A view backstage at Beverley Minster

It’s that time of year again

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford almost regrets having a weekend off
Oh dear, it’s terribly sad and all that sort of thing but I wasn’t on duty last weekend. It was one of those occasions when I have a couple of days off in lieu of being paid more wages and so I was slumped at home, preparing for the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix. This started at a horrible hour in the morning. Worse still, It was the start of British Summer Time so, in reality, I was glued to the telly at horrible minus 60 minutes – which is even worse.
Yet, despite my absence I was confident that my boss, smiling John Dell (whose dark alter-ego, of Car Park Johnny is known to only a few people) would have changed the Minster clocks so that, as Beverley citizens rose bleary-eyed from their fragrant pits and eyed the tower they would see (provided that they lived to the north of the structure) that the hands pointed to the correct hour.
And, of course, any insomniacs within range would have heard the bells ceaselessly tolling the correct time during the night. They may not have liked it, but they would at least be punctual.
Peeling the top off a disgusting, mood-setting Australian tube of Fosters I felt a slight twinge of guilt at John having to do this task by himself because, quite frankly, it’s a two-virger job. It shouldn’t be, but those silly Victorians seemed to have a blind spot when it came to making machinery convenient for the humble working man to operate. A frame of mind that regarded covered cabs for train drivers as feather-bedding their workforce (and decent living wages as unnecessarily generous) was not going to consider virgers’ convenience when maintaining accurate time.
Our trusty clock mechanism, a big, black ticking beast manufactured by Messrs Smith of Derby, celebrated its centenary just after the millennium. It looks absolutely splendid – to an outsider. Brass gleams brightly, the painted frame shines and the massive pendulum ticks majestically as if the end of the world wouldn’t stop it. Every two days an electric motor, the only concession to modern working practices, rewinds the weights that keep the old ticker going – thus preventing we virgers from having to climb 112 steps to wind it by hand or cranking a capstan at ground level.
However, when it comes to changing the time then the good old-fashioned methodology still applies – and what a stinker it is. You see, our Empire-building Victorian ancestors put the simple hand-operated mechanism that controls the clock speed right slap bang against the far wall. And then, to make matters exactly very, very much worse, they put the dials that tell you what time is showing outside the tower on the opposite side of the machine, facing away.
With two of you in place it at least means that the virger who drew the short straw (and ends up lying on their back with one arm raised to release the escapement) doesn’t have to worry about overshooting the mark. Virger Two watches the dial, warns Virger One when the target is approaching, then counts down until split-second(ish) precision is achieved.
It’s great for any watchers outside as the minute hand sprints round the 14 foot diameter face – in fact it’s so good that we performed this trick several times for the BBC last year. The second time was when we did the feat twice for the Antiques Roadshow (sorry, sorry, I know I promised I’d never mention it again but the story doesn’t make sense otherwise). Yes, we spun the hand rapidly to seven o’clock, then ‘dong’ and Fiona Bruce spoke from the top of the tower to introduce a new season of the programme in question. And we repeated the exercise for eight o’clock in case the decision-makers at Broadcasting House changed their minds and decided to show it later in the evening schedules.
They DID change their tiny little minds and the programme actually went out at half past the hour, so all our careful coordination of movement, bells, camera zoom and speaking was a complete waste of time.
And previously we’d spun the dial for Look North to illustrate the hour going forward. For the late night report they, rather irritatingly, showed too many shots of me climbing the stairs and then just a second of the hands themselves in action which, after all, had been the whole point of the exercise.
It took us over an hour to get the hands back to where they would have been if the BBC hadn’t been there and the bells were bonging as if a jazzed-up Hunchback of Notre Dame had run amok with a hammer. So that was, quite literally, a great waste of time (hahahahahaha).
So spare a grateful thought to John this week as the chimes ring out correctly; synchronising and setting the rhythm of our fair town as they have for centuries. I certainly did as I sucked on my early morning tinny but, I’m afraid, their musical reminders were completely obliterated by the roaring of 2,400cc V8 engines on the other side of the world.
Don’t worry – it’ll be my turn next year.

First published April 2011


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