A view backstage at Beverley Minster

The wind howls loud and the furies fight

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford puts on his overcoat.
Once upon a time I remember the weather forecast was something on which you could rely. Throughout my growing youth I recall the gradual march of progress as serious-faced men with Brylcream in their hair would point at increasingly complicated maps and tell me if it was going to rain today, tomorrow and, by the time I was in my 20s, next week. And they often got it right.
They should have stopped there. Instead of being content with good old-fashioned skills learned through decades of sniffing seaweed, hanging out pine cones and seeing if cattle went to sleep with their legs in the air the Met Office decided to invest in computers.
At first things went well – recording and regurgitating reams of statistics on what had happened in numerous little Stevenson Screens did improve the predictions of what was going to splosh down on us during a typical summer. It pushed the forecasting period out to one month. But then they got ambitious and decided to invest in ever-bigger computers that would (following a logical if flawed premise) be able to forecast the weather in ten billion years (or something like that). But they were wrong and now they can’t even tell you what’s happening today – last week I was firmly informed that the weather in HU17 was dull and overcast while, at that very moment, I was sitting back in my shirtsleeves enjoying lunch in a bright, sunlit garden– with not a hint of clouds or any precipitation on my cheese sandwich.
This may sound as if I’m developing a rant against climate change enthusiasts but that’s not the case. Instead I’m making a point about how the increasingly unreliable nature of seasonal forecasting is affecting the life of modern virgers (i.e. John and me). Now, in the last few weeks I’ve read weather predictions for this winter varying from three months of snow to above-average temperatures. Billions of pounds spent to come up with that conflicting nonsense. We virgers are conflicted – and it’s a conflict that has to be resolved for the sake of everyone visiting the Minster.
You see, come winter time, the ol’ place starts getting colder – this is an entirely predictable event that doesn’t need a super computer. The only valid questions are – how cold, and when? These are important because, as soon as we actually put the heating on then it is in action 24/7 (to use the ugly modern form of expressing ‘all-the-time’). And, once it’s in action then it’s costing us over £1,000 a week, just in gas bills, to keep it going. This year, which included that dreadful snowy start, the gas company copped well over £20K from us, just to keep the entire shell pleasant for anyone wearing a jacket. Anything less than this and we’d have been chipping icicles off the vicar.
So it’s a delicate balancing act – switch on the heating just before an unseasonal heatwave and we’re wasting vast sums of money: leave it off too long (bearing in mind that it takes several days to get the massive volume of the Minster up to temperature) and I have to watch out for migrating penguins as I travel from the virgers’ office to the nave. The cold spoils the bouquet of the communion wine as well.
So, abandoning the brainless stupidity of suspicious statistics, we virgers are returning to old-fashioned techniques. Not the really traditional ones like divining the future from a freshly-cooked witch’s entrails or seeing if toads are walking backwards for Christmas, but the good old-fashioned one of sticking our fingers out of the window and seeing if they get a) wet or b) cold. After we’ve done this for a few days on the trot we will then combine our results, put our heads together and decide whether we should switch the twin boilers on, despite tears of protest on the cheeks of our beleaguered treasurer.
So, if the temperature is not too hot nor too cold when you enter the Minster over the next few months then we virgers have done our forecasting properly. If it’s wrong then you can join us as we wave two fingers out of the window at the Met Office, who used to be able to do this stuff for us.
First published October 2010

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