A view backstage at Beverley Minster

And John said, let there be light

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford is shocked at work
It’s not every day that you come back from lunch to find your boss all rigged up in a strange form of harness that clanks and jangles as he moves, but that’s what happened to me this week. Here I was, all ready for the normal mix of practical work inside the Minster, solving problems and guiding people when I was confronted by Virger John in a costume that looked like a pervert’s idea of a Morris Dancer.
It was not as if I’d had any warning: John had been perfectly normal during our weekly staff planning meeting, we’d shared a pot of tea and I’d prepared our normal round of toast, virgers’-stomachs-for-the-care-of. As I’d had a roof tour on Sunday afternoon it was his turn to be available at 11.15 in case of any demand, but none of our visitors at that moment felt like climbing the relevant 113 steps. In consequence he’d gone home for lunch a bit earlier than normal – and I guess that’s where it all went strange.
Fortified with Marmite, or spinach, or whatever else it is that Wendy provides, he was obviously bursting with energy and so, before I knew it, we were in the middle of Operation Bright Light.
Oh, it’s not as if we hadn’t been talking about it for several weeks now because, come the Autumn, it’s time for the virgers to address the problem of dark days and evenings inside the church – specifically, replacing any light bulbs that had given up their mortal coil during the summer – and it didn’t take sophisticated testing equipment to see that we’d lost a lot this year.
These aren’t just any old form of light bulb either – they are monstrous things that would normally be found blasting brightness onto sports pitches and the like – they are about ten inches across and weigh several pounds. And they are all located more than 50 feet above the floor of the Minster.
And that’s what the funny gear was all about. John was strapped firmly into his safety harness ready to boldly go where not many men (or women, obviously) have gone before – the narrow ledge in front of our upper windows that features a sheer drop to the floor below and no fencing to protect you. And I don’t like that.
Now I know all those things that common sense will tell you about heights: Like the vast majority of the human race I never have any difficulty in walking on a path that’s the same width as a large paving slab – when it’s on the ground. Therefore it should be no problem walking along those same dimensions when they are raised up. However, if you DO transfer that slab even three feet into the air I just start feeling uncomfortable. Ten feet and I’m unhappy; fifty feet and I’m creeping along that tiny, tiny ledge like a snail with a bad leg.
John is one of those lucky (normal?) people who doesn’t feel that way. Providing he’s properly clipped to the safety wire he knows nothing too serious can go wrong. In fact the length of harness that attaches him to the wire has got a spring in it so he knows that, if he does topple over, he’d have an enjoyable bungee-like experience to add to his memories. He also knows there are plenty of ledges in our triforium decorations for hands and feet if he needs to climb back up.
So that’s why John tends to do the aerial parts of the job while I do the all-important role of supervising from ground level. Now don’t scoff, it’s a vital part of the job as well. Someone has got to be downstairs to turn the lights on and off, to warn visitors about potentially lethal falling light bulbs and make weak jokes about Spiderman and Tarzan.
So far we (all right, he – with my help) has replaced seven bulbs above our quire and there’s still all the rest of the nave and transepts to do yet. Don’t be surprised if we suggest to the Lighting Review Committee that we remount them all at ground level and just bounce the beams off the ceiling, like the BBC did for Songs of Praise.
Anyway, that was my afternoon – how was yours?
First published October 2010


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