A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Archive for the month “May, 2011”

Discovering hidden treasures

This week, I want to tell you about one of those moments that makes my job so unpredictably special. Before I start, however, I feel I must warn you that this article contains a large number of superlatives so, if you’re on an adjective-free diet, look away now.
It started simply enough as part of our spring cleaning routine. As per a previous blog we’ve ‘Henry’d’ the windowsills, including some that haven’t been free from the dust of ages for, well, ages.
The next big task was the misericords. These are in the area of Beverley Minster known as the quire or, sometimes, the chancel, and are one of our treasures. We have the country’s greatest collection of these 16th century tilting seats (68, thanks for asking – Lincoln Cathedral has only 64 so yah, boo to them) and these are magnificently robust hunks of oak.
We’ll come to these another time, but for now my main interest is the carvings in the tabernacles (an area or box covered by a canopy) above the misericords.
Some 15 feet off the ground, these intricately-carved figures were created between 1911 and 1914 by one Robert Baker, and what a master craftsman he was. The detail of these two-foot tall creations is superb and largely hidden from view.
The only people with a chance to study them are the virgers, and even then only when we climb up on our annual dust and polish trip. But when you’ve got another 40 more to clean before the job is done you tend to overlook their finer points.
We’re rather more concerned with not knocking off any bits of the statuary with the duster, which is difficult enough when you’re already twisting like a ballerina to avoid other decorations.
But yesterday John discovered that the statues are merely screwed to their platforms and, being a former joiner, he had the technology to remove them which made cleaning them a whole lot easier.
And so for the first time in decades, perhaps nearly 100 years, the statues came down to earth and were properly buffed and polished to a high gloss, then inspected. It was breathtaking, a true eureka! moment.
They are magnificent, the texture of the clothing or armour captured superbly in wood, the faces with real expressions, hair natural and fine details wherever you look. Everyone who saw them was stunned and I felt uplifted as I examined them.
I cradled the figure of St John of Beverley in my arms and took it into the nave. There it had a completely different view to the one forced on it throughout the 20th century.
“You won’t recognise the old place,” I promised the figure, and I was right. It was speechless – but I’ll swear it was smiling. 
We’re not selfish, we want to share these marvellous works of art and craft with everyone so we’re hoping to dismount them and stage an exhibition some time later this year. There are various permissions we need to get first but the Minster, as a church that was commissioned as a showcase for the finest art and skills available, surely demands that its treasures should be admired by the widest possible range and number of visitors.
If everyone agrees with us then I’ll let you all have more details when they’re available and, I promise, you’ll be as overwhelmed as we were.

How to lose friends and influence people

It is an immutable law that, whatever you do, you’re going to annoy someone. Any study of human history is pointless without that basic understanding.
This is even true of acts, objects and people that are essentially good; people that you wouldn’t think could possibly offend the most sensitive, thin-skinned, paranoid sociopath in the world – for example, people like the virtuous virgers at Beverley Minster. 
Bit every now and then even Beverley Minster itself manages to annoy someone just by being the Minster.
You may remember last year that one of our neighbours tried to stop us ringing our chimes during the night, even though must be fairly obvious to anyone moving into the area that ‘binging’ and ‘bonging’ happens very regularly – and has done for several centuries. 
In fact, we ‘bing’ and ‘bong’ exactly 2724 times over each 24 hour period, which virtually everyone gets used to. The overwhelming majority of residents tune the sounds out after less than a day, and almost all the rest actually enjoy and even rely on the chimes during the night- but we admit it’s not a universally loved feature.
A far bigger area of contention, however, is the car park opposite the north door of the Minster and on this particular issue even my saintly colleague John Dell has been known to get unsettled.
John Dell is a lovely man. In a previous blog I falsely claimed to be a happy chappie but, in John’s case it’s a true description.
He’s a man with a ready smile and the calm manner of one who has seen it all and can deal with it.
He even managed to hide his disappointment behind a grin when I decided not to write about him in my last blog – a disappointment that would have crippled a lesser person.
So it’s a bit of a shock to realise that, under this gentle facade, his secret identity is “Car Park Man.”
Once upon a time the car park was part of the playground for Beverley Girls’ School and we still get visitors who were, as children, traumatised by piercing blasts from large-lunged teachers’ whistles as they were chivvied from the blessed site back to what’s now our parish hall..
We don’t own the land but, since the closure of the school, we have leased it for use by our visitors, always aware that the owners could decide to apply for permission to build houses or other such change of use on the site if we stopped paying. It’s a convenience for people using our halls, volunteers coming to church, guests at weddings, mourners at funerals, visiting artists, performers and choirs and, of course, our own worshippers.
But it is private land, for private use – and not everyone understands that. Some local residents seem to think it’s there to compensate for them not having their own drives, but it isn’t. Sorry, but you can buy residents permits for unlimited parking in your street so please do.
We politely point this out to offenders but, no matter how gentle we are, you’d think John or I had accused them of some horrendous crime, like being a Government Minister or having a fat bottom. Eyes popping, people come back at us with the most ridiculous responses.
“I work for the council.” In that case park in a council car park.
“I know the Lord Mayor/Chief Executive,” – nope, nothing to do with them either.
“We’re just popping up to the shops – we won’t be long.” Please park by the shops then – goodbye.
“Because I’ve got a disabled badge at home,” Congratulations, but irrelevant – especially as we’d just seen her march purposely out of the car and try to run past us.
“Because I do visit the Minster sometimes.” So do 70,000 other people every year, and they don’t all assume they have a right to leave their cars there when they next pop into Beverley for something.
“A traffic warden said we could,” – frankly unbelievable.
“That’s not a very Christian attitude to take,” obviously intended as the ultimate put-down. Actually it is – I refer you to the parable of the Good and Faithful Servant – there are quite a few other appropriate ones as well; but the bottom line is that you would object if we came and parked on your drive without permission, particularly if you had a special event coming up, and it’s the same for us.
Anyway, we keep cool, despite provocation, but I can sometimes see the vein throbbing in John’s forehead and, believe me, you wouldn’t like him if he got angry.
Here’s a hint ….. a car that has been crushed into a tiny cube in John’s bare hands can often offend.

Moral dilemmas need firm resolutions

I’m a happy chappy. Everyone who sees me says so.
Actually, that’s not true – it has been alleged that sometimes I look a bit miserable and don’t smile at strangers.
In fact one person once told me that someone had told them that I had been a tiny bit snappy with someone else. But when I found out there were no witnesses to this I dismissed the claim with the contempt it deserved.
You must realise that, underneath everything I’m normally feeling pretty calm and contented, if not positively happy – and why not?
This year has started well – we’ve already taken more money from roof tours so far than we did in the entire month of January last year and we’ve had our trusty Henrys uprooting spiders webs that hadn’t been disturbed this millennium. People are still tending to behave well and praise us when they come through our doors and I’ve been promised a pay rise.  
I admit there used to be one aspect of my job that left me just a tiny, teeny bit peeved, but I’m over that now.
It was all to do with the kneelers or, to be more precise, some of the people who use them. Let me explain.
Kneelers are the rectangular cushions that can be used by the congregation during prayers. We have some 400 of these in the nave and until last year they just lay on the floor like so many slabs of dead meat.
As such they were a nuisance. Firstly, they got in the way of our trusty Henrys when we were cleaning the carpeting; secondly, they were always getting knocked and we were constantly straightening them to keep the place looking neat; thirdly, bending down to lift just one of them made me wheeze – and that was a major problem.
You see, every week the virgers move five rows of pews to make a safe area for young children during the morning service – which involves shifting 30 kneelers. Once a month we also move three rows on the other side of the nave to accommodate the music group, carrying a further 18 of the blessed things.
Mathematicians among you will realise this is an irritating 12 per cent of the total that is being moved for just one hour a week, before being moved back again. The repeated compression of my diaphragm during this simple pilates could led to spots in front of my eyes that lasted five minutes or more.
As a bonus we also turn all chairs in the nave round twice a year for the East Yorkshire County Choir concerts, then reverse them again before we go home afterwards. I’d be screaming for oxygen at the end of it.
So last year we virgers decided to attach the kneelers to the chairs by a simple hook. Now, when we move the pews the red cushions come with them in one sweeping operation. The Minster looks neater, the lightness of the flooring is emphasised and it’s so much easier and quicker to clean the carpets.
The problem comes when worshippers actually use the kneelers – because some people never put them back.
Now this used to really bug me – it felt as if people were thinking: “Oh, I’m too important to do that – someone inferior can tidy up after me,” and I could feel myself bristling at their rudeness.
And then I realised that many of these people really couldn’t do it for themselves. The kneelers were too heavy, or they couldn’t manipulate a ring over a hook on the back of the chair. It wasn’t that they were being rude, they were just weaker or less dextrous than me and I should be grateful for my abilities compared to them.
So now I bless them, think of Romans Chapter 12, verses 16 onwards, and smile. Everyone says how much happier I look now.
And next week I’ll tell you what makes my boss angry.

Hooray Henrys

January is a simple month in Beverley Minster, at least for the virgers. There won’t be very many casual visitors or tourists coming through the doors, we’ve got no big events to plan or set up so it’s the ideal time to start our spring cleaning.
Naturally, our task is a bit more demanding than many of you may have experienced – starting with our window ledges, for example.
You’d probably assume we can’t just flick a duster on a flat surface, and you’d be right. Our ledges are about ten foot up in the air and lean at 45 degrees towards the leaded windows. The only solution is to assemble our scaffolding trolley, then use that elevated flooring to unleash our ‘Henrys’ onto 12 months worth of dust and tiny stone fragments.
Actually, our two red ‘Henry’ cleaners are the unsung heroes in this modern virgers’ repertoire and if the manufacturers would pay a large sum into the Minster General Fund then John and I would happily endorse their product. We can use them on stone or carpet surfaces and they’re sufficiently flexible and light to allow us to heave them up and down stairs as required.
That’s particularly important in the quire where we face a huge collection of delicate, highly detailed wooden Victorian statues and carvings over the misericords. In the bad old days it took the whole month to dust and oil the complete structure but now, thanks to a new platform I built last year, the Henrys and we got through the whole task in a week.
Then we can turn our attentions to polishing the many brasses and, finally, really concentrate on getting all the slivers of Christmas tinsel from between the flagstones.
We’ve often been complimented on how clean we keep the old place – that’s partly down to the Henrys and just keeping on top of the job, but also to the glorious colour of our stone which is very forgiving and seems to gleam in direct sunlight.
However, I’m afraid to admit, some of this flooring is starting to look a bit less pristine. These are the sections which are always under attack at events, concerts, church meetings and youth cafes from spilled coffee, hot chocolate, red wine and suchlike – and John and I haven’t really got a proper answer to it.
Oh, bleach in hot water will remove a bit of mess, if you get to it quickly enough, but the huge area we have to contend with means we’re always going to miss some stains until it’s well and truly stuck in. Then, unless we’ve got some mechanical system for removing huge quantities of dirty water and feeding in clean stuff (which we haven’t) all we’re really doing is just spreading the mess a bit wider. It removes the obvious discolouration but leaves a sort of grey sheen. With the increasing number of events and entertainments we’re hosting these days the problem isn’t going away, and that’s a darned pity.
So, if anyone can point us in the right direction for a relatively inexpensive machine that cleans and recycles water properly then I’ll consider going on a sponsored diet to pay for it. There’s at least two stone I should be able to lose without any problems and that’ll be my good deed for the year.
Speaking of good deeds, I’ll just prove to you what a loving husband I am. I bought my wife a Henry for Christmas. She’s delighted.

A New Years story – Christmas 2008

I’m pretty sure most ‘Year End Reviews’ are uninteresting rubbish, just convenient space-fillers for publications with minimal staffing between Christmas and the New Year. So I won’t do one.
I will instead introduce you to a mystery – The Mystery of the Missing Reliquary.
Once upon a time, some 1300 years ago, the Bishop of York was found to have miraculous powers of healing. He restored the hearing of a man who was deaf: he recovered the sight of a blind man and he brought back to life a servant who had been killed in a riding accident.
This holy man’s fame spread so much that, after he’d retired from public life to a monastery, distressed people travelled many miles for the chance of a miracle cure from him.
This went on even after the bishop died. People visited his tomb to pray and his fame grew over the years. Even the first Saxon king of all England, who lived down South, prayed to Bishop John.
Athelstan believed it was the protection of Bishop John that saved his kingdom and he rewarded the monks in Beverley who looked after his tomb by paying for a brand new Minster. He also freed all men of Beverley from the duty to pay taxes, and that’s not a fairy tale. It was true but, sadly, that law no longer applies.
So many miracles were attributed to Bishop John that he became patron saint of the deaf and dumb in 1037. The tomb of St John of Beverley then became the second most important memorial in the north of England, beaten only by St Cuthbert in Durham.
Now, one thousand years ago, when you had something as valuable as a major saint’s body in your church you didn’t hide it under a bushel or anything else – you advertised it. You glorified it, you presented it in the finest setting possible.
If this meant investing in an ever-more splendid building to house it, that’s what you did – which is why Beverley Minster is so huge and magnificent. If it meant building the most ornate structure to house his body (a reliquary) in marble, precious jewels and valuable gold plating then that’s what you did.
The pilgrims were visiting in the hope of the greatest religious show of their lives and you were there to give it to them.
And so Beverley Minster grew richer and more glorious, with the spin off that Beverley itself became richer even than York until, one day, a certain king of England, Henry VIIIth to be precise, decided the church didn’t need its riches as much as he did.
Henry also introduced a new type of religion that didn’t believe in holy, miraculous bones. Henceforth St John of Beverley’s body was just the same as that of everyone else and so it didn’t need a glorious tomb any more. Henry ordered that all the gold and precious stones in the reliquaries around England should be transferred to his own Treasury.
And so St John’s bones were put into a casket where they rest to this day while the glorious reliquary was dismantled, and its valuable materials carefully recorded, ready for shipment. And then it just vanished.
With all the wealth being confiscated by the king there was a huge bureaucracy to keep accurate track of it all but there is no record of Beverley Minster’s treasure arriving at the Tower of London. It just disappears into history.
Maybe it was grabbed by thieves, although there are no reports from the time of what would have been a nationally significant robbery. Maybe it was captured by furtive Catholics who wanted to preserve the old religion and, to this day, still pray at the tomb. Maybe it was acquired by a Yorkshire farmer who thought it would make a nice fireplace in the corner.
Perhaps it was taken by surviving Knights Templar who knew it contained ancient documents proving that Jesus’ mother and daughter-in-law came to live in Beverley – hence the venerable Beverley street name “Hengate” from the affectionate Yorkshire name for Mary, ‘Hen’; and ‘gate’ – a corruption of the word ‘great’ – which obviously refers to Jesus, or his sister or wife or something.
Oh, don’t scoff, there’s as much meat to this mystery as there is to the Da Vinci Code so just go with it, alright? It might be the basis for a blockbuster film one day and, frankly, that would provide a welcome boost to our visitor numbers.
Failing that, perhaps whoever’s got St John’s reliquary would like to give it back – we could use the money. There’s a nasty budget deficit looming next year and I want a pay rise. 

Taxing times

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, when reading any of my nine blogs to date, that occasionally I refer to religion. I’m terribly sorry, but it sometimes intrudes into my working life as well.
That may sound a bit silly, but you’d be surprised how Christianity can be pushed to the background during the normal grind. We virgers can get so wrapped up in the responsibilities of the day that we can forget the overall picture – and we’re not the only ones.
Not so long ago a visitor came up and asked, in all seriousness, “Is this place open on Sundays?”
Well, yes madam. Actually, some might go as far as to describe that as the Minster’s main purpose – even though I’m not sure the Inland Revenue does.
I’ll bet you didn’t know that the Minster doesn’t get VAT relief for being a church, but it’s true – in fact we face a penalty.
You see, if we were an ordinary business, we could claim 100 per cent VAT rebates on everything we bought but, because we do that ‘worship’ thing for part of the time we are open, we lose relief on that proportion of the total amount paid. In effect we get tax relief for the time we are open as a tourist attraction/concert venue, none for when we have church services going on.
I suppose we’ve got to be grateful that the Revenue gives us anything, although ‘grateful’ seems a rather limp response compared to those of our ancestors. At the north east corner of the Minster is the tomb of Henry Percy, the 4th Earl of Northumberland – killed in 1489 while collecting taxes. An extreme reaction, granted, but understandable at times.
Obviously his murderers weren’t devout Christians because we are instructed to pay up. Jesus said: “Render unto Caesar,” which, given the season, might perhaps be amended to: “Reindeer unto Caesar,”
Hahahaha – I’m sorry, I’ll get my coat.

Bits and pieces, Christmas 2009

To lose one vicar is unfortunate, to lose two is… well, you can insert your own word in there but that’s what the Minster is doing. Yes, it has been formally confirmed that next year our Associate Vicar, Nick Drayson, is leaving the comfort of Beverley for the wilds of the jungle.
“I’m not a celebrity, let me in,” appears to be Nick’s favourite programme although, in his own way, he will rise to notability – he’s becoming a bishop: to be precise, the Suffragan Bishop of North Argentina.
Several points here – firstly ‘suffragan’ – that means he’s not the top bishop in the particular diocese but he’s assistant to the Numero Uno.  The word itself comes from the same Latin root as ‘suffragette’ so, technically, it’s to do with voting, i.e. voting with and supporting the Diocesan Bishop.
As to the details of a suffragan bishop’s job, well, that varies with each individual bishop but it’s safe to say that this won’t be a simple life sitting around dressed in purple in a splendid palace. No, Nick’s new diocese covers a huge amount of jungle containing various threatened native tribes, as well as large numbers of urban poor – and when you’re talking urban poor in South America you’re talking real starvation levels; drinking filthy water, scavenging for food in rubbish tips, the true bottom of the heap.
So, best wishes for when he and Katherine swap their comfortable home in Molescroft sometime during summer next year for the heat, humidity and dust of the near-tropics.
On a more immediate note, we are now in the season of staging. To put that in virgers’ terms, half our time seems to consist of assembling different configurations of our sectional stage for the next annual concert or festive service in the Minster, while the other half is spent dismantling it again so that the normal routine of church services can go ahead. It just wouldn’t be done to have the elder members of our congregation scrambling up the latest hillock then abseiling down the other side before Thursday communion – many of them only just arrive in time in the normal course of events.
Anyway, we also need to get the altar back in place.
Most people don’t realise that the round altar in front of the organ screen is movable, but at this time of year it’s pushed around the floor like John Sergeant on Strictly Come Dancing. We pull up the communion rails that normally box it in then, after just a few minutes work with a large car jack and eight metal rods, the whole structure is on wheels and ready to be shoved (with all due reverence of course) towards a quiet part of the building.
It’s not particularly manoeuvrable, more like a supertanker than a nippy runabout, but John and I are used to it so we haven’t knocked down any major pillars recently. Getting it back into place requires a bit more precision as the microphone system has to be plugged into the floor, but it’s not rocket science.
When that’s done then we move on to the chairs, which also have to be changed for each concert. For some we can just place extra seats with their backs to the wall – one row or two depending on expected numbers. For others we lay them diagonally to improve the view towards the front while, for the annual County Choir concert we actually turn all the pews in the church to face the back. Then, immediately after the concert they have to be turned round again for the Sunday services.
This Monday we also lifted our two Christmas trees into place. Normally we order two 26 foot monsters that we strap to the screen in front of the organ. These towered above the keyboard area but this year, as it will be the last our long-serving director of music Alan Spedding will serve, we thought we’d let him see what goes on below.
So the trees are only 20 foot tall and much lighter than normal – by adopting a ‘tossing the caber’ stance even I was able to lift and shift them to get them in the correct position. I tell you, my muscles haven’t felt as good as this for a long time – I shouldn’t have any problems ripping the wrapping from my Christmas presents this year.

Let there be light

How many virgers does it take to change a light bulb? Be careful, the answer is not as obvious as it sounds, but I’ll give you some clues as we go on.

Let me clarify a bit: I’m not just talking about any old light bulb, as you may have guessed. After all, Beverley Minster doesn’t do ‘ordinary’.

Oh no, for ordinary bulbs you just need a single virger to perform the simple ‘stick your hand in the air, grab, wiggle and twist’ technique – even when standing on a chair (or, in part of the Minster, on a tip-up misericord).

No, the bulbs I’m talking about here are the big ones that act as floodlights for the main body of the church (the nave), the arms (transepts) and the round altar.

It’s not so much that they are housed in a variety of different fixings, some of which have to be attacked with a screwdriver before you can grab, wiggle and twist.

It’s not that some are mounted in stands which require a ladder to reach them, or that the bulbs themselves are a good six to eight inches across, and quite heavy.

No, the problem is that the lights are nearly sixty foot up in the air, which makes the whole operation a bit ‘inconvenient’.

Anyone who has been on one of our roof tours may remember passing two narrow wooden doorways about three quarters of the way up the stairs – perhaps they wondered where they led.

The answer is, to a narrow ridge, just in front of the large windows below the ceiling – and it’s there that the floodlights are fixed.

There’s no banister or fence on this ledge, just a straightforward drop to the stone floor below which, if you have a hint of vertigo, is a fairly unpleasant view.

Thanks to diligent health and safety precautions, however, it is perfectly safe – provided you don’t fall.

Anyway, this is how we change a light bulb. Step one: at ground level a virger carefully climbs into a safety harness.

Tightly looped around the shoulders and legs, then secured around the waist I feel like a poseur at a perverts’ party or a confused Morris dancer, rather than sporting what the best-dressed steeplejack wears at work.

I then self-consciously waddle and clank across the floor to the staircase, hoping no one is looking, and start climbing – and you’ve never experienced unpleasant chafing until you’ve struggled up 80+ steps with that contraption digging into various bits of you.

Then I’m finally there: just squeeze through the narrow doorway and locate the safety line to clip on – I try to do this with my eyes half closed as I don’t like the view when I’m not attached to anything.

Now it’s time to start moving along the ledge, edging round the bulky old radiators that are in place to keep the building warm (nothing to do with the comfort of the congregation, you understand). I don’t mind this bit as, provided I keep staring out of the clerestory windows, I can forget about the sheer drop on the other side.

We (see, there’s a clue) reach the target and my colleague starts fiddling with the housing while I prepare to take the blown bulbs and hand up replacements, while at ground level another colleague (that’s a further clue) is ready to switch the lights on and off to check that everything is glowing properly once more.
We then return to ground level full of satisfaction from safely completing a difficult job in a potentially dangerous location.
It doesn’t do my ego any good to know that, in the bad old days before the doors were locked, the choirboys used to run races along those narrow ledges. Argggh! It terrifies me just to think of it.
So if you visit the Minster in future and notice a broken light, please don’t condemn us. We just haven’t been able to find three virgers to change it yet.

What has it got in its pocketssssss?

Okay, here’s a simple question to start off this week. How am I like the Queen of England?
No, stop sniggering at the back, it’s a perfectly straight teaser that I suppose I’d better rephrase: what behavioural quirk do I share with the present Monarch?
The answer is, I don’t carry money on me.
I suspect it’s only a coincidence that my pecuniary habits mirror with those of the Head of the Church of England – my main motive is to prevent confusion.
You see, during the day, I might be expected to carry any cash paid to me for roof tours as well as a bundle of change for those people who haven’t got the exact money. I may also be called on to swap notes for coins for the Minster shop, issue photo permits or even take charge of donations for tea and coffee on a Sunday.
Sometimes I even have to go into town with some cash and buy little goodies such as light bulbs or drill bits.
If I carried my own cash then it would get mixed up and cause endless confusion at the end of the day when it comes to putting every penny in the correct bag – and I won’t bore you by telling you just how many different bags there are to be sorted, but it’s a lot. So, as soon as possible, I put the cash back where it should be.
There’s also a secondary reason for my normal cash-free status: I simply haven’t got the room for it in my pockets.
Instead, my trousers have to accommodate keys: lots of keys, big keys, little keys, new keys and ancient keys.
One of them is several hundred years old and opens the main door, two are complicated things that unlock the safes where we store our communion plates and shop takings, and then there is a variety of Yales, latch keys and suchlike.
You see, if anyone wants to get into a special room or cupboard at the Minster they usually come to the Virger who, of course, is normally at exactly the farthest point of the church from the room they’re being asked to open. .
So, while I’m at the West Door (one key) or Minster Moorgate entrance (two keys) I might be asked to open the Vicar’s Vestry (one key plus two safe keys), or place some more candles in the Lady Chapel (two keys to Virgers’ Vestry plus one key for collecting box).
Another popular destination is the Preparation Room (one key) in the Parish Hall across the road (one key for five doors – GOOD!) or the Peter Harrison Room (one key). This route takes me via the wheelchair entrance (one key plus security fob) and the rear gate (one key).
My favourite trip in recent weeks has been a sprint from the top of a 15 foot ladder (Flower Room, two keys, one at each end) to the fuse board (Boiler House, three keys) when the lights in the shop (three keys) blew.
We always have to be ready to unlock the car park (one key), open the parish office (two keys), secure the toilets (one key) or open the gate to the western churchyard (one key) and, actually, now that I look at my collection, I find there’s another four keys on the ring which I can’t explain.
Of course all the keys for areas above ground level, such as the towers and north transept doors as well as the rarely needed ones for gas and electric meter boxes, clerestory window ledges and organ loft are kept in a box in our vestry – we’re not completely stupid you know.
We keep that box securely locked away

Climb every mountain or 49 Steps – I wish!

I had a spare moment the other day so I started doing some calculating – and the result surprised me.
Last year the virgers decided to promote tours inside the roof of the Minster as a way of raising funds, as well as letting visitors go ‘behind the scenes’.
It’s fascinating up there – we’ve got the largest surviving mediaeval tread wheel crane in England (which we still use) and you can see the raw structure of the church, how it was built and maintained over the centuries.
There are some good human stories to tell up there as well so, when you combine that with the views to north and south we reckon it’s a grand way to spend a fiver.
That’s not just my opinion – it’s a rare tour that doesn’t end with almost everyone beaming happily after an entertaining 60 minutes or so.
It also provides the virger with the perfect excuse to get away from routine cleaning duties in the nave:
“Sorry, John.  I am currently escorting a party of visitors in the roof and I shall be unable to operate our dust-sucking Henry for another 35 minutes, minimum, Please pass my apologies to the dust.”
Of course this statement is made in the sure knowledge that dust, like the poor, will always be with us.
The downside to the roof tours, of course, (or should that be the upside?) is the steps –113 of them to be precise, which my unfit 16 stone bulk has to ascend every time I take a group aloft – and last bank holiday I did that climb seven times in total.
The steps themselves aren’t too bad, even for someone like me who also has a touch of vertigo, because they’re in a spiral with no handrail to look over, they are nice and regular and the staircase itself is well lit.
By the end of the climb you’re 70 foot about the ground (or 20 metres for those of you born after Led Zeppelin broke up) and the view alone is normally well worth the effort.
On a good day you see the north Humber coastline and both towers of the Humber Bridge quite clearly from the South Transept Window so I always let people have a good long look – it gives the spots in front of my eyes time to go away.
One day, as I waited for the last member of the party to emerge from the passageway at the top I started to wonder how high I’d have climbed if I added all my trips together.
Back on terra firma I eventually found a piece of paper and a pencil (it’s what we used to do sums in the olde days before calculators – I was quite good at it.)
For once I wasn’t interrupted and, after a long period of scribbling and crossing out I came with an answer. Then I did it again and got a different answer. Then I did it again, this time with a pocket calculator.
Anyway, taking some reasonable guesses at the average size of each party (six adults, a bit less than the 25 we could take each trip) and assuming that my boss John and I have done roughly the same number of trips each, then it would appear that we’ve both climbed 15,000 feet this year – over half the height of Mount Everest. 
No wonder we’re tired. 
But despite this we’re still willing to do the tours, twice a day (other church commitments permitting) and more often on special occasions. So if you’ve got nothing better to do for an hour or so at 11.15am or 2.15pm, Monday to Saturday and you fancy joining the virgers in some indoor mountaineering why not pop in and see if we’re doing one.
I’ll be honest, I need the exercise.

Timing is everything, or how many virgers does it take to change the clock?

It’s been an unusual week – again. Sadly, I wasn’t able to take my promised holiday at the Virgers’ five-star seaside resort in the Bahamas as there was work to do in the Minster – the clock in the north tower has been much in our thoughts.
Normally we can virtually forget about it – the mechanism may be over 100 years old but the electric motor that powers it is a splendid British thingy that was built in the days of the Empire and should last another century or so. Granted, we sometimes have to adjust it forward or back by a minute or so, but that’s rare.
But once a year, the clock has to be ABSOLUTELY accurate- last weekend was that occasion – and it’s a two-virger job, believe me.
On Remembrance Sunday every second counts and the chimes must be spot on because people all around the country are listening to the radio or watching television for the start of the Two Minute Silence – it’s a moment that permits no errors.
It’s a job that must be done as close as possible to the day itself because, in the cold conditions of wintertime, the clock can slow down by a second or so overnight.
So, we start the process by synchronising our watches with TIM – and that’s the last part of the process that uses modern technology.
Strangely, the Victorians never thought of the convenience of the virgers when they built and installed the great ticking thing so it’s not as easy as it might be. In fact it’s a real combination of physical dexterity and patience.
Firstly, of course, you have to get to the clock – it’s up nearly 100 steps via a narrow spiral staircase, so that’s always something to be enjoyed.
Then, when we get to the glass-fronted cabinet that houses the clock the fun really starts.
Oh yes, the intricate brass dial that we use to count off the seconds (with hands going anti-clockwise – don’t ask why) is fairly easy to read at the front of the mechanism, but the critical part of the controller is at the back, squeezed against the wall.
One virger has to crawl under the machine, lie on their back and stick their arm through a narrow space, then grab two thin stubs of metal that they clasp together.
The other virger stares intently at the brass dial.
Grabbing the stubs of metal disengages the regulator and the clock speeds up. If you are outside you will see the 10 foot long hands on the tower belting round the dial at a great rate of knots – it’s even better when we’re winding the clock on for British Summertime and you’ve got the whole hour to catch up.
The second virger calls out instructions, to grab it, let go, grab it, hold it…
All the unfortunate underling can do while this process is underway is stare hard at the black-painted machine above and hope the other idiot gets it right soon.
 And then, when you’re both exhausted, you merely have to dislocate your shoulder, disengage your arm from the mechanism, reverse limbo back out into the bright light, brush yourself down, chase away the spiders, wipe off the excess machine oil and climb downstairs again.
Last year, with my watch fully synchronised, I spent the rest of the day hoping desperately that someone would ask me for the time, but no one did. Ironically I was late home that night.

The thin red line

Quick – buy another tin of Humbrol gold, we’ve got to change the notice board again. The Minster has just entered a strange period in church life called an interregnum. In simple terms it means that we are without a Vicar.

Yes, our own Revd Canon David Bailey has preached his last service before moving on to pastures new on the other side of the Pennines. We now face an unknown period until we get a replacement. That’s not a good state for a church to be in – legally the vicar is the person who holds the freehold of the building and it’s their name that appears on all documentation. They are also the court of final appeal on all those important disputes such as where the coffee is going to be served after Sunday services, what notices can be displayed and where, and who is going to clean the kitchens. Once there’s no vicar then such matters can rapidly degenerate into all out warfare until a new judge arrives on the scene.
Getting a replacement can be a long process – when David was appointed some 12 years ago the standard procedure was to ‘invite’ a suitable candidate to come forward and face grilling by various committees and interested bodies before acceptance. Any particular group could veto the candidate and then the whole process would have to start again- in fact David was the fourth candidate to be interviewed.
These days it’s a bit more streamlined: the committee that represents the church members (the Parochial Church Council or PCC) defines what they are looking for in a replacement and the position is then advertised. We imagine a major church like the Minster will attract a lot of applicants, but who knows? It’s a high-profile office and that might put some good people off. In any case, even if we chose someone straightaway they still have to work out their notice at their own church.
To make matters worse, (or better, depending on your viewpoint), we’re probably losing our other two paid-for clergy as well within the year. Associate Vicar Nick Drayson is finalising plans to return to South America for his next posting while Curate Richard Carew is due to have his own church – if he can find one that’ll take him.
Assuming a new vicar isn’t in place by that time then the running of the Minster will be in the hands of unpaid and retired clergy – and the virgers.
In practical terms, most things will continue as they are until a new incumbent comes in to take the important decisions and change things – the virgers will help see to that.
We are the thin red line, the body of knowledge that people consult when they ask “how did we do such-and-such last year?” because, let’s be fair, if it involved physical work in any way then the virgers probably did it. We also know which areas have been allocated to each group to store their goods. We know where the keys are to unlock various parts of the building, we know where the candles, cups and carol sheets are and how to switch on the sound system.
I sometimes think that, without us, the whole thing would grind to a halt.
And, of course, there’s no way we would misuse this otherwise leaderless period to make life easier for ourselves. No, not at all – it’s always been the case that virgers have personal servants and enjoy lavish annual paid-for holidays – honestly.
So don’t be surprised if my next blog is sent to you from the Bahamas. I’m merely maintaining an old-established tradition.

Virgers – I before E

“Are you half a virgin?” an elderly man asked me, somewhat rudely, the other day.
“Not any more,” I wittily riposted while racking my brains to work out what he was talking about.
“Spelling ‘Virger’ like that,” he snorted, in a high state of orthographic self-righteousness. “It should be v-E-r-g-e-r!”
Actually sir, as I tried to explain at the time, it shouldn’t. Beverley Minster spells my job title as Virger for a darn good reason and I’ll just spell out why (ha, ha, little play on words there – oh, go on, please yourself).
Firstly, yes, most churches do spell virger with an ‘e’ and, in consequence, I have a running battle with the Hull Daily Mail every time they run a story about the Minster – the paper’s wonderful computer spell-check always defaults to that spelling. But they are wrong.
I am a virger because I carry a long metal rod (stop sniggering at the back there. I’ll tell you more about that rod in a minute, but just for now I’ll stick to the point).
The Latin for ‘rod’ is ‘virga’. Not V-E-R-G-A but virga. So I’m a virger because I’m named after the symbol of my role.
They spell it this way at St Paul’s Cathedral, Winchester and Windsor so, frankly, I don’t care if we are in a minority. It’s a pretty elite one, and I can only feel sorry for the majority who’ve got it wrong. So, HDM sub-editors, you now know why you should overrule your spellchecker next time it attempts to ‘correct’ me. 
But why is my job named after a long stick? Well, the answer might seem silly now, but it’s rooted in basic practice from many centuries ago. Think back, if you can, some 500 years. In those days there was no pulpit, no neat rows of chairs in the nave and a church was not a centre of calm and quiet in a busy world. In fact, if you go back to the early Tudors you’ll find many churches and cathedrals were bustling markets, with people yelling, and animals inside making whatever noises animals make (with attendant smells), plus lawyers drawing up contracts, and general background noise. In the middle of all this were altars – at least 16 permanent ones in the Minster, and maybe many more.
Each of these altars was the centre of its own timetabled range of services and ceremonies, with priests and their attendants praying, chanting, waving incense around and generally doing what they were supposed to do. It was the virgers’ job to clear the way through the confusion and get their priests to the appointed place at the proper time. The rod wasn’t a ceremonial object then; it was a practical tool, a club used by my predecessors to bash their way past anyone who got in their way.
Ah, the job was a lot more fun in the old days.
As a ceremonial throwback to those ancient times, whenever there’s a formal church service at the Minster you’ll find a virger walking ahead of the preacher and vicar, leading the way with a modern lightweight virge in a sort of ‘half-ready’ stance – not really a practical fighting position.
So my job title is basically 500 years out of date, but it could be worse. I might be named after the most common tool in the modern virgers’ armoury – the ‘Henry*”
*(note to readers, a proprietary brand of vaccum cleaner). 

Making our own fun

Christmas is the time of year when you’re most likely to catch the virgers’ highly exotic version of Riverdance.
Granted it takes place in unglamorous surroundings, but the effect can be strangely beautiful.
Basically it involves one or both of the virgers climbing onto the mound of cardboard and packaging that fills our green industrial waste bins and jumping up and down on top of them to force the contents into a smaller space. To make the job more interesting we often sing a little song until we are satisfied we can’t crush it any more. I’m probably the more effective at this operation as I weigh 16 stone but my much lighter colleague and boss, John, seems to enjoy it so I let him get on.
It’s most common in October because that is when the Minster shop is taking delivery of its Christmas lines, so the packing cases are coming in thick and fast. 
“Oh, Christmas!” I hear you groan. “It comes earlier every year.”
Now I’d agree with you if you were talking about the High Street. With the current downturn in consumer spending the shops are trying every trick they can to prise money out of our hands, so last year I heard the immortal tune of Wizzard’s “I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day,” on October 2nd. And while I’m a huge fan of Roy Wood I just know I’m going to be sick and tired of that particular song by early December.
However, in the Minster, Christmas itself is still on December 25th – no change there. What is happening is that we are gearing up to the big day, which means that December is just about our busiest month. We will have large school services, there is a long list of concerts and performers to be accommodated – each with their unique staging and seating requirements – and then of course there is the large selection of annual church services with which we anticipate and then celebrate the birth of Christ (which, after all, is precisely what the festival of Christ-mas is truly for, the rest is just flim-flam).  My own favourite is the Midnight service on Christmas Eve – I don’t know why but I’ve always enjoyed it immensely.
But part of the preparation does involve getting special items into the stock room of the Minster shop, ready for when we start offering suitable Christmas gifts to people of all ages. And the empty boxes keep coming
So if you see a fat, bearded man, dressed in red, jumping up and down on a load of packages marked ‘Christmas’ and singing jolly songs don’t be confused. It won’t Santa, it’ll be me.

What am I doing?

It was 9.30 in the morning and I’d just gone back into my office after single-handedly dragging a 30 foot by 15 foot carpet around, setting up a large projector and screen, moving a Steinway piano and assembling a power supply for a sound system. I’d already directed several visitors to various attractions in the building, helped plan some arrangements for later in the day and had started making the first of several flasks of coffee for the catering team.
I was scheduled to take four roof tours later on, I still had to set up some staging for a special service tomorrow and I was thinking about the arrangements for a funeral.
I had just switched on the laminating machine to produce some weatherproof signs and notices for an imminent open day, loaded a cassette tape to make a record of a recent sermon for one of our parishioners and was about to score some slices of bread tomake them ready for communion when someone popped their head around the door.
“Are you doing anything?”
I thought long and hard about my response, and decided to be diplomatic.
“Well, I’m currently multitasking, but can I help you?” I replied.
Now I can’t honestly claim that every single minute in my working life is like that one, but it’s certainly not unusual either. I’m one of the two full-time virgers at Beverley Minster and we look after the building, and the people who use and visit it – seven days a week, for at least nine hours a day – sometimes many more. Our job makes us a mixture of front of house supervisors, teachers, backstage staff, janitors, trustees, tourist guides, counsellors, publicity officers, middle managers, bankers, muscle, community liaison officers, detectives, historians, car park supervisors, acoustic engineers and ceremonial figures in black robes who carry a metal rod. Some days we might walk up to 10 miles, all within one of the biggest parish churches in England and, last Bank Holiday, I climbed the 113 steps to the central tower seven times. When there’s nothing else to do we can always get out the Brasso and polish up the lectern.
As you can see, it’s not a job for someone who likes predictability – and it’s the most satisfying and enjoyable one I’ve ever had. I’ll tell you more about it in my next essay.

Post Navigation