A view backstage at Beverley Minster

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.

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