More Minster for your money
It may be better known as St David’s Day but, to the virgers at Beverley Minster, 1st March has an additional significance that no amount of daffodil-waving can overshadow.
This last Monday saw John and me pulling down some venerable notices in and outside the Minster and replacing them with new ones. The reason? Longer opening hours.
March 1st is traditionally the date when our front door is left open (cold weather permitting) until 4.45pm instead of 3.45pm – giving visitors an extra hour to visit and explore the wonders of our building – for free.
It’s partly because of the light. Now it is perfectly possible to wander around the building without the expense of switching our nave floodlights on – until just a few weeks ago you’d have been groping around in a dark sepulchre with only the soft hissing of the dead for company.
Actually, that’s complete cobblers. These days there is a fair amount of external illumination from street lighting anyway, and when the floodlights come on it’s even brighter inside.
And that hissing isn’t the dead – they were relocated from their resting places under the flagstones back in 1904 – it’s probably just our sound system making one of its irritating background noises to remind us to switch it off.
No, during the winter the hour between four and five is one of peace for the virgers.
The shop has shut, the helpers have bagged the money and handed it to us for safe keeping, the final visitors have been politely escorted from the building and we have at least 50 minutes to ourselves before any worshippers turn up for Evening Prayers.
It’s a time for catching up, doing all the tidying that needs to be done to ensure the Minster is spick and span for the following day, setting up for a concert or service, or just taking stock.
And that’s one of the joys of my job – particularly when I’m the only one on duty and all the chores are done.
On those days the whole building, the huge, beautiful space with its unique collection of art, craft and devotion, is mine. It’s not spooky in any way – the shadows merely heighten details on the bright stones in the nave and there is a peacefulness that refreshes the soul faster and better than any chemical substance can.
If we could bottle the effect of just sitting quietly in the dark during that magical winter hour we wouldn’t be facing the huge deficit on our books that’s projected for the forthcoming year – we’d have enough surplus to bail out a bank or two and the world would be a happier place.
But we can’t and, in any case, it’s gone now until next winter.
So now we virgers have to smile nicely at people for eight hours a day instead of seven, and that’s not fair. We’re being expected to provide an additional 14.2% of affability for no extra money.
You wouldn’t expect Persimmon to bung an extra utility room onto a new-build house; Ken Dodd to extend his shows an extra 42 minutes, or Led Zeppelin play an extra three minutes of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ for free just because it’s March, would you? (Actually, it might in those last two cases, but that’s not relevant to my argument).
Previous experience leads us to suspect that most people taking advantage of our extra hour will be continental visitors on their way back to the ferry.
They’ve done York, the trip back along the A1079 wasn’t as frightening or time-consuming as they’d been warned in their ‘Enjoy the cheap British pound’ guide books and they’ve got a bit of time left – just enough to stop off at our Minster, take a few pictures, go to the toilet, then on to King George Dock and all points east.
They tend not to put any money in the visitors’ boxes because, in their countries, they have a church tax which is deducted from their wages and they assume we have the same system here- which we don’t.
We’ll try and tempt them to part with some euros by offering an extra roof tour each day and it would be nice to see a few English visitors joining them as well – after all, where else can you see a smiling virger so close to tea time?