A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Something in the air

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford takes stock.
The first Christmas cards have arrived in the Minster. Yes, you read it correctly. As of the middle of August I am informed that the Minster shop stockroom has become home to a large, heavy (and frankly rather poorly-packed) cardboard box containing sundry Christmas gifts, cards, packing and display materials.
My head started spinning – the knowledge stamped heavily on my fingers as they tried to maintain their grip on reality – a grip that was steadily loosening thanks to our increasing reliance on Google’s digital technology.
As an aside, just why is it that Google is so keen to make a digital record of absolutely everything in the world? You know, scanning ever single book onto its database for Google Books, recording the frontage of every house in the country for Google Street Map, surveying the ocean bed for no good reason that I can think of.  I reckon it’s a plot by aliens to destroy us – make us entirely dependant on digital records so that we throw out the old ones then, BANG, just one solar flare or electromagnetic pulse and the whole lot disappears, leaving us defenceless against their clone armies of nine-headed soldiers armed with simple bullets and clubs.
Ahem – perhaps I should return to my theme, which was the electronic world versus reality.
Thanks to Google the world now thinks that Beverley is part of Cottingham, North Humberside; the street where I live has a different name to the one I think it is, and Beverley itself is infested by hundreds of large blue bins placed randomly along the roadside. So perhaps it’s not the fact of the recording that I’m unhappy about, per se: it’s the process – the automated and mindless collection of data which is then automatically paired with another database and, voila! Billions of bits of instant information that haven’t been checked and, apparently, cannot be changed once they’re released into the wild wide world of the web.
Compare and contrast Google with the approach of a long-term Minster visitor who has now returned to his native US after an intense and detailed post-graduate research project.
Mat Woodworth became fascinated by historic buildings and, since the good ol’ USA isn’t old enough to have any, he sensibly came here to study ours in depth. For the last few years he has been poring into nooks and crannies, climbing ladders or dark staircases, donning safety gear and packing a torch (and even sandwiches for some trips to the farthest recesses of our roof), trying to piece together how the Minster was, quite literally, pieced together.
Thanks to his research we now think the building was started much earlier than the 1220 date quoted in our guidebooks (although whether it’s as old as 1160, which another expert now believes, is still a matter of debate). This means that the Minster is probably older than Lincoln Cathedral, which also means that the things they claim we copied from them are really things that they copied from us. So yah, boo to them.
Mat and his shiny head will be missed – not only by the virgers when we need an extra guide for a large party, but also by two other diligent researchers who are, respectively, mapping out every  single mason’s mark on the stonework and tracing all the graffiti (and it’s not all: ‘Henry 8th woz ‘ere,”). The former research can tell us how many people were involved in creating each section of the church and in what order; the latter has already uncovered a collection of mediaeval musical notation and numerous etchings of sailing ships.
And from their painstaking (and apparently highly enjoyable) months/years of study and exploration we are getting a comprehensive understanding of the Minster as a human construction – something put together by ordinary people facing extraordinary demands to create a truly awe-inspiring and yet deeply flawed masterpiece. Their research recreates the way that people thought, lived, ate, worked, trained, tried, failed, laughed and cried – the stone almost feels like its smiling as its secrets are uncovered and we are all enriched by the process.
On the other hand Google Maps tell us Beverley Minster is a building located at HU17 0DN and shows a photograph of a house next to the Monk’s Walk pub. Ask yourselves – which approach is better?
Oh, by the way, the BBC has informed us that the episodes of Antiques Roadshow and Songs of Praise which were recorded earlier this year at the Minster will now be broadcast on Sunday October 10th. I expect the streets and pubs of Beverley will be empty during those two hours – it’ll be like the World Cup all over again.
I will probably be working….
First published August 2010

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