Man and machine in perfect harmony
Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford finds his life is transformed.
I know it’s not normal to be in love with a machine but I’m afraid that’s just what’s happened to me.
In fairness I warned you about the possibility in my last column but, I have to admit, I’m surprised by how quickly I fell once I saw it out of its box.
The machine in question is big, blue and holds 30 litres of water. With the addition of a rotating brush at the front (and, more importantly a vacuum pipe at the back) we virgers have an essential tool in our armoury that has been missing for far too long.
We are now able to clean the floor properly – for the first time in years.
It probably sounds rather sad to you lot, reading this in the comfort of your own homes or even place of work, but it’s a big thing in the life of the virgers at Beverley Minster – a thing which ate away at us like a nibbling-away thing and caused us great emotional and moral distress.
You see, although we were often complimented on how clean we kept the place, we knew in our own hearts that it was not so. It’s a problem of usage really.
A few years ago it was decided that that single most important ritual in the modern Church of England, the formal drinking of coffee after the main Sunday service, should take place in our south transept instead of the parish hall across the road.
There were so many good reasons for this decision to be made that no one would quibble with it now, but there was one significant difference between the two venues that became progressively more obvious: the parish hall floor had a linoleum covering, the Minster has one made of absorbent chalk stones.
With the best will in the world you cannot expect several hundred people to stand around with cups of coffee in their hand without at least a few drips escaping from their plastic cups. Inevitably the inevitable happened and the floor started to stain in places. We virgers tried to keep up but then the south transept became home to several other events as well.
The Youth Cafes, for instance. More than 200 teenagers with cans of fizzy drinks, mixing, chatting dancing, putting cans down on narrow shelves, walking past narrow shelves in the dark with sticking out elbows…. Need I say more?
It’s adults as well. Whenever there’s a large concert in the Minster which serves wine as part of the total package then there will be spillage. On cold winter nights there might also be hot chocolate, and that’s the worst of the lot in terms of sheer sticking power.
Oh, many people, not just virgers, have tried to keep the situation under control: we’ve had teams of people with mops and buckets ready to pounce on errant splashes but there is a single practical problem: if you do not immediately remove the dirty water that you’ve just swabbed over a stain then it adds its own lustre to the patina of dirt. In the cold light of day you can still see the motions followed by a desperate squeegee mop on the floor – and this pattern sticks too.
It’s not just the surface either: in parts the stone is so absorbent that the stain goes right through and, although you can attack the dratted thing with concentrated patio cleaner, the dampness of the ground underneath (see previous columns on the Minster and the swamp) eventually forces the next level of the stain up to the surface. It’s almost spooky seeing some of the patterns gradually reforming after you think you’ve got rid of them. It’s a phenomenon that, I suspect, has given rise to many different ghost stories over the centuries.
We tried; my goodness how we tried. John and I spent hours on our knees, scrubbing away with disinfectant and brush then dabbing away with towels but earlier this year we finally conceded defeat. The job was too big and we couldn’t catch up with it, let alone get on top of it. Hence the slight feeling of embarrassment when anyone said how nice and clean the Minster was.
Anyway, forget all that because those days are OVER! We now have a machine that will, with diligence and considerable virger-hours of effort, restore the floor to its former glory.
(Please imagine, if you will, a swelling sound of uplifting music as you read the next paragraphs.)
This is not the end: we still face considerable toil and struggle. It is not even the beginning of the end: some of the stains will probably keep returning for several years. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. We have been given the tools and we will do the job.
Should the Minster last a further thousand years Men and Women will be able to look back and say: “This was their finest floor.”
Anyway, next time you come into the Minster you may find me and my new love. Please don’t disturb.
First published November 2010