspection. It really made me think about my life.”

Why did you choose stonemasonry? 

I’ve worked a lot of retail jobs, and I know that I hate being stuck indoors. On top of that I’m a big history nerd. I love reading books about medieval history. Being creative, being outdoorsy, and liking history; it just all meshed into one job. 

Stone is naturally beautiful. It has come out of the Earth, so when you’ve got your hands on it, it’s already millions of years old. 

The limestone that I’m working with right now is between 150 and 160 million years old. Sometimes I find fossilised creatures and tree branches in the rock. 

Why do you enjoy working with your hands?

I love creating things. I feel a lot of pride when I can put something out into the world that wasn’t there before. 

What was the first day of your apprenticeship like?

The first day was really overwhelming. There was a lot of walking and climbing scaffolding. My mentors wanted me to see the whole of the site. Lincoln Cathedral is huge, from the front door to the back door it’s at least half a mile long. 

What is your fondest memory from your apprenticeship?

“Towards the end of my apprenticeship, I worked with two others to rebuild an entire pinnacle on the South-East transept.” 

Traditionally, you wouldn’t rebuild an entire section of a Cathedral. It tends to be one brick in, one brick out. So, getting the opportunity to rebuild an entire pinnacle was amazing. 

What did you do after your apprenticeship? 

After my apprenticeship, Lincoln Cathedral kept me on. 

What does your working day look like?

My work can either be very repetitive or completely random. There’s no middle ground! 

I work from eight to five at the Cathedral. Right now, everyone in the workshop is carving stones to rebuild the 13th-century Chapter House. So I’ll go in expecting to do that, but my boss might pop in and say that there’s a group of school children coming for a tour or that we need to make something for another part of the Cathedral. 

Is it a male-dominated industry?

Yes, definitely. I know that the statistics aren’t great for other trade industries, but I imagine they’re much worse for stonemasonry. 

What challenges have you faced?

I’m quite lucky. I feel like a lot of women in construction have these big stories about sexism, but I’ve been lucky enough to have really supportive people around me. Everyone at Lincoln Cathedral is the same sort of age, and we all get on really well. 

“The only challenges that I face are my own personal ones. I expect myself to do everything that the guys can do. No one else expects me to, but I want to. I want to be able to lift 100kg blocks like the powerlifter that I work with.”

I want to be too good too fast. I have to remind myself to slow down and enjoy the experience for what it is. 

How do you keep creatively charged? 

Lincoln Cathedral is nearly 1,000 years old, that’s inspiring in itself. 

There are so many facets to stonemasonry that it’s hard not to be creatively charged. There’s carving, research, construction, and so much more. You can find your niche. I’m really enjoying exploring different sides of the craft. 

Stonemasonry is such a physically demanding job. How do you look after yourself? 

It helps to have a good fitness routine. I keep a yoga mat at work, so I get there half an hour early and stretch at the beginning of every day. 

Are you working on any personal projects? 

I’ve carved the name of my cottage and installed it on the front gate, and I’ve made some vases for my garden. 

What would you say to other women who are interested in stonemasonry?  

Just go for it. 

When you’re looking into a workshop full of blokes, it can be quite daunting. If I were to visit a new workshop, I would be intimidated. But once you meet your coworkers, you realise that they are there for the same purpose. They love the craft. If you go into a workshop being positive and eager to learn, you’ll have a positive experience, regardless of age or gender. 

What would you say to your younger self?

The problem now is that lots of teenagers are made to feel an immense amount of pressure. The message is, ‘You have to choose now, this is it.’

But actually, there’s always time. You can retrain when you’re 40 or 50. Don’t rush.

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