My name is Ian Houghton and I am a fully qualified City & Guilds bricklayer with over 30 years experience within the craft and I have run a very successful company (RH Refurbishments Ltd, http://www.generalbuildersinstevenage.co.uk) over that period; and now specialise in restoration and conservation which I have run for 11 of those years. Projects include Balls Park, Hertfordshire, The Galleries, Warley Hospital, Brentwood and RAF Bentley Priory.
I was apprenticed at Bedford College, Bedford, Bedfordshire over a 3 year period from 1984 – 87 as part of my day- release apprenticeship working for Bovis Homes. Whilst attending college – alongside classmates that included James Chandler, Andrew Foster, Andrew Cork, Andy Lee, Chris Myers and Paul Newman, I first met the now well known and highly respected Dr Gerard Lynch (‘The Red Mason’). During the past year (2014) my nephew, Mark Barlow, also a fully qualified bricklayer, has attended Gerard’s excellent training centre in his home town of Woburn Sands, Buckinghamshire, to learn from him ‘Heritage Brickwork’ within the ‘Specialist Apprenticeship Programme’ (SAP), designed and delivered by Dr. Lynch specifically to teach the traditional knowledge and skills of our craft; and Mark has thoroughly enjoyed and greatly benefitted from this course and coming under Gerard’s inspiring influence.
Although when I was taught by Gerard he was then only around 30 years old and fresh into the world of teaching from years of site work, but he was already clearly making a name for himself amongst both staff and students alike for his mixture of high-level practical skills and academic ability in both the modern and traditional aspects and his natural, warm, nature and incredible ability to teach and inspire his students. That said, Gerard was no pushover and set the very highest of standards that we were expected to strive hard to attain. It was reflecting on his ability as both a craftsman and a teacher with my nephew, Mark, that I said how recalled one such incident of how Gerard dealt with a situation during a practical lesson in the brick workshop that drove that point home to myself and my fellow classmates.
At that time we were only five or so weeks into the First Year of our college part of our apprenticeship and we had been set the task to work – two students to a model – building a one-brick-thick wall in English bond, 12 bricks long and 8 courses high, a total of 192 bricks.
We had to lay all the bricks neatly laid to line, level, gauge, face-plane, and set with fully-filled, plumbed, joints, with the wall properly backed-up with the brickwork jointed to finish as face work; all within that typical 3 hour practical lesson. As was his style of teaching a practical lesson, Mr Lynch – as we then called him – sat us on a curved row of stools whilst he explained the subject of the lesson, then laid a section of English bond walling and giving us lots of useful practical tips that would help us to achieve the quality of brickwork he always demanded. That completed he selected and sent each pair of apprentices to their respective work areas that he marked out on the workshop floor using snapped chalk-lines as the face, or building line for that model. We then positioned our ‘spot’ (mortar) boards and loaded ourselves out with bricks and mortar, as required, and set about our task.
After about 30 minutes another lecturer, Mrs Alex Bull, our General Studies teacher, came in to talk to Mr Lynch – who would always be patrolling the workshop floor to observe us bricklaying and to intervene when required to help us improve a technique, or correct an error, that he would so quickly discern with his experienced eye. Well, with him having to listen to that other teacher, like all young lads lacking the maturity that is typical of most school leavers, we gradually began to slow down, loose focus, and then to begin talking; and some of us even wandered away from our models to talk to others at theirs. I well remember glancing over at one point to see if Mr Lynch was noticing this. I already knew the answer, because oh yes he certainly had: and he was striving to remain politely attentive to Mrs Bull as I could detect his rising annoyance at what he was observing unfolding with his class.
As soon as Mrs Bull left the workshop Mr Lynch – this normally mild-mannered, patient, teacher – announced in a very stern voice we were to clear-up all the mess we had made with mortar droppings around our models, tidy up everything, sweep the floor clean and then go back and sit down on our stools. We became very silent and all did as we were instructed as he paced the room looking highly displeased; and wondered what was then going to unfold.
He told us that, as a lecturer, he had a duty to us, our parents and our employers, to teach us how to be good, neat, thoughtful, bricklayers, who fully understood all the complexities of each task we were set by him, and to ensure that we could lay all the bricks required in any given task to not only a high standard but also at a commercial rate typically expected of a good first year apprentice. I well remember his phrase “You have to become like a machine, become a production line, able to lay expertly yet efficiently, and at a good, acceptable, rate as expected on the very best of sites”. He then turned to our work and told us how he had become embarrassed in front of Mrs Bull with our slovenly approach during his practical lesson and, as a result, we had not only shown ourselves up in a very bad light but him too.
He berated us for a wholesale lack of attention, careless attitude and emphasised most of us had only laid about 18 bricks in 35 minutes: an average of 1 brick laid every 2 minutes. He continued that we should all have been realistically capable of building and finishing this model – between two apprentices – in two hours; and concluded that although he could do all the fancy brickwork, like gauged work, he was mainly a site man and, as such, he could easily build that English bond wall within that time frame on his own. That’s was when the balloon went up. One classmates cheekily emphasised his dis-belief of such a claim by an anonymous, loud, disbelieving exclamation of “Huh!” Boy did that trigger something. Mr Lynch demanded who of two possible candidates were the source of that disrespect and as neither would admit to it he said, “Ok both of you go over there (he pointed to a free space within the workshop) and load me out with all 192 bricks and mortar needed to complete the model and I’ll build this wall. Now all of you can return to continue building your walls, and when you are ready, tell me to start and then time me by the clock in this workshop.”
As you can imagine we were all looking at each other in disbelief as Mr Lynch had been challenged and fair play to him he had not ducked it: and as the old saying goes, ‘He was putting his money where his mouth was’. So we all did as we were told and once he checked we were ready, as well as himself, he said for us to tell him to start and that while all of us were to get working at a sensible rate of bricklaying, we were to time him from the very moment he started laying till he finished placing the last brick.
Everyone ready the shout went out, “Go!” Off Mr Lynch went and boy that’s when we truly saw he was a real site bricklayer. He just bent his back and set about bricklaying from start to finish and raised that wall – all 192 bricks – in 49 minutes – yes 49 minutes – or at a rate of 1 brick laid every 15 seconds! We were then all invited over to his finished model in order to inspect it for all we would be marked on, for level, gauge, plumb, face-plane, full joints with perpends all neatly maintained vertically and the rear neatly backed up and true. It was absolutely spot-on. Typical of the man, he had made his point and with characteristic humour and humility – as he rubbed his sore, stiff, back – he let the subjec