A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Archive for the month “June, 2011”

You’ve gotta smile, haven’t you?

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford puts on a brave face
I’ve got a splinter in my finger.
Now I do appreciate that’s not really big news, but it’s annoying me.
It’s all thanks to the flag on our north tower: well, indirectly at least.
You may have seen this flag over the last few weeks – it’s the cross of St George and it’s been flying for much longer than normal. In fact we started flying it so long ago that I can’t remember if it was John or me who actually tramped up the 208 steps to raise it, or which particular special festival we were flying it for. Was it Easter? Ascension Day? The Queen’s official birthday (no, no, we’d have been flying the Union flag for that). Prince Philip’s birthday?
Well, whichever it was, it’s had a good innings (if you can call it good, being whipped around a metal pole by winds of up to 90 miles per hour, 24 hours a day). You’re probably thinking we virgers should have taken it down rather sooner than we have – and you’d be right.
However, there are extenuating circumstances: the flag pole has been surrounded by a great grid of scaffolding recently and it’s been too darn dangerous to try and retrieve it. Oh, I don’t want you to think John and I haven’t tried, or at least thought about it. In fact, for the first few weeks the scaffolding was in place both of us did the deed several times – on one occasion twice in one day. But the final time put paid to all further efforts: it was very windy and, having climbed 165 feet and limbo-danced under one particularly irritating brace I unlocked the flagpole and prepared to lower the proud ensign.
It stuck – several times. Firstly, the rope had mysteriously swollen inside the hollow pole and it took a lot of tugging to finally persuade it to come down. Then, as I was lowering the flapping thing it decided to wrap itself around an upright piece of scaffolding and wouldn’t let me free it by flicking the rope and shouting at it.
There was no other solution – I had to do my world-famous impression of King Kong and ascend, by whatever means I could, until I was perched some eight foot above the top of the tower, with the nasty, knotted nuisance laughing at me. I DID enjoy the unique aerial views of East Yorkshire and bracing benefits of a gale blowing directly from Siberia but, grimly determined, I got it down.
A few days later it had to go up again for another festival and, afterwards, the wind was joined by driving and very wet rain. It was at that point that John and I decided to let it stay there, flying freely. We reasoned that this was the natural habitat for a flag and it would be much happier there than tucked away in a nasty dark cupboard.
And so it remained. Eventually the masons finished repair work on our pinnacles and then, several weeks later, the scaffolders removed their property. Finally our route was clear. Oh goody.
As it turned out, a major attraction in our social committee’s special ‘Welcome to the Minster’ event last Friday was a tour up the same tower. While I can’t say I was looking forward to the climb with huge excitement I was, nevertheless, pleased that I could finally collect the flag while simultaneously earning the Minster some much-needed tour revenue – a genuine ‘two-for-one’ bargain.
I was a bit more tired than I would have liked because I’d had a very busy day. We’d had a funeral in the morning and then only a few minutes to remove all traces of that service before guests started arriving for a wedding. Not a problem, but a complicating factor was that the Minster was also hosting a ‘singalonga County Choir’ event the next day and I needed to build staging for 130 visitors.  Wouldn’t you know that this staging was required exactly where the happy bride was expecting to process from her limousine towards her eager victim-to-be?
I couldn’t reasonably expect her to climb over a massive construct in her wedding finery so I had to wait until afterwards to start building – and I ran out of time to complete it before the social event started.
Not to worry – I started the tour, had just cheerfully shown everyone our 110 year old clock and was about to lead the final push to the pole when I suddenly realised I’d left the keys to the flag downstairs in my office. 
Oh…..bother, I thought.
I didn’t feel like popping down for them right then so the flag was still flying that night. Next morning I was pooped but, from eight o’clock onwards we virgers were busy with unending stage-building while people kept telling us (wrongly) that there wasn’t any toilet paper in the ladies’ loo. It was during one of those distractions that I managed to shove a splinter deep into my index finger and I haven’t been able to remove it since.
It’s my day off tomorrow and, in a sneaky and rather guilty way, I’m kinda hoping that John will choose to take the flag down without telling me.
Well, you see, I’ve got this painful industrial injury and I really think that should rule me out of having to do it – don’t you?


York branch of Guild of Vergers visit to Hull

Monday 27th June 2011

A truly eclectic collection of churches was on the menu for the CEGV Yorkshire branch when 15 members gathered from the various corners of our region to investigate Hull.
Hull recently commemorated the 70th anniversary of the most intense WWII bombing of any town outside London: 95 per cent of its houses were damaged or destroyed by the Luftwaffe and much of the historic centre flattened. Two of the churches on our tour had to be rebuilt from war time ruins but the third (and, ironically, by far the biggest target) was a miraculous survivor.
We gathered at Holy Trinity at the invitation of verger Gordon Barley who took advantage of the normal Monday closure of the builidng to give us a private tour. Holy Trinity claims to be the largest parish church in England (by floor area – 34,000 square feet) and we are fortunate that all its individual 19th century pews, mediaeval font, rood screen and 14th century brickwork survived.
Less fortunate was the next port of call – the Danish Seamen’s Church of Sanct Nikolaj. This reopened in the mid 1950s after being completely destroyed in raids. This elegant structure is one of only two left in Britain, survivors from the days when Denmark’s vessels queued up to deliver bacon and butter to the British market via ports all along the east coast.
A shrinking local congregation reflects how the children of Danish immigrants are largely integrated into the community,while modern shipping doesn’t give time for shore-leave, but the immaculate church still survives as a wonderful advertisement for Denmark itself. Traditional Danish fish-based food was provided for lunch and, in a highly welcome change from British practice, beer was readily available for the meal at only £1.25 per bottle. We were given a gentle but warm welcome by Pastor Steen Tygesen who described how he ministers to his remaining flock all over Britain, and also made us feel quite jealous about the institution of Church Tax as practiced in his country.
The final port of call was The Charterhouse – an ancient almshouse charity which boasts a beautiful Georgian Chapel from 1777. Another casualty of war, the classic Georgian buildings were restored to their former appearance and the chapel has recently been restored with many ugly additions removed, creating a more simple glory. We were treated to a traditional communion service conducted by Master of the house, the Reverend Canon Stephen Deas with organ accompaniment provided by trip organiser and Branch Chairman Richard Babington.
The wealth of the charity allows the buildings to be maintained to very high standard and, as one of our party observed: “the floor is so polished you can see your face in it!” – not an obviously good thing in the gents’ toilets, but there you are.
And so home again.

Oh, the terrible pain

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford is nursing a wound

I managed to hurt myself in the Minster last week. Oh, not in a huge way – although I’m sure it would have been taken as an excuse for a 13 week ‘sickie’ by some people I know – but it was enough to be uncomfortable. I’d pulled a muscle in my chest when I was helping a few people shift our 20,000 ton Steinway piano (I may be exaggerating the weight, but it feels as heavy as a battleship when you try to move it).
I ignored it when it first happened, had a quick cup of tea, and promptly forgot about it until I had to move something else that was quite heavy later in the day – a stack of chairs, probably, or something equally uninteresting. It twinged a bit more so I grumbled to myself and, as I was due to start my normal mid-week ‘weekend’ off, decided to treat it with a medicinal glass of red wine when I got home. I was so medicated by half past ten that I could hardly find my way to bed, much to the annoyance of my ever-tolerant wife (25 years of marriage last Tuesday, thanks for asking. No, I don’t know what she sees in me either, but people are strange, thank goodness).
Anyway, I felt strangely lethargic for some peculiar reason the next morning and decided to let my mind roam around for a while without me – let it get out of the ‘skullery’, so to speak … hahahaha (oh, please yourselves). When it came back it was in a thoughtful mood and, after a bit of prodding, vouchsafed its contemplations unto me.
So, for what they are worth, here they are:
“Isn’t it strange how we do things today, compared to the Good Old Days?”
“Oh yes?” I queried me. “What do you mean?”
“How we specialise in things. In the old days we didn’t and,” my brain went on, warming to its theme: “I wonder if we’ve actually changed things for the worse.”
It was obviously an issue that merited further investigation and so here, dear reader, is a quick precis of my findings:
Specialisation is a relatively modern phenomenon: as a young economics student I was taught that the increasing focus on individuals doing more and more limited jobs more and more frequently boosted productivity by a factor of ever-such-a-lot. The standard example of this was the Ford Model T where, because individuals just did one tiny, repetitive operation all day, they could build cars far faster. It got to the point where one new ‘Lizzie’ came off the production line every three minutes, as opposed to about three times a year as happened before.
This was parodied in the film ‘Modern Times’ where Charlie Chaplin’s character was supposed to spend his entire day tightening identical nuts on an unending stream of identical boards. He went mad.
Before the 20th century, however, things were very different. Then, for example, the master mason who designed Beverley Minster back in 1190 (a date currently subject to debate, but roughly right) would not have been someone who merely chiselled lumps of stone into strange and interesting shapes, no. They were (in no particular order) architects, mathematicians, quality controllers, quantity surveyors, employers who had the threat of starvation as a useful weapon in negotiating pay-scales, diplomats, engineers… and so on and so on.
But this general mix of skills wasn’t confined to the equivalent of white-collar workers, no sirree. Tradesmen or artisans were expected to be very versatile as well. Once you’d passed your apprenticeship you would know everything there was to know about the material, resource or substance that your master traded in – and I mean EVERYTHING.
Take, for example, the case of the Thorntons of York. These were craftsmen in wood – if you needed something done that required the use of tree by-products they were your people. It was Thorntons who carved the wild, almost over-powering decorations on the west end door and above the font: items which to the modern eye appear almost sickly in their complexity but which are fabulous examples of a wood-carver’s craft. Then they could also turn their hand to scaffolding.
It was the same Thorntons who, in 1716 erected the 90 foot tall triangular buttress that stopped one of our walls falling down and was subsequently used to push the wall upright again without collapsing and bringing the rest of the church crashing down with it. Their understanding of how wood worked, both as a reinforcing and a flexible material, was vital in what was one of the biggest civil engineering repairs in Yorkshire’s history. And they could also turn their hand to whittling away at small lumps of wood to make attractive decorations throughout the rest of the church.
Now that is what I call an interesting job.
I know the world divides into two types: those who like the predictable from day to day, edging their way towards retirement. Then there are those who, like me, love variety and will deal with retirement if and when we ever reach it. My brain concluded that being a virger suits me down to the ground – never two days alike – combining the practical and the artistic – just like in the 18th century.
And, as my brain also pointed out, I’m getting an 18th century wage to go with it.
That really hurt.

When is a door not a door?

As the outside temperature rises Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford detects a decrease in angst

It’s really nice when we experience a spell of hot weather in Beverley as the Minster goes ‘au naturelle’ (oooh, nice! A bit of yer actual French, that was).
Well, what I mean is, we open both doors on the north side of the church to let the sun (and visitors) go in and out.
For the Highgate entrance this means a 20 foot tall wooden thingy is agape during the day and this presents a more welcoming appearance to visitors. At the east end the disabled door is hooked open and this has the effect of removing a barrier between visitors and the toilets – which has a surprisingly profound effect. Suddenly, people are no longer staring at a large arrow and asking: “Is this the way?” as though having an existentialist crisis. Nor do they say: “Can we get back in again afterwards?” obviously fearful that a free-entry historic monument might try to lock them out. Now they can just follow their noses (so to speak) to the toilets.
So some summer visitors are relieved, both before and after they’ve been relieved (if you see what I mean) and I know why. It’s all to do with primitive memories and I shall explain further, once I have donned my professorial gown and mortar board.  Pay attention class:
It is obvious that almost all human behaviour has its roots in survival lessons learned by our distant cave-dwelling ancestors, subsequently refined over the centuries.
Let us examine this in the context of the humble door.
Now the door is a simple device, merely a rigid extension of the original brontosaurus hide that successful hunters used to keep the warmth in their caves after a triumphant trip with pointed spears and Raquel Welch. Arguably, therefore, it’s the oldest piece of home-improvement in human experience as upturned skulls being used as soup tureens or fingerbowls should be classified as status symbols rather than practical inventions.
A brontosaurus skin used as a door flap was also a safety device: it would have convinced other brontosauruses that the cave was already occupied by one of their own and, of course, being so big, there wasn’t likely to be room for two of them, so they’d go away. This theory is boosted by the fact that brontosauruses were very, very stupid. Ancient man quickly learned that brontosaurus skin doors were an aid to survival – a lesson they could pass on to their children.
And, of course, once they were alone with Raquel Welch behind skin/doors that kept prying neighbours away they were more likely to have babies than those who didn’t – I trust I don’t have to draw pictures on this.
The human race thus developed a profound respect for the life-saving and life-giving properties of doors and, being superstitious in those times, began to imagine they had mystical powers. Eventually they started to worship them – and Stonehenge itself proves that this cult of ‘Door’ had risen to incredible levels. Mind you, it’s in Wiltshire which, let’s be fair, has always been a bit strange. I mean, have you been to Swindon lately? Eeugh!
We don’t know much about the form of door the ancient Swindonians worshiped as, sadly, after all these centuries they have rotted away leaving merely the doorposts and lintels as eloquent and somewhat sad reminders of their primitive civilisation.
It is surprisingly that the more sophisticated Egyptians never got the hang of doors as this knowledge would have saved them an awful lot of trouble over the centuries. They were a people who worshipped their rulers (in a way that modern politicians can only dream), and wanted to save them from the constant threat of plagues and whatever else. They built giant triangular royal structures in a desperate attempt to keep their supposedly divine rulers safe from locusts, hailstones and whatnot but never mastered the door. Instead they constructed elaborate mazes to keep the savage elements away, which were only partly successful.
Sadly for the Pharaohs their enthusiastic but deluded and ignorant citizens ended up placing airtight seals on the entrances to protect them – with tragic consequences. Just think what a difference it would make if they’d only invented the hinge. Why, Tutankhamen might still be alive today!
In more modern times just recall the fate of the crew of the Marie Celeste. Theirs was a simple mistake:  the captain accidentally dropped his key into the Atlantic Ocean. The rest of the crew went out in a boat to help him find it and a door swung shut against them. They were stuck as the ship drifted away, unable to get back inside and eventually beached on the south east corner of the United States. Here, as a bitter reminder of the reason why they were never able to finish their meal, they named their new home ‘Florida Keys’ – a corruption of “Flo? Where da’ keys?’
It’s no wonder so many humans are frightened by strange doors after all these experiences, so we virgers are delighted to help reduce their anxiety levels in warm weather. Now we’ve got to work out some way of helping those poor wretches who are so traumatised by dreadful buried ancestral memories that they have to leave taps running when they leave.

A Sense of Perspective

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford tries to find something interesting
News! All the news that’s fit to print! Breaking News! Hold the Front Page! Exclusive! Daaaaah-da-da-daaaah! Boing: Here is the News….
And so on. The clichés pour out, conveying the sense of ‘Gosh!’ The sense of ‘Now!’ The sense of ‘Important!’ Television news editors in particular justify the vast sums of money they spend on collecting, packaging and presenting ‘News’ for a variety of reasons; journalists (or ‘The Fifth Estate’) as they were politely named in my youth, were supposed to be the pit-bulls of democracy and truth, ferreting out information (sorry, that’s a bit of a mixed metaphor there) that would otherwise be kept from you.
One idealistic individual opined that: “news was what other people didn’t want you to know” which, if true, might lead to an appalling deluge of trivia. After all, just because I don’t want you to know that all my underpants are fluorescent green with a stencil of Mickey Mouse on the side doesn’t mean that you’re interested in reading about them. Although these days, if you are, there’s always Twitter I suppose, or ‘Hello’ magazine, or celebrity TV or – actually, there’s thousands of places where you can find out that sort of stuff.
And that’s my point: what I might think of as boring or puerile could be the most fascinating fabric in the wardrobe of some else’s life. Just because I don’t care what Jordan’s vital statistics are this week doesn’t mean that millions of other people aren’t hungrily chasing the latest information about them.
I’m not intending to have a cheap bash at celebrity culture, or even make a reasoned argument about how it leads to an inevitable collapse of morals and society – that’s not my department. Instead it reminds me of just how difficult it is to judge what will be of interest to people.
In the Minster, mostly, the task is relatively straightforward. You can reasonably assume that any casual visitor who walks through the door and looks around with wonder is going to be vaguely interested in the building and its history. Give them a few facts, describe the difference between the Minster and a cathedral, show them where the toilets are and you’ve covered 90 per cent of their immediate concerns. If they ask you a different question then it’s easy to respond to that as well.
It gets harder when you’re about to start an hour-long tour of the ground or roof: sure, you know that most of these people want to learn more about the place (after all, they’ve paid good money to do just that) but within the group you may have children who’s attention span is going to be severely stretched by too much history, adults who really don’t care about the religious reasons for the structure and individuals whose special knowledge in one area would qualify them for Mastermind. Some are fascinated by our tapestries, others would rather watch paint dry.
If you haven’t been told about these special interests then it’s darn difficult to make the tour fascinating for everyone but we virgers do try, watching the responses as we talk and varying the information we give and the way we present it.
It’s harder still to achieve total satisfaction when you are, for example, writing a weekly column for a newspaper when the amount of direct feedback is non-existent. It’s almost impossible to be sure what subjects will interest your readership, if you’re lucky enough to have one in the first place.
Now I don’t want you to think that I’ve not got anything to write about this week and I’m just rambling on to fill the space – it may be true but I don’t want you to think that. No, I’m currently spoiled for choice on subjects, but unsure which to select.
I have to decide if you would be fascinated by knowing that we virgers have taken 15 per cent more people up in the roof to date than we had by this time last year (despite some abysmal Bank Holiday numbers). Possibly not.
How about the hundreds of chairs I’ve had to move over the last few weeks to accommodate large audiences for the Black Dyke Band and Early Music Festival? – hmmm, probably not.
What about the fact I’m working on a script for an up-to-date video of the Minster which should start filming later this summer and be available to boost church funds in years to come? –  nah, perhaps another time.
Will anyone be interested in the progress of my ‘Abolish Telephone Selling’ crusade? Well, it doesn’t matter anyway because nothing’s happened this week.
Oh, I can’t decide. The best think I can do is direct you to a new blog site I’ve set up at long last, after months of faffing around.
You may remember me telling you that, before the Beverley Advertiser started reproducing me in a non-pixelated way, I wrote pieces for the beverleylocal website. Well, that website has now gone the way of all flesh so I’ve finally started uploading an archive of the 80 exquisitely-written articles that had never felt the stamp of the printed page. There’s bound to be something you like in there.
So please feel free to browse for whatever takes your fancy.
Or not, of course. It’s your choice.

I have heard the call – let’s get to work

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford is near the end of his tether.
You may remember how, last week, I discovered that I, YES I! had been CHOSEN to lead a crusade for the betterment of the human condition. Yeah, verily and all that, I had received a Divine Sign that I was The One who was to achieve great things.
My messianic zeal took a bit of a battering when it was pointed out to me that a divine spray of water that alerted me to my special status was, in fact, merely the result of a well-known hole in a window. This spray manifests itself every time hard-driving rain blows onto the Minster from the west – which it often does.
Nonetheless, one should never casually dismiss an honest attempt to change the world for the better, whether divinely inspired or not. After all, in the blink of an eye I had been struck with an idea that would end an obvious injustice that needs to be addressed and improve the living conditions of millions of people around the world.
This huge Wrong has been around for many years, on and off but I’ve been blissfully able to ignore it until the last week or so. But suddenly, for no apparent reason, it accelerated up the annoy-ometer to become a real Grade A pain in every single appendage and, unlike most weeks, I’ve decided that SOMETHING NEEDS TO BE DONE!
So today marks the launch of my campaign to Abolish the Slavery of the Telephone Call Centres.
Yes, this is the great crusade that has inspired me and will command my fullest energy and attention for at least the next half hour.
It was prompted by six different calls over a short period of time. In every instance it was heralded by the normally welcome sound of a ringing noise, a sound that signifies so many good things: efficient, low cost modern technology that unites friends, answers questions and/or facilitates modern life. I was smiling as I answered the first, eager to find out which of the above was about to happen and delighted to welcome any of these potentialities into my house.
“Hello,” I projected warmly, choosing a somewhat unoriginal word but nonetheless using it in a sincere manner. There was a pause and then an unfamiliar voice asked, in a slightly tentative way, if I was ‘Mr Peeekforth’. The temperature dropped, I knew what was coming.
Now I feel very sorry for the poor drones who have to do this sort of job because it’s unbelievably horrible. Hour after hour on the minimum wage, staring at a screen, trying to establish a rapport with complete strangers and persuading them to do something they wouldn’t have done by themselves. In at least 99 times out of a hundred they never get the chance to finish their conversation or build a rapport: in the one per cent of times they do it’s an entirely artificial relationship producing, at best, a fleeting sense of pleasure followed by an almost immediate sense of loss. Just time for one heartfelt: “YAHOO!” and then the system starts punching out numbers for the next random dopey sucker whose positive response justifies, in cost terms, the anger and frustration meted out on the other 99 per cent of the population.
I have sympathy with the poor types who are forced to do this work, but none at all for the work they do. I was courteous, firm but polite, with the first caller. I was firmer, but still polite, with the second. The third was, I’m afraid, interrupted in her flow by me pointing out that: “I never, ever buy anything over the ‘phone, thank-you-good-BYE!”
The fourth phone call of the day was a friend of ours. I think she was expecting a warmer greeting than the brusque: “Yes?” that punched through the ether, although at least she was forgiving when I explained my bad manners. She’d had three such calls herself that morning.
The fifth call of the day was a machine, and that did annoy me because I’d switched back to my happy: “Hello, how are you?” persona and I somehow felt the call centres had won a little victory over me.
Off-balanced, I was a sucker for the sixth caller who was well into her spiel before I could stop her. When I did finally get a word in edgeways it wasn’t easy to persuade her that I genuinely was not interested in suing the banks over payment protection insurance.
“Why not?” she said in tones of incredulous disbelief, unable to understand that anyone would give up the chance for easy money, (after paying a huge fee to whichever money-grabbing toe-rag was financing this invasive sales operation, of course).
“Because I didn’t buy it in the first place,” I explained. “Because I don’t  buy anything over the phone – AND NEITHER SHOULD ANYONE ELSE!!”
These poor souls are trapped, enjoying only minimum wages reluctantly dribbled out by brutal, uncaring employers – it’s a crime against humanity, theirs and ours. It’s time to launch an international campaign to end their abuse and it’s…oh bother, the phone’s ringing.
Oh dear, I’ve quite lost my thread now. Sorry, what was I saying?
First published June 2011

An introduction to God’s own county

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford goes back to his roots
As I sat gently sipping a second celebratory mug of tepid tap water I continued to muse on the subject of special occasions. Anniversaries! Huh! What are you good for? (Absolutely nothin’ – say it again, yeah!)
Anniversaries merely provide an excuse for lazy columnists to assemble a lot of irrelevant fluff – the last refuge of a desperate writer in my opinion.
As I brooded in my lonely garret the cold wind blew through gaping gaps in the walls and a piece of paper was forced from its hiding place. As it crackled open I discovered, to my surprise, that 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the King James, or ‘Authorised’ Bible. This is the most influential book in the English language: it bequeathed us even more catchphrases than good ol’ Bill Shakespeare managed.
Suddenly I was filled with a burst of patriotic pride and inspiration – but possibly not for the reasons you imagine.
Now those of you who’ve been reading this column for a while (and paying attention) may have noticed that I’m not from these here parts. Nosireee, I’m from Gloucestershire – where the hills and the sky fit together exactly as they should. Oooo arrrrrr.
Now I know that Yorkshire is a special county and can boast that from here to Heaven is only a local ‘phone call, but we’re even closer in sunny Glos. We don’t need a ‘phone, we just speak up a bit.
Possibly it’s the way the clouds blow up the Severn Valley or the sun sets in the west but Gloucestershire nurtures a creative form of mind, a questioning attitude, an independent way of thinking and a deep understanding of the world.
Once upon a time I had ambitions to use those self-same mental attributes to become something really huge in the literary world – perhaps even the best-known living Gloucestershire author. This ambition was dented, firstly by the noisy arrival of Jilly Cooper and, secondly, by the phenomena of Harry Potter which somewhat raised the bar. 
Everyone has heard of JK Rowling – she’s so famous that the Yorkshire Post once claimed she was born up here (in the same street as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and all the Apollo astronauts, no doubt).
I have to break your Yorkshire delusions on this one: she’s a Gloucestershire girl and always will be (Chipping Sodbury, to be precise, followed by a spell near the Forest of Dean).
However, I have to say that she’s probably not the most important Gloucestershire author of all – the best-known, undoubtedly but not the most important. You see, there’s another whose writings changed the world and the very way people think more than 400 years ago. I doubt that any single writer will ever be able to match his impact in the centuries to come.
It’s William Tyndale of whom I speak, a learned translator of the Bible into English who laid the foundations for the Protestant revolution. This swept away mediaeval Catholicism as the state religion in Britain and throughout the English-speaking world. So how did Tyndale achieve all this merely by translating a book?
Well, you see, his was the first translation of the Bible into English to be printed and it immediately became widely available – a best-seller. It created waves, not just because he produced an accurate translation of the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew texts but he did so in a style that was understandable to the common man – an idea that the Catholic Church hated. 
Knowledge has always been power and in those days kings and princes used the foreign words of the Latin Bible to claim a ‘divine right’ to rule. This alien mumbo jumbo was uttered to justify laws and punishments, reinforcing the elite’s private and often selfish interpretation of scriptures. Ordinary humans, not knowing this language, must have thought the priests and magistrates were invoking some sort of magical incantations like ‘abracadabra’.
Thanks to Tyndale and the printing press, for the first time the words in the Bible weren’t in this private language of the educated elite. Now, if you could read, or listen to someone who could read, it was all there for you.
Tyndall gave the ‘ploughman in the field’ the opportunity to question his superiors and challenge their assumptions and claims. He virtually created a new understanding; that it was the ordinary churchgoer who was divine, not the church itself, and this shook the Catholic State to its foundations.
From this freed-thinking sprang Protestantism, the Reformation, the Church of England, and, indirectly, my present employment. His work formed the bulk of the 400 year old King James I Bible: in fact scholars estimate three quarters of its Old Testament and four-fifths of the New is directly lifted from Tyndale’s Bible it took more than 50 of the most eminent scholars in Britain to do the rest.
However, his achievements didn’t generate the unbelievable worldly rewards that are daily bestowed on Ms Rowling,– oh no. He was tried for heresy, strangled and burnt at the stake in 1536 at the tender age of 42.
He must have had a rotten agent.
First published May 2011

The start of the rest of your life

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford prepares to take up cudgels
I didn’t bother writing this blog until Sunday because, quite frankly, I wasn’t sure there was going to be another Sunday and, frankly, I do hate wasting my energy.
You see, I was one of the many, many millions who recently learned that the world was going to end last weekend and so I decided to wait and see. Now, as I mentioned in a previous column, I have clear thoughts on the (un)likelihood of the world ending next year to fulfil an entirely imaginary Mayan prediction but I hadn’t realised when I wrote it that some Californian loony fundamentalist preacher called Harold Camping was saying we were all going to die last Saturday. Actually, to be more precise, the tiny minority of goody-goody two-shoes (as defined by Harold) were going to experience ‘The Rapture’ and all the rest were going to die as a result of earthquakes etcetera, etcetera.
Being such a good person as I am I thought I might be experiencing a bit of a ‘Camping’ holiday this week (hahahahaha), but no such luck. On Sunday morning I checked around the Minster at the 8am and 10.30 services to see if anyone was missing. Pretty much everyone I expected was there so either The Rapture has passed us by, or it never happened.
I wondered about asking people if the earth had moved for them yesterday but then thought it might be taken the wrong way, so I didn’t. Then I thought I’d better get on and write a column or various angry people would start yelling at me.
So what can you write about on the day after the world hasn’t ended? I bet that’s a problem Harold Camping wishes he doesn’t have at the moment although, at the age of 90 it’s not likely he’ll worry about it much longer. I wonder how he’s going to explain to God just what he was trying to achieve by producing his (second) inaccurate prophecy of Armageddon. If it was as simple as getting himself famous and lots of money then he’s going to be in a lot of trouble.
 I used to wonder what it was that drove people to keep predicting the end of the world – an end that always seems destined to happen within their own lifetimes. I’ve already lived through a few of these myself. My first was the certainty that, through Mutually Assured Destruction, the USA and USSR would blow us all into radioactive dust after a four minute warning, during which we would hide under a tablecloth. This fear started in the 1950s (I’m told), and lasted through the 60s and 70s. Simultaneous with this was the certainty of widespread starvation among large chunks of the human race, plus the end of all petroleum supplies, and therefore modern civilisation, by about 1974.
Since then we’ve also had AIDS, Kohoutek’s Comet, Ebola, the Millennium Bug, the Millennium itself and Tony Blair/Alastair Campbell.
I may have forgotten a few others – oh yes, of course there was also Bird Flu, Swine Flu and that other one that was going to leave huge piles of bodies in the streets just two summers ago. In the 1980s we were about to be crushed in a new Ice Age: soon we will be crisped by Global Warning. 
All these scares have been formulated by apparently respectable scientists and backed up with large diagrams in The Times and Daily Telegraph; smaller, brighter charts in the Mirror and Sun, and articles in the Daily Mail assessing how the scare will affect house prices.
So far we, as a species and as a civilisation, have survived them all – often leaving nothing more serious than soon-forgotten ripples in our lives. Then, almost immediately, the next end-of-the-world story surfaces and is eagerly lapped up.
It’s as if people feel a need to experience something vastly bigger than themselves – in their eyes their lives aren’t enough and need the extra-specialness of a cataclysmic event to make them feel as important as they consider they should be.
I admit to being one of those so afflicted but, as it happens, I received confirmation of my own extra-special status only this Sunday in the Minster. I was going about my duties when suddenly I felt a shower of divine liquid landing upon me. I looked up and, verily, I was being sprayed by Holy Water* pouring from an image of Christ. Closer inspection revealed this water was emerging from Christ’s chest, near where the centurion’s spear might possibly have pierced His body on the cross – a miracle!
I knew immediately that I was destined for great things and I should lead a massive campaign to improve the lot of human beings all around the world – I might become a veritable modern-day Wilberforce. So I thought about it and quickly decided what my campaign will be – and I shall tell you about it next week.
I’m on a mission.
*This ‘Holy Water’ was, actually, caused by a hole-y stained glass window that let in rain water, but that’s not important. It was still A SIGN!
First published May 2011

Celebrations are in order

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford ponders the significance of dates.
Please excuse any wobbly typing this week but I’m a little bit tip…tip…tip hooray-ish (hic). Yes, surrounded by fan-mail I celebrate completing one year as columnist in the world’s most famous newspaper that’s entitled ‘Beverley Advertiser’ – this very publication in fact.
Magnums of the finest vintage champagne have been brought to my doorstep by beautiful delivery girls who all bear a striking resemblance to stars of TV series ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, while huge cheques for the rights to publish my work are floating gently from the sky.
Chief executives from national newspaper groups are tearfully ringing me up, apologising for mis-spelling ‘virger’ in their coverage of the cartwheeling clot in Westminster Abbey after THAT wedding.
Weeping readers lament the absence of my column from two weeks ago, cursing whichever deranged High Court judge granted the superinjunction to prevent me revealing the relationship between a person who works in the BBC and someone from South of the River.
And then I wake up and learn that almost none of the above is true…
The reality is that the Advertiser simply failed to publish my beautifully polished prose in the week that marked my anniversary due to ‘production difficulties’.
To console myself I remind me that it’s actually not much of an anniversary anyway. After all, I did start writing this column for the Advertiser’s website more than 18 months before my pieces began appearing in print, so the significance of this week is somewhat debateable.
It’s odd, anyway, how we humans attach so much importance to coincidental dates. My wife is currently in a frenzy of letter-writing, inviting friends to celebrate the 25th anniversary of our wedding, which is nice but somewhat illogical. I mean, I can remember the day itself with considerable clarity, but many of the years in between are a complete blur. It doesn’t feel like a quarter of a century, and I’m not even sure what a quarter of a century should feel like. But we’re going to have a party in the Minster anyway, so that’s nice.
Now I am also going to be 56 this year. No big deal – I still feel almost as stupid as I was when I was 23, but I’ve noticed that everyone is treating this particular birthday, for some reason, as less important than my 55th. Mind you, if there was a big celebration last year then they forgot to invite me to it.
Really, I don’t think these anniversary things matter, although other people find them of huge importance.
I know of someone who decided they’d better have a mid-life crisis purely because they’d reached their 50th birthday and so, for no good reason, they went mad for a while.
I read that John Lennon felt so depressed by his 30th birthday that he had to fly to South America: (a note to my younger readers – John Lennon was the founder of a guitar-based beat combo that was very popular in the 1960s and now has acres of reinforced tarmac in Liverpool named after him. He also had a fairly depressing 30th anniversary last year).
Remember the excitement over the date 2000? Christian churches proudly boasted it was the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ (which is a slightly contentious claim) and IT/computer experts also emailed us to say we were all going to die unless we gave them lots of money. I didn’t, and we survived just fine.
People do like anticipating incredibly unpleasant events for dates where various digits come together in a pattern– apparently there was a considerable ‘end-of-the-world’ mood around in the year 999AD and, just because we’ve safely cleared our latest millennium and there won’t be another one along for a while, some excitable pessimists have co-opted other cultures to create more instant harbingers of disaster.
We’ve now learned of a supposed prediction from the wise, ancient and mystical Mayans that the world will end on one of their special dates in 2012. Excuse me. Would this be the same ancient, wise and mystical Mayans who didn’t predict that their own civilisation would be annihilated 300 years ago? Yes, it is and, as they didn’t see that coming, it doesn’t give me too much confidence in any of their other long-term forecasts. I’ve got more confidence in the Met Office.
I know some floppy-brained people have bought into this whole 2012-disaster picture but it sounds like typical New Age cattle droppings to me so I won’t start building my own Ark just yet, thank you very much
No, it seems obvious to me that coincidental alignments of dates, especially those repeated in 52-week cycles have no cosmic, or even personal significance whatsoever – a view obviously shared by the Hull Daily Mail who haven’t even sent me an e-mail to mark the occasion. But I don’t care, really I don’t.
I’m sorry, do I sound a bit peevish? Can’t think why. Oh well, see you again next week – if any of us live that long.
First published May 2011

The unending war

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford enlists for the greater good
The fine weather arrived in the middle of April, just in time for the first of our Spring weddings. It was a beautiful day and the groom – whose family was staying at the Hunter’s Hall Bed and Breakfast on The Leases (motto: “very good beds and very good breakfasts”, visit for details) – assumed we’d laid on the glowing sunshine especially for their big day.
And, of course, I accepted full responsibility and his grateful thanks.
After the service itself the happy couple went through our West Doors for the obligatory photographs and compulsory confetti-throwing (our vicar’s obsession with chucking bits of paper surely makes him a bit of a ‘scatter-brain’ hahahahahaha- sorry) but, sensibly, insists that this should be done outside the Minster to aid the process of biodegradability.
Well, it wasn’t a windy day but, to no one’s surprise (especially not the virgers) some of the coloured paper shapes wafted back inside the church where they lay quietly, adding gaiety to the scene.
But that was Saturday and, of course, on Monday it’s time for the virgers to tidy everything up and get the building ready for the next event, whatever that might be. So the confetti had to go.
Now, let’s be honest, it’s not the most exciting job in the world, vacuuming the Minster’s floor. After all, there’s about 30,000 square feet of it – and that’s a lot of paving stones for confetti to land on.
So I try to make a game of it, just to keep myself amused and motivated – and my favourite is a variation of Space Invaders.
You see, the confetti is (or are, not quite sure of the grammar on that one) an alien race, intent on conquering the Minster for its own evil purposes. Don’t bother asking what evil purposes pieces of paper might have for the Minster – just accept it, alright?
Anyway, I am the Protector of Earth – if I put on my formal black robes to do the job properly I’d be Darth Virger but, in my sparkling latex Minster t-shirt, I am instead Flash Pickford, Wielder of the mighty Henry and Master of its legendary flexible Dooberry.
I search the universe for traces of my evil opponents, destroying uncountable millions in the first minutes of my counter-attack, but my enemies learn from the fate of their unlucky comrades. They start to hide and I need all my skill and cunning to outwit and conquer them with the mighty Vacuum of Doom.
Tenacious little so-and-sos, I have to concede as I proceed further and further down the nave towards the altar, making mental bets with myself as to how far they will have penetrated the sacred building on their nefarious tasks.
As I advance, driving deep into enemy territory, I encounter victims of their mad campaign of conquest – civilian casualties that have been innocently left underneath our pews during Sunday morning service and captured by the rapacious hordes for who knows what evil purposes (again).
Worst of all was the sight of seven once-mighty kneelers, now lying supine and abandoned among the wreckage, but I also encountered the following: a pair of gloves, the powdered remains of one pulverised slice of bread, some strange pink goggles, two used tissues, two chocolate bar wrappers (empty), various sweet papers (empty), five palm crosses, one T candle (unlit), a plastic bag and two torn gift aid envelopes (empty). One can only imagine the agonies they must have suffered.
I mourned for each victim as I carefully bagged them up for reverential disposal at a more convenient time, and swore revenge for their loss.
Finally I had completed my cleansing of the nave and there, standing proud and defiant right in the very centre between pulpit and lectern, was a solitary and surprisingly tiny pink horseshoe. As battle-hardened warrior to worthy adversary I saluted it with the respect it deserved before bringing my mighty whoosh-weapon into play and, without a flinch it was gone – conquered but unbowed.
Proudly and yet with sombre dignity I turned off the Mighty Henry and started to carefully repack my trusty military assets, very aware that a warrior’s fate depends on how well they look after their weapons.
Wearily and yet with the sense of a job well done I put my tools back in their proper places and returned to reality – and then had a horrible thought. After the photographs this particular couple had a wedding reception in our south transept. This meant…my colossal brain instantly realised the danger … the happy couple had walked down our South Nave Aisle, contaminated by the foe. Unwitting allies of the enemy, they had allowed the confetti to smuggle itself past my defences. We were all doomed unless I acted quickly.
I ran to the weapons cabinet and unleashed the power of Henry once more, then followed this with the sterilising majesty of the awesome Blue Meany itself, the revered Nautilus!!!!
We’re safe for now – until the next wave.
Anyway – how was your day?
First published May 2011

Clearing out the clutter

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford starts a long and painful process…
It’s all the fault of IKEA I tell you. Well, probably helped by my own slightly obsessive personality (borderline autistic, some have commented) but it’s mostly IKEA’s fault.
Loyal readers may remember that I bought two DVD storage units last week, completing a line up of white(ish) wood shelving around my trusty laptop.  Having quickly assembled and pushed them into place (pausing for only five-ten minutes to admire the new-found balance and beauty in the room, and stroking them gently) I had to start filling them.
Initially it was easy – I’ve had loads of CDs stacked on non-standard shelves for many months now so it wasn’t a question of what to put in. Rather it was more a case of: “will there be enough room?” And there wasn’t. So I started to re-jiggle other shelves to make the layout logical and fit for purpose, to my eyes anyway.
I won’t bore you with details (they wouldn’t bore me but I expect you’re all busy) and, to cut a long story short and, what with one thing and another and all that, I ended up with a bit of a problem.
Somewhere in the process I’d transferred my complete set of non-metric 1:50,000 scale Ordnance Survey maps (204 in total, thanks for asking) from upstairs to down (which looked splendid in the space previously occupied by some DVDs that are housed in CD cases – don’t ask) and shelf-shifting was going well when I realised that a set of part-works from the 1960s just didn’t fit anywhere. 
Now this was a set with great significance to me: it was a terribly, terribly educational publication when I was a young spotty swot and I had to have it. I even paid for it out of my own pocket-money (about 2/6 a week, if ancient memory serves me correctly) and asked for binders as birthday and Christmas presents to preserve the precious pages.
Over the subsequent four decades I have carried those eight volumes plus separate index through five changes of address and lovingly stacked them on uncountable different shelves, dusting them every now and then and wiping down the spine when necessary.
The one thing I’ve never done is actually read the things.
I stared long and hard at the shelves as a new, unaccustomed itch started to tickle inside me. “Chuck it” these thoughts were urging me. “Clear ‘em out.”
And, with surprisingly little heartache I did so – and threw out another 28-part encyclopaedia set into the bargain, freeing up four more shelves. They’re outside now, waiting to go to the book recycling box where they will undoubtedly prove to be of no use to anyone else either – but at least that won’t be my responsibility.
In fairness I’d already checked to see if there was any monetary value left in them – after all they’d been huge investments when we got them – but you can’t even give the darn things away now. The internet has made information-gathering into an egalitarian task of milliseconds rather than an hours-long chore among bookshelves or libraries. Instead of being hoarded, information has been freed – in all senses. Back in the mad web-bubble 1990s some magazine even GAVE AWAY a double CD version of Encyclopedia Britannica – I’ve still got it although I never use it.
I found myself feeling oddly liberated as soon as I psychologically cast out these books, even if I’ve yet to physically transport them away. Maybe it’s just the way my memories are filed but as I packed the heavy tomes into boxes I recalled various disappointments in my teenage life and suddenly they didn’t matter anymore it was as if any remaining link to those pimples of unhappiness had been snapped.  My psyche was cleaned, scrubbed, I felt less damaged. Refreshed and revitalised I went to the loft and started seeing what else I could purge from our lives and my past.
But how can you decide what’s truly important? Not so long ago the Minster used to have four free-standing stoves to warm the building – apparently they were useless to anyone more than five feet away but would melt you within that range. They also needed a mountain of solid fuel to keep going.
One of my predecessors decided that a good, convenient source was a huge pile of mouldering paperwork that cluttered up an otherwise useful room – so he burned it all. Parish records and who knows what treasures of information, lost forever.
There are currently two researchers who would like to find where this virger is buried so they could jump up and down on his grave.  Yet, to him and everyone around him at the time, what he was doing was sensible and good.
This recollection stopped my fundamentalist approach to tidying up. I’ve now invited the rest of the family to chip in and suggest what they think we should keep or chuck – which probably means the spiders will be undisturbed for another few years or so.
Maybe I should bring those encyclopaedias back in – I could always keep them safely in a box until we all agreed. Maybe they’ll be valuable again one day and, anyway, I can hear them calling to me.
Oh dear, the bad memories are coming back too.

First published April 2011

Shopping – the new religion

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford examines social trends.

It was about two years ago when I realised that I was fully and finally confirmed as middle-class.  I visited IKEA – then went back again. Mind you, that second trip was to collect a flat-pack bookcase I’d stupidly left behind in the loading bay but, as I was having to return anyway I bought another two, just in case….
This week I’ve visited another branch of the same multi-national retailer and, although I have still to eat one of their infamous meatballs, I admit to having looked forward to my shopping trip with unreasonable excitement. Ever since my last visit there has been a small length of wall in my study that has just been crying out for two of their little DVD shelf units to match my bookcases and now I’ve got them – YES, I’VE GOT THEM! (laughs hysterically then tries to calm down again).
It was a wonderful experience, just as mind-boggling as the first but comfortingly familiar. The fact that this particular experience took place in the artificial construct that is Milton Keynes did not affect matters: the strange presence of nearby concrete cows and artificial countryside did not permeate past the entrance to the enormous car park. I felt at home.
I’ve even joined the IKEA ‘family’ – an action I’ve never considered in the past with any retailer, even Uncle Marks and Aunty Spencer (although I’d certainly consider a serious proposal from a well-stacked model railway shop).
Anyway, I finally fully understood what people mean with the rather glib phrase: “Shopping is the new religion” and, even better, this followed my reading about a new ‘scientific’ report that said shopping prolongs your life. Wow! My brain started humming and I felt extreme excitement as profound thoughts shunted around unused neurons.  I had a revelation.
After this epiphany I had to navigate 160-odd miles of M1 and associated frivolities to get home so I switched over to cruise control and allowed my synapses to sizzle. Unusually lucid thoughts spilled from my excited brain as the car drove itself through the endless speed limits delaying my return to our beloved M62.
The new understanding now seemed so obvious – Christianity promises a good afterlife but science has “proved” that shopping extends your present life (which, obviously, you can then spend doing still more shopping). It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? Spend enough time on retail therapy and you’ll live to be 1,000: when you finally die you won’t want to go to heaven because you’ve already got all the fluffy pillowcases, bright red glasses, scatter cushions, mirrored things and too-small book cases you could possibly want, and if heaven doesn’t serve meatballs then you won’t want to go anyway.
So I should certainly consider changing my career (yet again) and going into retailing to increase the overall level of happiness of the human race: certainly I’ve seen a greater number of miserable faces at some church services than I noticed in the vast shell of IKEA (not at any Beverley Minster ones, obviously, but I have been around a bit. Some non-conformist services can feel a bit joyless at times).
We were all browsing, selecting, picking up and checking ourselves through the system with the help of various yellow-shirted individuals who were unfailingly polite and helpful (so very unlike me when I’m under a bit of pressure). We all seemed to be satisfied with what we were doing and whole families seemed to be ‘experiencing the moment’ as one – and if the very young ones didn’t want to play ball well, they could play ball (hahahahaha – sorry) in the special games area. Heaven on earth – or was it?
Obviously, you’re going to expect me to say: ‘no’, – and I’m not going to disappoint you. Consider the following: we do certain things over and over again for a few reasons: because we must (e.g. buying food); because we can (e.g. listen to music while driving a car); because it brings us pleasure (e.g. playing air guitar to Led Zeppelin); or because we can’t stop ourselves (e.g. addiction).
Round about the depressing area of Woodall Services on the M1 I realised that life isn’t all about self-indulgence.
I’ve become good friends – no, members of the family – with many of the congregation at the Minster with whom there would not normally be any connection. The thing is, we are united (under our Minster roof) by the message that life isn’t all about us, as consuming individuals. It’s about sharing our talents, resources, assets, feelings, understanding and even love with other people. It forces us to act in certain ways that are not normal to us, ways that are not pure indulgences.   
By the time I’d reached Goole I was firmly of the opinion that it is the self-indulgence of shopping rather than religion that truly is: ‘the opiate of the people’ (copyright Karl Marx, that well-known 19th century comedian). If that’s so then IKEA is like mainlining heroin – pleasurable to start with, but ultimately destructive if you get addicted to its simple level of satisfaction. Luckily, I can give it up at any time, no problem.
As the towers of the Minster stood proudly over the Westwood I realised I was home again, safe from the siren-call of flat-pack furnishing. And then I realised I needed a new mirror for the bathroom….and a side table for the living room…and…and…

First published April 2011

My exciting life – and other animals

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford tries to sum up his day…
I realise I got a bit distracted t’other week when I tried to tell you about my normal day. Please don’t think it was because my mind wandered due to boredom generated by the subject – heavens no.  I was merely derailed, as you may have noticed, by a growing sense of injustice and absurdity.
My sense of injustice has also been fanned, nay – enlarged and engorged over the last few years – by the sad tale of the Minster screen projectors.  These expensive items of equipment had a sorry history and reputation among the virgers for an obstinate refusal to perform when required.  When we finally found out what the problem was, however, we felt great embarrassment so, obviously, we don’t want anyone to know about it.
So please don’t repeat what I am about to tell you to ANYONE.
You see, we virgers were the guardians of the equipment. Individuals would, with the permission of the vicar, borrow it for church-related events and return it each time with a reassuring: “Everything’s fine – believe me. No need to test it.”
Well, being trusting souls we did believe them, ignoring the sound of crunching glass as we replaced the boxes in their safe storage spots. We then could never figure out why the stupid things wouldn’t work next time we tried to set them up for an All-Age Service or suchlike. Being naïve we couldn’t deduce that the muddy outline of a boot print on top of the box might indicate someone had been less than gentle with the machine. We thought the failure was mere mechanical mischief – along with the disappearance of the expensive connecting cables.
We played with the old church laptop, we loaded a new operating system and did everything we could to solve the problem without costing the Minster a penny. Eventually, however, we gave up, called in the experts and were amazed to find out that, basically, the poor things had been wrecked by careless users.  The bulbs were in pieces, a fan had been bashed out of its fitting and some of the internal connections were loose. Nice.
So we bought another one and the vicar decided to keep it under his own careful control rather than trust us with it anymore. John and I heaved a sigh of relief.
So you can imagine how nervous I was when I asked to borrow the highly-delicate machine for a non-church use last Saturday, even though I knew permission would be granted.
You see, the projector was needed for the Annual General Meeting of the Minsters Rail Campaign (MRC) – a campaign close to the hearts of me and the vicar (in that order).  For my sins I look after the rather amateurish MRC website while Jeremy has become a patron and also led prayers at the start of last year’s meeting.
We hope to persuade enough individuals and organisations of the wisdom and viability of restoring a direct rail link between Beverley and York, using much  of the former trackbed that connects  Market Weighton, Pocklington and Stamford Bridge (with slight detours where housing estates have been plonked over the route). Local authorities back it, national environmental organisations support it membership is growing and some large construction firms are showing an interest, so who knows? Certainly the upper echelons of the Minster (and I) think it’s a good idea and we’re expecting to help with a publicity stunt later this year.
Anyone who has visited us may have noticed a fine model of our building in the nave. Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, York has got a comparable replica of itself and we’re going to rig up some sort of model railway ‘twixt both constructs and invite the TV cameras in. Don’t know where, don’t know when, but watch this space.
Anyway, long before that great event we needed the Minster projector so it was ceremoniously unlocked from the Vicar’s climate-controlled security zone and carried delicately by yours truly on a cushion made of the finest feather-filled satin covers to the venue.
The machine worked perfectly, the meeting concluded and I was left with the terrifying responsibility of getting it back along Flemingate to the Minster in one piece. As I trudged back my arms were sagging under the weight and my ego was crushed by a crippling sense of duty. The satin cushion was damp from the nervous sweat of my palms.
Gradually my destination grew larger as faltering footsteps drew me slowly close until, finally, I was almost there. Deep joy – I could see John in the distance. I hollered, beckoned and quickly hung the projector around his neck before cycling away at speed. And that was it – not my responsibility any more – I laughed madly with relief.
Yes, I’m sure it’ll be fine next time we want to use it. Trust me.
Um – oh dear, I seem to have gone a-wandering again. I promise I’ll try to concentrate harder on my subject next week.
First published April 2011

It’s that time of year again

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford almost regrets having a weekend off
Oh dear, it’s terribly sad and all that sort of thing but I wasn’t on duty last weekend. It was one of those occasions when I have a couple of days off in lieu of being paid more wages and so I was slumped at home, preparing for the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix. This started at a horrible hour in the morning. Worse still, It was the start of British Summer Time so, in reality, I was glued to the telly at horrible minus 60 minutes – which is even worse.
Yet, despite my absence I was confident that my boss, smiling John Dell (whose dark alter-ego, of Car Park Johnny is known to only a few people) would have changed the Minster clocks so that, as Beverley citizens rose bleary-eyed from their fragrant pits and eyed the tower they would see (provided that they lived to the north of the structure) that the hands pointed to the correct hour.
And, of course, any insomniacs within range would have heard the bells ceaselessly tolling the correct time during the night. They may not have liked it, but they would at least be punctual.
Peeling the top off a disgusting, mood-setting Australian tube of Fosters I felt a slight twinge of guilt at John having to do this task by himself because, quite frankly, it’s a two-virger job. It shouldn’t be, but those silly Victorians seemed to have a blind spot when it came to making machinery convenient for the humble working man to operate. A frame of mind that regarded covered cabs for train drivers as feather-bedding their workforce (and decent living wages as unnecessarily generous) was not going to consider virgers’ convenience when maintaining accurate time.
Our trusty clock mechanism, a big, black ticking beast manufactured by Messrs Smith of Derby, celebrated its centenary just after the millennium. It looks absolutely splendid – to an outsider. Brass gleams brightly, the painted frame shines and the massive pendulum ticks majestically as if the end of the world wouldn’t stop it. Every two days an electric motor, the only concession to modern working practices, rewinds the weights that keep the old ticker going – thus preventing we virgers from having to climb 112 steps to wind it by hand or cranking a capstan at ground level.
However, when it comes to changing the time then the good old-fashioned methodology still applies – and what a stinker it is. You see, our Empire-building Victorian ancestors put the simple hand-operated mechanism that controls the clock speed right slap bang against the far wall. And then, to make matters exactly very, very much worse, they put the dials that tell you what time is showing outside the tower on the opposite side of the machine, facing away.
With two of you in place it at least means that the virger who drew the short straw (and ends up lying on their back with one arm raised to release the escapement) doesn’t have to worry about overshooting the mark. Virger Two watches the dial, warns Virger One when the target is approaching, then counts down until split-second(ish) precision is achieved.
It’s great for any watchers outside as the minute hand sprints round the 14 foot diameter face – in fact it’s so good that we performed this trick several times for the BBC last year. The second time was when we did the feat twice for the Antiques Roadshow (sorry, sorry, I know I promised I’d never mention it again but the story doesn’t make sense otherwise). Yes, we spun the hand rapidly to seven o’clock, then ‘dong’ and Fiona Bruce spoke from the top of the tower to introduce a new season of the programme in question. And we repeated the exercise for eight o’clock in case the decision-makers at Broadcasting House changed their minds and decided to show it later in the evening schedules.
They DID change their tiny little minds and the programme actually went out at half past the hour, so all our careful coordination of movement, bells, camera zoom and speaking was a complete waste of time.
And previously we’d spun the dial for Look North to illustrate the hour going forward. For the late night report they, rather irritatingly, showed too many shots of me climbing the stairs and then just a second of the hands themselves in action which, after all, had been the whole point of the exercise.
It took us over an hour to get the hands back to where they would have been if the BBC hadn’t been there and the bells were bonging as if a jazzed-up Hunchback of Notre Dame had run amok with a hammer. So that was, quite literally, a great waste of time (hahahahahaha).
So spare a grateful thought to John this week as the chimes ring out correctly; synchronising and setting the rhythm of our fair town as they have for centuries. I certainly did as I sucked on my early morning tinny but, I’m afraid, their musical reminders were completely obliterated by the roaring of 2,400cc V8 engines on the other side of the world.
Don’t worry – it’ll be my turn next year.

First published April 2011

And now for something completely different

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford provides a pot-pourri of pointlessness.
I was in one of those tranches of tedium which intersperse moments of intense excitement in my life: not, I should point out, while at work because I’m constantly ‘doing’ there, but at home. My wife must have been away.
Anyway, in this rare period of peace I started casually flapping back through my columns (not that I’m in any way precious about them, you understand). As I carefully lifted the plate glass protective sheets out of their safe-deposit box and scanned them for printing imperfections I suddenly realised it has been a few months now since I bored you with an account of my typical day.
As my current typical day is subtly different from typical days in 2010 I thought you’d be fascinated to know more, but then things went wrong: I blame it on the fact that it’s a slightly untypical year at the moment.
You see, although we are now nearly at the end of March we still haven’t celebrated Easter, and that’s confused me. On March 1st the Minster followed our normal practice and extended our opening hours to 5pm. We virgers mentally take this to be the official end of our quiet winter/spring seasons and gear up for our summer visitor influx which starts on the Easter weekend. But this hasn’t happened yet. Until it does daily visitor numbers are counted in the dozens rather than the hundreds. All month the Minster has been open to prospective visitors for an extra 60 minutes each day yet remained as empty as Gordon Brown’s diary.
It’s the problem of having a floating date for Easter, that’s what it is.
“Well,” any non-Christians might say, “sort it out – it’s your holiday.” And I have to agree – something needs to be done.
In fact, the date of Easter is and always has been a problem among Christians and involves major doctrinal issues (apparently). It is the most important festival in our calendar and there are (supposedly) huge, complicated and awkward calculations involved. Oh yes, it’s not just a case of seeing what dates are already busy next year for things (you know, daughter’s wedding, Uncle Jack’s 60th, that sort of thing) and nominating the nearest free Friday.  Neither is it a random date selected by a blindfolded darts player.
It’s actually… actually, I must admit I can never remember what the process involves, beyond something to do with cycles of the moon,(see below) but I do know that Orthodox Christians in Eastern Europe celebrate it several weeks after we do. In fact this disagreement was one of the main reasons for the split between ‘them and us’ back in the 11th century.
Conversely, in England, it led to unity. King Oswiu of Northumbria called a summit or ‘synod’ at Whitby in 664AD to decide whether he was going to follow the Easter dating traditions of the Roman or Iona-based Celtic church. He opted for Rome, much to the annoyance of subsequent generations who like heavily-patterned crosses. It also annoyed the Celtic monks who had to relocate the ‘tonsured’ or shaved part of their head from the front to the top. (Our current vicar, a true ‘broad-church’ Anglican, sports both styles simultaneously, although I don’t think it’s intentional). 
I’m sure that an expert could tell me why the dates have to be floating, unlike at Christmas, but I’ve never asked, so I can’t tell you. All I know is that it’s a pain – and not just for the Minster virgers.
This year school terms, and so many other areas of life, have been distorted by the lateness of Easter and it’s ridiculous. This year my elder son’s 13 week Spring semester is made up as follows: 10 weeks on, then three weeks Easter break, then return for JUST THREE WEEKS to complete the year.  Can you imagine what sort of distortions have been made to cram the necessary revision periods, exams and normal teaching into those 15 days?
Madness, I tell you. MADNESS!
Now I know some church-goers are (justifiably) upset when a judge says that English law no longer gives Christianity a special status so I expect I’ll get yelled at for what I am about to say, but to heck with it …. (swallows hard, pauses, then nervously speaks): I think that schools and universities should ignore Easter when it comes to planning their year. Give equal length terms with a half term slap bang in the middle and stop distorting timetables.
We can still keep Easter special by retaining the two bank holidays for when Good Friday and Easter Monday happen to fall. I’d argue that making them separate from the longer holidays would actually make these two days MORE important and prominent than now, lost as they are within a much longer holiday period.
Oh dear, this outburst has come as a bit of a surprise to me. When I started today I was fairly confident I would be offering you an interesting update about Russ Conway and several other little bits’n’pieces. Instead I seem to have struck a blow at the traditions conjoining and defining the relationship between the British State and Christianity. Hmmmm.
Perhaps it’s best if I stop now before I dig myself an even deeper hole.
FYI –  Easter always falls between March 22 and April 25. March 21 is the date of the vernal equinox, the start of spring in the northern hemisphere. Easter Sunday is always the Sunday after the first full moon after March 21 (unless the full moon is on a Sunday, in which case it is the SECOND Sunday afterwards) There you are – simples!
First published April 2011

Travel broadens the mind – is that a good thing?

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford gets in a car for a trip – and likes what he sees.
Oh dear, I seem to have come out with another rant this week – perhaps I should have seen a doctor about getting my angst removed for Lent. However, until then you’ll just have to put up with me as I am.
I start with a shameful confession – terribly embarrassing and all that, but I have to admit it. T’other week I travelled ‘doon south’ (or however that should be written). I freely admit to being one of those softie southerners, so beloved of old-fashioned Yorkshire comics, so the trip shouldn’t have been much of a culture shock to me. But it was.
I won’t bore you with the details but, for no particularly good reason I found myself in Banbury with a few hours to spare. I knew the silly nursery rhyme: “Ride a white horse to Banbury Cross,” (although I suspect younger generations are more familiar with: “Ride a white swan like the people of the Beltane,” by Marc Bolan than the aforementioned whimsy) but nothing more. In any case it wasn’t poetry that called me, but simple curiosity.
There’s a very strange church, St Mary’s, right by the latest version of the Banbury Cross and that was fun to visit with my virger’s eyes open. Maybe I’m being subjective but when the only people in a church are well-meaning ‘watchers’ who sit there reading books it feels more like a ‘dusty museum’ experience than something more profound.  At least with the Minster we have ‘welcomers’ who actually like to answer questions, people available in the shop and, last-but by-no-means-least, the chance of seeing a real life virger cleaning the floor or moving chairs. In other words, a quality tourist experience. But this wasn’t the shock.
The eye-opener came as I walked back to the car park through the shopping streets. Now, it’s not always safe to generalise but Banbury isn’t too different from Beverley: it is a market town in a predominantly rural district. Until fairly recently it had a cattle market in the centre. Like Beverley its local railway network was cut back in the 1960s and it has also lost a lot of its traditional industry in the last 30 years. Unlike Beverley, however, there is already a massive modern retail development of the type that is blamed for sounding the death of small shopkeepers  – and yet the High Street was bustling, chock full with independent retailers.
So we don’t need to worry about the new Flemingate development hurting our existing shops, do we? Well, actually, I think we do, and here’s why.
Banbury put the huge (100+ retail unit) shopping centre slap bang next to the older, smaller shops, and people use both of them. Pedestrians park in the multi-storeys, walk to the big stores and then, almost seamlessly, they are in the old town centre. 
Compare that with Beverley’s nearest equivalent – Tesco – and extrapolate (oooh, cheeky). Currently, if a visitor comes to the former cattle market site and car park, what will they find? That their approach has been alongside high walls that hide the old town and give no hint of the riches therein. If one does decide to search for old Beverley what confronts them? They have to navigate four ugly lanes of New Walkergate traffic towards an especially boring section of The Beverley Wall; then an uninteresting walk to Dyer Street, which seems to be facing away from them. There are a few shops there, to be sure, but Dyer Lane itself has little to recommend it, architecturally speaking, and is often dark and unwelcoming. Doubly unwelcoming is the ornate Dyer Lane sign that has its back towards the putative visitor, giving the impression they’re leaving through a private drive. It’s as if the town hasn’t realised that not all shoppers start off in Saturday Market– many actually need to be directed (even enticed or invited) in from external car parks.
So what about the Flemingate proposals? Will they encourage shoppers into the old town? Will they heck!
How many visitors to that site are likely to cross the railway line at all – even to come to the Minster which, let’s be fair, is fairly obvious from the site and quite close? Perhaps a few. But even the most adventurous are unlikely to tramp further if all they can see is a railway station and then an old, tall residential street with narrow pavements that merely lead to yet another bit of Blank Beverley Wall.
Banbury demonstrates that, if the transition from new to old shops is seamless then everyone benefits, but this may be impossible to achieve here without knocking down Railway Street or the newer buildings in Eastgate – and some people may object to that.
My own more modest proposals involve railway lines, trams and an extension to the Beck – possibly also an all-year-round skating rink. I’d be delighted to sketch them out on a convenient beer mat or, better still, show the scene of my vision during one of my regular tours in the roof of the Minster (11.15am and 2.15pm most days, £5 per adult) if anyone’s interested.
I was hoping to end this piece with a clever allusion to ‘Having our (Banbury) cake’ or ‘Banbury Cross’ but I couldn’t think of anything that made people laugh – sorry. Maybe some jokes just don’t travel well – but good ideas should.
First published March 2011

A blast from the past

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford takes another rambling trip down memory lane.
This is a tale that will probably have most redolence amongst any of my female readers who are, shall we say, enjoying their second youth, but I beg my younger readers to stick with it – you might find it interesting.
I was having a quiet afternoon, scraping chewing gum from the Minster floor and pondering suitable forms of punishment. One mild-mannered visitor had just suggested hanging, drawing and quartering, on the grounds that ‘whipping is too good for them.”
A saintly former workmate of mine once seriously proposed making them chew curried chilli peppers while their mouths were taped shut, but I was currently playing with the concept of hanging them upside down from our tread wheel crane with their hair stuck to the floor by a big slab of the smelly stuff. An entertaining image, but not one likely to be approved by the vicar or PCC. So I continued pondering – what would our ancestors have done in these circumstances?
Soon, as the mind does, (or mine does anyway) I was drifting away, wafted on the memories of ancient smells and screams back to my pre-Beverley home, where I used to be a member of the congregation of St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol. This, like Beverley Minster, is classified as a Greater Church but unlike the Minster, is not in a particularly salubrious part of the world – in fact, right on its doorstep is the parish of Bedminster.
Now Bedminster was designed to be a tatty Victorian slum, built on the cheap to cram in workers and their families serving the coal mines in North Somerset and, frankly, it went downmarket shortly afterwards.
You get the picture. Before the last World War it was a REAL grotty tip – normal street urchins looked down on ‘Bemmie’ boys.
Oh, over the years many people tried to improve it – the Luftwaffe being particularly effective in this regard – and nowadays bits of it are almost acceptable (if you can’t afford anywhere better, that is). However, shall we just say you probably wouldn’t want to swap if you were currently living in North Bar Without.
One of the Bemmie Boys (probably now classifiable as ‘a child with special needs’ but who was termed ‘a right nasty tearaway” by our more robust ancestors), used to break into St Mary Redcliffe after hours.  A skinny so-and-so, he was never caught until, one day, he found himself sitting at the organ and was transported to a new world.
His fumbling fingers forced faint fugues from the finialed fluting of the fabulous f’organ (sorry, the letter ‘f’ is a bit sticky today). Before he knew it a half hour had passed and he was roused by a firm hand clamping itself onto his shoulder and shaking him (vibrato).
The church organist (for it was he) then explained, in a muscular Christian way (furioso) that the young lad was caught bang to rights and would soon be expelled (volante) from the building into the tender arms of the local constabulary (Sweeney Todd).
The lad, however, pleaded (lacrimoso) that he had found a new calling in life and that the organ called to him (appassionato).
The man gave him a choice – if he was serious then he, the organist, would give him some lessons. If not, then the lad would be singing falsetto for many years to come, as well as enjoying the company of some rough gentlemen at His Majesty’s Pleasure, that well-known chain of hotels and finishing schools. .
The boy WAS serious, he learned to play and, 30 years later under the assumed name Russ Conway, he was the biggest-selling musician in Britain with two number one hits in 1959 alone.
Britain’s answer to Liberace – in more ways than one – he was a hugely popular performer throughout the 1960s and a mainstay on Saturday night TV until the BBC finally caught up with the times and started broadcasting guitar-based music (some time in late 1975 I seem to remember).
Many women now collecting their pensions will have danced to his swinging piano tunes, swooned to his charming smile and sighed at his dashing good looks, never once realising that, if it hadn’t been for the exceptional kindness of one church organist, their fave rave might have had a very different life.
So, when I see another group of little angels running around the Minster these days and chewing I smile benevolently, wondering if there’s another Russ Conway hidden away inside one of them, or if they’re all a bunch of unreformed Trevor Herbert Stanfords.
Then I remember the hours of childhood torture as I was forced to listen to the jaunty rhythms of “Side Saddle” and “Roulette” and I start looking for a heavy club.
The moral of this tale is: don’t spit out chewing gum in the Minster – you never know how the virger may react.
First published March 2011 

I’ve seen the future, and it’s an Apple

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford shares a brainwave
I would love to claim the following idea as my own but, in all honesty, I admit it’s the result of a brainstorming process that took place in the Virgers’ Vestry. Still, at least I was in the room when the brilliant flash occurred and so, in a few years time, I may be able to annex the entire concept as my own in the same way that Al Gore, the well-known hot air balloon, claims to have invented the internet.
Like any member of the Church of England who has an interest in the future of the planet (i.e. anyone who isn’t actually in a box) we were moaning about the amount of paper we use on a weekly basis. This environmentally-sensitive thinking was prompted by the sheer number of different booklets we’re giving out to everyone these days. This particular week seemed likely to set a new (and ethically-dubious) record due to changes we were introducing in regular worship.
We’ve had one particular form of words and ceremonial music for a good few years now and produced our own books to make life simple. When the Minster welcomed its new vicar and musical director back in 2009 we expected different thoughts about the accepted pattern of services. Unsurprisingly, they have now decided to make some changes and the congregation needs to know about them.
Environmentally speaking it’s not unreasonable for us to be producing new books which incorporate these alterations as the old ones didn’t have much life left in them – they are fragile and frayed around the edges. However, we haven’t got them yet. Consequently every week the Minster is handing out a veritable committee meeting-worth of sheets to all comers. This was worrying us.
To move the conversation on someone (it may even have been me) suggested: “To save paper, perhaps we should go back to having a screen with a bouncing ball”. The world waited, trembling, aware that something momentous was about to be said………..
“I think we should give everyone iPads,” came the response and, BANG! there was the answer – not only to this problem but also TO ALMOST EVERY SINGLE PROBLEM FACED BY THE MODERN MINSTER!
You think I’m exaggerating? Ha! Let me list just a few of the radical benefits:
Hymns and changes to weekly services instantly on view – no need for virgers to stretch out and put up numbers on the high boards or get a hernia carrying boxes of books. Copying costs slashed;
Graphics available to illustrate heart-rending tales or provocative thoughts of preacher and add punch to delivery – say no more;
Clear sound – no need to keep constantly tweaking, replacing or servicing our irritating sound system – headphones also available for hard of hearing;
Clear view of preacher – no need for extra pairs of spectacles, therefore less pairs of glasses left to be collected/thrown out from virgers’ vestry;
Illuminated screens – means we don’t need to provide light for reading hymn books so we can save big money (and the planet) by switching off our football pitch-style floodlights;
Digital money transfers – no need for collectors or counters to risk infection from 2p pieces or the (occasional) piece of dirty paper. Instant money credits, simple to gift-aid, which make giving so much easier (and quicker).
Additional subscription applications available – for a small fee we’d let you have live updates of football matches, F1 races, Top Gear etc. Extra revenue to church.
Interactive format – leave messages, prayer requests for vicar in case they’ve got to belt off straight after service (email facility disabled during sermons, of course);
Rent out units to receive services at home – less dangerous travel in bad weather, thus prolonging the average life of congregation. Downloadable so busy Anglicans can access service at a convenient time – and fast-forward through the boring bits.
We could even pipe in very important messages at critical moments, such as “The virgers politely ask you to replace your kneelers after use – thank you”. This would save time after services and reduce the exorbitant Sunday double-time wages paid to the virgers (oh, hang about, they’ve already done that).
It’s brilliant – I can think of so many other areas where this would help as well but I’ve run out of space. I may well return to the subject in future columns.
First published March 2011

The Cenotaph is special

Beverley Minster virger ‘Professor’ Neil Pickford examines human psychology.
Now zen class, if you would sit strrrrraight unt pay attention ve vill move on to ze next slide…
Sorry, sorry, where was I?
I’m afraid I must have slipped into virtual-teaching mode while considering what constitutes a sacred space in the Minster, but please excuse me. This fantasy allows me to indulge in my favourite “arms-waving-about-and-talking-loudly” activity and is otherwise completely harmless.
Anyway, as I was saying last week before I was so rudely interrupted by a shortage of newsprint, the Cenotaph in Beverley Minster has become a very special place to me in recent years, and I think the way this has happened reveals a lot about what can be termed ‘sacred’ places in church.  Firstly, let me just quote from the Minster’s own in-house historian from the 1970s, Thomas Tanfield:  “In the central bay … is a Cenotaph designed by Mr F.L. Pearson and executed by Mr R. Dawson of Marylebone, London. It is modelled after the shrine of King Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey and is inlaid with mosaic and enriched with rare marbles of beautiful colour. The panelled niches contain the names of officers and men of the East Yorkshire Regiment, and the panels on the north and south screens contain the names of about 2,000 East Riding men who served in 120 other regiments...”
The cenotaph itself, the chapel it stands in and the huge dark blue coloured windows nearby were erected in 1921 after massive public donations to remember those who lost their lives on the battlefields of World War One.
When I started working at the Minster a mere four years ago this Cenotaph was just a big, rather gaudy monument with names on. I felt a certain amount of respect for it because I come from generations of military fathers: my own joined up as a young teenager in the 1930s to become a military musician and escape a life of poverty and boredom, only for Hitler to come along and make the whole experience a lot more unpleasant than he’d been expecting. So I was fully aware of monuments commemorating those who fell in various wars and had been silently present at many of them as Dad continued to play clarinet in the local ‘TA’ band on Remembrance Sundays.
But the Minster’s cenotaph wasn’t anything special to me: none of my family was associated with this part of the world and you won’t even find either parent’s surname listed on it. Yes, terribly sad and all that, but entirely theoretical. But then I started working on Tanfield’s book about Beverley Minster.
Tanfield himself spent 30 years researching our building, putting all his findings into a scholarly tome, then produced just six copies of his meisterwerk. One of these is the ‘bible’ of the virgers, providing the answer to any question about the building for which we can’t remember details, but our copy is getting very battered and fragile.
I transferred all this precious information into digital format, transcribing around 100,000 words with my own delicate little pinkies, converting it into an easily-searched publication available to anyone with a computer.  Then I realised that, by creating a spreadsheet, I could do the same with the names on the memorial, so I started.
It’s only when I began entering the thousands of names listed that it started to dawn on me just how massive the scale of death and loss must have been. There are 7,514 names on the Cenotaph alone – all of them local boys who fought in various divisions of the East Yorkshire Regiment. The side walls record a further 2,261 East Yorkshire lads attached to other regiments, making a total of 9,775 deaths. And these are just the ones who died close to the spot where they were injured: since I made the list I have been informed of more than a dozen individuals who died of their wounds in hospitals back in Britain, but who are not listed here.
Suddenly these weren’t mere numbers – to me they became a weight of human loss that was tangible – roughly half a capacity crowd at the KC stadium for example. The cenotaph moved from being a dusty relic to a spot with real emotional overtones for me. I sometimes go in there now and think about the lives cut short, and the pain carried by those who came back as well.
My relationship with the cenotaph has evolved: it owns me now. And, I guess, that’s what really makes a place sacred to you.
And next week I may return to the subject of rabbits. 
To be added, perhaps, if space permits: Electronic copies of Beverley Minster by Tanfield on CD, compiled by Neil Pickford, are available at Beverley Minster shop, priced £9.99.
First published March 2011

Another page from the Minster book of history

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford looks for ancient meanings.
I must immediately apologise to readers from last week who were hoping to discover something about rabbits. I am afraid that I currently have nothing to say, profound or otherwise, on the subject of cute, cuddly cottontails so the subject will have to rest.
I’ve been unable to concentrate on such matters because I’ve recently been getting very angry about overpaid po-faced juvenile journalists spouting ignorant, emotive and innumerate tosh on TV about public spending cuts. The BBC is producing an unending parade of spokespersons who are unquestioningly allowed to tell us the cuts will end civilisation as we know it but a simple maths exercise shows it’s only a reduction back to 2009 funding levels. Back in my own journalistic youth my boss would have said – actually, you wouldn’t want to read what he said in a family newspaper but, to précis: “don’t let yourself be spoon fed. Ask the lying so-and-so why they’re lying”. But not one of these modern TV ‘journalists’ or ‘correspondents’ is! Grrrrrrr.
However, this is probably not the right place for that discussion – although I’d be delighted to continue it in a suitable hostelry, if you’re paying.
Anyway, as an cooling down therapy I have been contemplating the difficult subject of things that are, or were, regarded as especially ‘sacred’ in Beverley Minster, and why. It’s an interesting exercise (I think).
Once, some 500 years ago, the most important object in the Minster was the reliquary of St John of Beverley – the second most significant shrine in the north of England. This reliquary was so important that it had to have a church as magnificent as the Minster to house it. The whole building was designed as a sort of taster for pilgrims as they got ever-closer to their objective, which was nothing more or less than the miracle-working remains of a humble but deeply inspirational Saxon bishop from around 720AD.
The monks who guarded this tomb were granted substantial rights and possessions in the Saxon period; the conquering Normans’ respect for the remains protected the town from the ‘Harrowing of the North’ in 1069. It was John’s remains that continued to attract vast wealth to Beverley in the Middle Ages and made it one of the richest towns in England. John’s tomb was truly ‘sacred’ yet suddenly, because our national religion changed from mediaeval Catholicism to a relic-free brand of Protestantism, all such worship was outlawed overnight. The reliquary became redundant and was melted down for Henry VIIIth’s treasury. Even the exquisite stone platform it stood on was denounced as too ‘papist’ and dismantled.
So a richly decorated shrine that, for nearly 800 years, had been a source of wonder and veneration for peasants and kings alike was transformed into an object  worth more broken into its component pieces than when still in one piece.
And what about the formerly holy contents – you know, the holy remains of St John himself? Well, they were just stuck in a lead-lined box and forgotten about for a while.
A similar ‘de-holying’ transition happened in the transepts of the Minster, (the bits that stick out from the main length of the church). Once there were around 16 different permanent altars in these areas. Each of these would have been fenced off from its neighbour, with its own rich decoration, priest, programme of worship, closed-off sanctuary area, secure storage for communion elements, candles and mystique.
Today most of those spaces are utilised for completely mundane purposes and we can’t even be sure what was there before. For example, was the space that now houses the changing and robing area for the choir ever an altar? It’s certainly not very holy now. And some of the other formerly sacred spaces now contain, (in no particular order of non-holiness): the shop (three bays); the town exhibition (three bays); an open space (two bays); storage for staging and plastic chairs (one bay); display cases and the Henin Cross from World War I (one bay); a memorial bay for the East Yorkshire Regiment and the fallen of World War II – and the Cenotaph (one bay).
Aha, now, the Cenotaph! That’s an odd one and it’s a space that has taken on an increasing importance to me over the last two years. If you’re still interested I’ll tell you why next week.
Until then I’d like to leave you with a profound thought – but I haven’t had one yet. Maybe I’ll come up with something in time for my next scribble.
Here’s hoping.
First published  February 2011 

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