A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Water, water everywhere

Woe, woe and thrice woe. The tide’s coming in.
Many years ago – many, many years ago in fact – a bishop of York founded a church in a swamp.
I’m sure John, for that was his name, had good reasons for so doing – strategic if nothing else – but, frankly, a swamp is a darn silly place to build a huge stone structure.
Not that this was the concern of John at the time (about 700AD or thereabouts) because he was only putting up a one-storey wooden thingy. It was subsequent generations who, some 500 years later, decided to erect one of the most massive stone structures of that time in the country on this very site.
And that’s what we’ve got – Beverley Minster (as you probably guessed). Tens of thousands of tons of stone piled up in a wet world of clay and drainage problems.  
How the teams of masons and labourers transported this stone all the way from Tadcaster to the building site is fascinating (seriously!) but I’ll tell you all about it in another blog, because this week I’m only interested in the ground on which the Minster stands.
Basically it’s soft, too soft in places. Three hundred years ago the ground was so soft that the foundations weren’t strong enough to support one of our 90 foot high walls and, over time, the whole thing began to tilt in a most alarming manner. To this day, if you look at one particular pillar in our north transept you’ll see it leaning at a quite remarkable angle. That’s because the part of the Minster it was supposed to support was dragging it the other way.
Once you examine this section closely you can see where the wall around it has been rippled and twisted under the relentless tension from the leaning wall – it’s quite impressive, although not as impressive as the story of how they saved it back in the early 18th century.
I won’t tell you about it now either but it’s a stonker and I promise you’ll be impressed when I do.
Anyway, that was 300 years ago. Today my concerns may seem rather small compared to those concerned by collapsing walls, but it’s a problem nonetheless. It’s tied in with the reason why we don’t have a crypt or undercroft in the Minster – they would fill up with water.
That’s a pity, actually, as an underground space would be very useful to store chairs and pews when the BBC arrives for Antiques Roadshow in May, but that’s another story as well.
Gosh, these future topics are piling up this week, aren’t they? I’d better pay attention and make sure I deal with them soon. Anyway, back to now and our immediate problem.
We’ve got water in our sound system- and our Steinway.
Yes, it’s the inevitable result when the ground becomes saturated, as it is at the moment. The water table rises.
This is old news for us – for a long time we’ve know that the stones in our floor become damper and you can easily see the effect in the pillars where the colouring changes as water levels go up and down. What was a bit of a shock was how it was affecting our grand piano, which is stored beneath an insulating blanket.
A while back it was noticed that wooden parts of the action had started to swell and stick together because of the damp
It’s quite ironic really – long-established readers may remember how our organ needs a humidifier to keep it in a damp and playable condition: well, the piano needs exactly the opposite. In a well-organised world we could just feed the excess water from one temperamental beast to the other and, voila! Universal happiness. However, this is not that sort of a well-organised world (and I’m not intending to be theological in that statement) so we virgers had to try and patch something together to make it work. So we did
I dug my old dehumidifier out of the loft and plugged it in underneath. It worked. On Day One it sucked more than a pint out of the enclosed space and I ceremoniously poured it down the sink. It then kept on this prodigious rate for a week or two, before tailing off.
I would tell Music Director Robert Poyser, in appalling mock West Country accent (which I’m entitled to do, as we’re both from that part of the woods): “Oh arrrrrrr Young Master. Would ‘e loik a pint (or whatever) of ol’ Steinway?” as an endlessly amusing way of informing him of progress.
Despite this possibly irritating habit of mine he announced himself quite satisfied that this new regime was doing some good and the piano action was acceptable once more.
In recent days the ‘Suckage’ success rate had actually started to drop quite sharply and probably in a normal year I could have unplugged the dehumidifier by now and let nature take its course. However this Sunday, we obviously had an inrush from somewhere and there was well over three pints in the container on Monday morning, with every promise of a lot more to come.
So that soft humming noise from under the black blanket behind the pulpit will be there for a few more weeks yet, I’m afraid.
We’ve also had a crackling noise in the sound system for a while: two or three channels have become unreliable but that’s not been a major problem – even at the maximum the Music Group doesn’t need all 24 tracks (three times more than The Beatles had to record Sergeant Pepper, by the way, although, in fairness, they were able to multi-track, which we can’t in a church service). However, a crackling noise is the systems way of telling you that something is wrong. Yesterday the sound engineer came over to sort out a list of problems we virgers had compiled and this crackling was on it.
We lifted the plate that exposed the under floor cabling and, to no ones surprise, it was dripping wet. Science graduates amongst my readers may know that this is a bad thing.
There were three choices: stop using the system (not practical), rip up the floor and lay everything again in insulated ducting (not practical or affordable), or sort out a virgers’ bodge that will do the job brilliantly and for no cost.
We’ve chosen option three, but I’m not telling you what it is. I think it’s only fair that any institution wanting to copy our methods should pay us a small consultancy fee, don’t you?
Anyway, that’s my news for this week. Just another tale of practical problems confronted and overcome. However, these events have prompted John and me to share one worrying thought.
Over the last few hundred years there has been a huge tannery just a few yards from the Minster, sucking out thousands upon thousands of gallons of water every day from the surrounding area to wash hides and feed the rest of its industrial processes.
That’s gone now, the site is empty awaiting redevelopment and what’s proposed to fill the space will not extract anything like those thousands of gallons of water per hour. So where’s this huge quantity of wet stuff going to go?
If we’re not careful the ground will become saturated, the land will revert to a swamp and, one day, the Minster might float away downstream, eventually ending up somewhere near Dunswell or even Sculcoates, with the inevitable implications for the local tourism industry. It would also make my morning commute much, much longer.
To paraphrase NASA, using my appalling mock mid-American accent: “Beverley, we have a problem.”
First published February 2010


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