A National Lottery Bursary scheme is transforming the lives of aspirant artisans

Matthew Hodgkinson realised that he'd carved himself out a worthwhile niche the day he was asked to design his first gargoyle. Less than six months into his job as a stonemason on York Minster, he was handed the task of sculpting two agonised "grotesques" to replace weathered originals salvaged from the façade of the ancient cathedral.

"I've done two, based on the theme of ailments – one with toothache, and the other suffering from lunacy," he chuckles. "We had to follow the original profiles, but they were so damaged, we were given free rein, as long as they fitted the minster's style."

For Hodgkinson, 27, from Kings Bromley, near Lichfield, the chance to put his stamp on one of Britain's most iconic buildings marked the culmination of a whirlwind transformation from trainee carver to fully fledged stonemason. Barely 12 months ago, he was casting around for a job in medieval masonry, armed with a clutch of general NVQs, a gold Duke of Edinburgh Award, and a few years' experience as an apprentice ecclesiastical joiner. Now, after finishing a six-month traineeship funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, he's joined a team of 40 permanent full-time craftsmen based at the minster's on-site workshop.

"I never imagined I'd end up doing this," explains Hodgkinson, who is one of 1,550 people being trained through the lottery fund's £7m Training Bursary Scheme in dying (if not extinct) traditional heritage skills. "When I was at school, I told my careers adviser I wanted to be a stone carver, and he replied, 'You can't do that for a living.' I've proved him wrong."

Hodgkinson's story mirrors those of hundreds of aspiring artisans whose career prospects are being transformed by the bursary scheme – a partnership with 10 other organisations, including English Heritage and the National Trust – which hopes to revive such antediluvian trades as Cornish hedge-laying, gold-leafing and flint-knapping. The first round of apprenticeships – which pay trainees up to £15,000 a year – was announced in 2007, after studies highlighted the scarcity of such specialisms. A 2006 report by the National Heritage Training Group identified a national shortage of 3,500 traditional craftspeople, and found that two out of three restoration projects were being carried out by amateurs.

Dr Jo Reilly, who oversees the bursary scheme, says: "When we were set up, our drive was to distribute lottery money to heritage projects. It took a few years before realised that if this money was to be used effectively, we needed the people with the right skills on the ground."

So who is eligible to apply for the scheme? It was initially established to take people who already had basic NVQ qualifications in related trades to the next level, while reschooling them in the more niche techniques demanded by the heritage sector, but dramatic skills shortages in some areas have forced the lottery fund to compromise.

Dr Reilly says: "We aimed to take people with NVQ level two in a connected field up to level three, but some schemes have found it hard to find anyone with relevant prior training. Some of these skills really are dying arts: in the 1920s, there were around 100 reed and sedge-cutters in the Norfolk Broads, where that's a prized skill needed to provide reeds for thatching. Today there are 17."

One beneficiary of the scheme is Stephen Pulfer, 52, a painter and decorator who plumped for a late change in career after reading about the lottery fund's three-year training scheme for millwrights in his local paper. "I've worked in virtually every kind of construction, mainly restoring older properties, and this appealed to me," he says. "We're learning all sorts of things, from re-pointing tiles to abseiling down windmills while repairing brickwork. Every job is different."

Bursary fact file

The Heritage Lottery Fund's Training Bursary Scheme is run by 10 providers, including the National Trust, the Institute of Conservation and the Guild of Cornish Hedgers

The four-year programme offers 1,550 bursaries, in trades ranging from stonemasonry and dry stone walling to frieze restoration, gold-leafing, harling (traditional pebbledash), and pargeting (relief decoration of half-timber houses)

Courses last from three days to four years. Apprentices earn up to £15,000 a year

For a list of bursary providers, visit www.hlf .org.uk/hlfbursaries or call 020-7591 6042.