Wells Cathedral Stonemasons: Stephen Parsons

Well Cathedral Stonemasons are bringing an ancient skill into the 21st century


A business with its roots in the Middle Ages is taking on work as far afield as Hong Kong and Singapore as it moves into the 21st century.

Since a management buyout five years ago, Wells Cathedral Stonemasons has grown to employ 16 craftspeople and four apprentices and now turns over in the region of £900,000 a year.

Wells Cathedral in Somerset, where work began in about 1180, always had a team of stonemasons it could call on, but in 1984 the Dean and Chapter formed a dedicated company in order to take on major renovation work there.

At first, Wells Cathedral Stonemasons was dedicated to the needs of the cathedral but by the late 1990s it had started to take on work at other churches and stately homes.

It was then that the Dean, then the chairman of the company, and Chapter at Wells started to look at its future; a process that led to a management buyout in 1999 led by businessman Stephen Parsons, chief executive of Bristol electronics and magnetics company Redcliffe.

He said: “What fascinates me about the stonemasonry business is I’m involved with a fairly high tech military business working on leading edge technology, and Wells Cathedral Stonemasons is at the other end of the scale.

“They are doing things that have been done in pretty much the same way for 900 years.”

With the buyout completed, Wells Cathedral Stonemasons, which today operates from the former railway station building in Cheddar, North Somerset under the leadership of managing director Pete Arkell and master mason Ryan Brunt, then looked to the future.

Mr Parsons said: “Things don’t change overnight – it is evolution rather than revolution.

“We were able to consider the strategic development of the company in a different way.

“We invested in technology that would give the stonemasons a greater capability in their offering to the marketplace and started to think outside the box.

“We identified a group called Insomnia who run bars in the Far East and persuaded them it would be a good idea to give a radically different style to their offering in the Far East and build bars in the style of an English cathedral.”

The first Insomnia bar – so-called because it is open 24 hours a day – was in Hong Kong in 1999 and since then a second has opened in Singapore.

Stonework for both was cut and fixed by Wells Cathedral Stonemasons from their Cheddar site before being shipped across.

Closer to home, they are now working on Banwell Abbey in north Somerset and Dulwich Church, while a number of unnamed celebrities also feature on its client list.

“For half its life,” says Mr Parsons, “this business would have worked pretty well within Wells Cathedral.

“Now it’s grown to work in Hong Kong, Singapore and London.

“It’s a very different approach, taking the skills to where the demand is.”

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