vestryview

A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Back in Blighty

Safely back on the blessed soil of Beverley, Neil Pickford cogitates.
I have been abroad for four nights and consequently feel I should be qualified to dish out outrageous generalisations concerning human nature and other things.
And why not? I strongly suspect four days is longer than some of the less reputable tourist guides take to compile all their information, yet people buy them in their thousands.
According to these, all churches in Amsterdam are museums, the canals exist merely to provide peaceful and untroubled walks for tourists and there are no such things as feral cyclists waiting to smash you into the nearest passing tram when your attention wavers for one second. Oh, and the Metro WILL be finished later this year.
Now there’s just a hint of truth in that first statement. Everything else, however, is cobblers (or, as we’re talking about the Dutch here, then ‘clogmakers’).
The normal working churches (normal in our sense, that is) don’t figure in any of the guidebooks we found but my researches on international pay rates of virgers still required data, so I used my initiative.
Thus it was that on my first day, woefully unarmed and misinformed, I went forth into the throng of strangeness that is another country in search of some ultimate truths.
“Phantasm!”  There, I’ve wanted to write that word down for at least three months and finally I think I’ve found the right opportunity.
The rooftops of Amsterdam appear to be a ‘phantasm.’ Everywhere you look the tops of ordinary domestic buildings are reaching to the sky, each in its own individual way, creating an unreal image of beauty and decoration. It makes a pleasant change from our own Beverley skyline which is, I must say, somewhat bland in comparison.
I mean, if you go to the tower of the Beverley Treasure House (which I’m still convinced was originally intended as a plinth for the London Olympic torch in 2012 – there’s otherwise no other conceivable, sensible reason for it to look like it does) you can look out above the town. For 300 degrees out of 360 all you can see is angled red rooftops and ridge tiles, all pitches at pretty much the same angle, all at pretty much the same height, all pretty much looking the same.
In fact, when you see a flat roof it’s almost pleasant among the plethora of pitched, until you look closer and see what a horrible, mossy mess tends to grow on such structures. 
No, it’s only the small arc that displays St Mary’s and the far larger swathe that reveals the Minster in all its ocean-liner glory that merits walking up the stairs.
In Amsterdam, however, there is so much individuality at the tops, rising up to six stories in places, that your brain almost shuts down in self-defence.
Here’s a typical touristic conversation: “Oh look, there’s a fantastic view. Oh look, there’s another fantastic view. Oh look…”
“No, please don’t tell me, let me guess. It’s another fantastic view?”
“Yes, how did you know?”
So, against that background the churches themselves have had to strive much harder to stand out than they do in the uniformity-loving UK  – but they do.
Amsterdam churches have huge, soaring pinnacles and towers that reminded me a lot of the Addams Family or Munsters domiciles – glorious excess in height, decoration and anti-gravity devices.
Inside, however, I was less impressed.
In fact some of them weren’t very churchy at all – they were running exhibitions and were basically just glorified halls with unusual kinks in the ceiling (which obviously caused no end of difficulties for the designers of said exhibitions, who had draped huge banners to conceal this impertinent irregularity from visitors). One church we visited had had the bad taste to retain some of its old wooden objects, pulpit thingies and suchlike, right slap-bang in the centre of the building. They obviously had no idea of how terribly they clashed with the art from Oman that was enjoying pride of place in the rest of the space.
To find out about the real history of the building we had to go through the shop that was completely dedicated to selling Muslim art, and up some stairs to a passageway leading to the second organ. There we found just a few posters and interactive displays – and this in the very building where the Kings and Queens of the Netherlands have their coronations. 
I admit to feeling somewhat dispirited and consequently gave up on my researches for the rest of the afternoon. The following day we returned to Britain and normality or, at least, the sighing of pupils preparing to return to school after half term.
Since my return I’ve had a chance to consider my investigations into ultimate truths (and the varying pay rates of virgers) and I’ve realised they could do with a bit more work.
If I can get the funding – a suitable grant perhaps from a well-known academic institute – I feel that a trip to the West Indies might be a good idea. After all, the heating bills will be lower out there so they’ve probably got more to spend on the people who look after the buildings.
A few weeks in the sunshine will, I’m sure, also generate loads of fantastic insights that I’ll be delighted to share with you.
Keep watching this space….
First published February 2010

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