Climb the church spire with WallWalkers Ltd

Published: Monday, July 17, 2017


WallWalkers Ltd, a member of our Professional Trades Directory, is a rope access company specialising in historical and listed building conservation, repair and maintenance.

Sam Milford, Director of WallWalkers Ltd, tells us about a recent job at St John's church in Cinderford, Forest of Dean:

How do you remove the top three courses of a church spire while still hanging from it on a rope?  Isn't that like...cutting the branch you’re sitting on?  Well, it could easily be, if you don't have the right system in place.

Established in 1988 as a company specialising in the conservation of England's stunning architectural heritage, WallWalkers has evolved to become one of England's leading rope access teams host to an eclectic mix of skills and services. Their skills were recently called upon when it was found the spire of St John’s church in the Forest of Dean had become unstable, suffering exploding stone from rust expansion and loss of strength from its failed internal compression system.

The contract was comprised of 5 distinct aspects:

  1. Remove the exploding iron rod from the spire's top, replace all fractured and damaged stone with new
  2. Install a new internal oak floor at the top of the church tower, where the base of the pyramidal spire meets the top of the rectangular tower
  3. Fit a stainless steel rod from the spire peak, down internally through to the spire floor and tighten so the spire compresses on to the supporting tower below
  4. Point loose and failing joints of the spire and tower currently allowing water to ingress
  5. Fit bird/moisture meshing to the sound openings to inhibit bird access and hamper the rate of rust occurring on the iron bell frames

Spire stone removal

This was executed very carefully, not only because of the large 40KG section of stone hovering above the church nave roof, or the narrow pathway below which was cordoned off and manned throughout to ensure no unauthorised entry occurred, but also because the section of stone the team were removing was in fact to be used as a template for the new section to be made up to reflect.

Using rope access systems to lower the stone easily and smoothly in manageable sections ensured they all reached the ground safely and fully intact. With the top three courses lowered and the badly degraded iron rod removed from the spire - see the 'Excalibur-esque' photo - the rope access team then set about installing the mesh in the sound openings.

Oak floor installation

Accessing the top of the bell chamber was a daily struggle; the photo of the WallWalkers technician manoeuvring his way through the bells and beams will explain this mission better than words!

At the top of the tower, the octagonal base of the spire was measured and new oak beams cut and installed on stainless steel pins that had been resin-bolted to the spire faces. Floor boarding was cut and installed, with a hole cut through the centre of the board for the coming rod to pass through the floor.

Spire stone installation and compression

The final stage of the spire rebuild was near. Energy was high and the team were very excited.  New stone sections arrived and these were hauled in to place and bedded. Next, the new compression rod was installed at the spire’s peak, travelling inside the spire ready to be attached internally. The stainless steel rod was attached to the underside of the oak floor, through the newly installed rectangular hollow steel beam, in turn compressing the top of the spire down in to the tower and unifying the structure to create much greater stability.

Pointing the church tower

With the church spire now compressed, the team had only the tower and spire pointing to go. Lime mortar pointing is a very unique skill which can only be developed from experience and education. The team are well versed in lime mortar pointing of historic buildings, incorporating their understanding of flaunching, multiple-layering (to ensure it compacts and dries solidly throughout) and working the mortar so the finish matches the original work once dry.

The outcome

All in all, the project was a great success and one WallWalkers will always look back on fondly. Lateral thinking, efficient communication and the melding of cutting edge and traditional practices allowed the rope access company to bring stability and life back to this little church buried deep in the Forest of Dean.

For more information and to get in contact with the team, you can contact WallWalkers below:

T: 0800 160 1142