COUNTRY PURSUITS

Will O'Leary, stonemason based at Knucklas, Powys

"I get out of bed at 8am and take a cup of coffee into my study. I design most of my commissions and like to spend a whole week doing the drawings before going to the workshop. I have three headstones on the go at the moment. They all have to be drawn out, executed and fixed at the site.

"All the carving and lettering is done by hand. For some masonry, I use a compressor and pneumatic chisels, but I prefer to work with my bare hands. Horrible modern monumental masons use machines; computer-generated letters on a stencil, applied to the stone and sand-blasted. They never do anything by hand at all.

"If I use a lot of a particular stone then I go to the quarry - I like to check it's top quality. I was using so much Forest of Dean sandstone for the restoration work on Kingsland Church in Herefordshire, I went to meet the quarrymen. It's interesting to find out about the geology of stone. In masonry, you should know about your material: you need to know its compressive strength. Some stone even smells: Portland stone has a lovely fishy smell, but Forest of Dean smells pretty horrible - a nasty, musty odour.

"Every commission is a one-off. I always think I would like another job, like the Mary Morgan memorial, for example. She was an early 19th-century woman hanged for the murder of her new-born son. The original stone was falling apart and I had to do an exact replica. That was fascinating - it is very difficult to do a faithful copy: even though you are tracing it, you can never get the spirit of the original cutter. Many of my jobs are memorials, which I do in my workshop. Then I go to the cemetery to fix the head stone with my wife and baby daughter.

"If I am doing a church restoration, I have to be on site, which means up the scaffold. I did a local church last winter: I took a few days off when it was snowing, but otherwise I worked through the elements. In the summer, it's lovely up a scaffold: I especially enjoyed Bath Abbey - great view.

"The most interesting job I did was building the Memorial Pagoda at Milton Keynes in memory of a Buddhist monk. I wasn't under any time pressures and designed a lot of the detail, but now I have a family I don't like to go off for weeks on end.

"I tend to knock off at 7 or 8 in the summer and 6.30 in the winter. You can't work late into the night - it takes too much concentration. And I don't like working more than eight hours in a day, I get too exhausted. A lot of it depends on light in the workshop - in the winter especially. You can't do lettering in bad light.

"Once a week we run an evening class for six or seven people to do carving. In the summer, we run weekend courses. They are knackering and a bit annoying because people always do nicer things than I get to do. I would like to take my own course so I could do exactly what I wanted.

"I love my work, I really do. I particularly love lettering, but it can get a bit exasperating, but then anything gets tiring if you do it for too long. Even thinking about it makes me excited, but by bedtime I am so worn out, I simply pass out."

Bel Crewe

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