A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Back to school – the hard way

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford finds himself in class
That’s it, the Christmas break is over and the harsh realities of the new year demand that we knuckle down and start doing something positive to take us through the next 12 months. Many people have made good, worthy resolutions which, I’m prepared to bet, in 97 per cent of all cases have already been broken.
I, however, continue doggedly in my aim to lose two stone this year, and have already got used to the taste of cardboard instead of bread, an absence of butter and expanded polystyrene as a substitute for cheese. If I could just make my tastebuds accept lo-cal Ribena as a substitute for red wine I’d be even happier about the prospects of achieving my objective. 
And so, with the temple that is my body en route to improvement I’ve also decided to develop new skills and accomplish great things in 2011. So I’ve decided to learn a 3-dimensional CAD program and then map out Beverley Minster, demonstrating how it was built.
Yeah, all right, I can hear yawns of apathy around HU17 but this is actually quite interesting. A certain Mr John Phillips, with the aid of a like-minded individual from the colonies, has spent years reconstructing the sequence in which the various stones that make up the Minster were assembled. If I can work out how to use the 3D wotsit I should be able to create a sequential display of its assembly through the centuries – and it’s quite a different story to the one in the guidebooks.
John has also uncovered clear evidence of a 13th century square tower in the centre of the church, which later builders subsequently transformed into a much taller octagonal structure to match the height of our newly-built west towers. It is even clear that the present nave roof is not in its original position and John has also had a stab at working out roughly what shape and size the original church was before the present Minster was built around and over it.
That, in its own way, I find fascinating although I realise I might be in a minority here. But the more I learn the more I become fascinated by the full achievement of our ancestors – you know, the people who actually built it – because they were really up against it.
You see, during the 13th century England was, in effect, one gigantic building project: the big Norman castles were largely in place by then so, in every part of the kingdom, masons, carpenters and labourers were now beavering away on the dozens of gothic masterpieces we still admire to this day: Beverley, York, Lincoln, Gloucester etcetera – as well as the many huge abbeys and monasteries that survive only in ruined form. 
Yet this was all done in the most appalling conditions: the weather during that century was dreadful. For several years on the trot it rained continuously during the summer months, destroying all crops and also making it impossible for mortar to set. Famine was an ever-present problem and the population was so weakened by successive crop failures that it was very easy for the Black Death to kill off more than one third of the UK population as it did.
In addition, even if the workforce was alive and strong enough to do all the hard work required, the weather was still conspiring against the builders. Temperatures were often too low to get the medieval mortar to go off. This meant that building work had to stop and the stone, which was being shaped in quarries and stone yards around England, had to be stacked on site until they could actually get them to stick together. Then, once the temperature rose sufficiently for the various chemical reactions to take place then they really had to work quickly and assemble as much as they could before things changed for the worse again.
And yet they persevered, slowly fighting the elements to create ever-greater structures, and even in locations where they already had their new churches they weren’t satisfied. Sometimes they would tear down an existing nave or transept two or three times in a century and create something even more magnificent, just for the heck of it.
They weren’t aliens, they were ordinary Joes just like you and me, and with a population of probably less than one-twentieth of today they built these vast structures with simple tools, cranes and muscle-power – and vast amounts of practical skills that we have now largely lost.
It does give you pause for thought, as we enter another year waiting patiently for work to start on the Minster by-pass (the Keldgate relief road) which was first promised to us back in 1927. I think we may have lost our focus over the centuries.
First published January 2011


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