A view backstage at Beverley Minster

We’re all going on a summer holiday

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford is all smiles.
Last week someone complained that I was always whingeing in my columns. “Nonsense,” I replied. “It’s being so happy as keeps me going.”
After all, what could be nicer than staying in Beverley all summer to look after the Minster while, all around, everyone else is jetting off to silly old foreign places where the weather is wrong and the food is different?
It will all end in tears, you mark my words.
By now, of course, the holiday season is in full swing and there’s a subtly difference atmosphere about the old place. Partly it’s the same sort of change that goes on everywhere at this time of year. You know: you’re surrounded by the same people day-in, day-out then some of them are away and the whole dynamic changes – subjects of conversation around the water cooler change, queues for the canteen are different, there’s more or less background laughter, that sort of thing.
Well, that’s part of it at the Minster – the vicar has been away for two weeks and familiar faces that you expect to see around are suddenly not there. It’s almost like missing a tooth.
Another part of the difference, however, is that we are suddenly host to a great number of total strangers.
Oh, of course, we’re used to that. As one of the biggest tourist attractions in the region we’re always receiving guests, but where we would normally stick our heads out of the office (or virgers’ rest room, as some unkind souls might call it) and see perhaps two or three couples wandering around, if we stick them out now we might be overwhelmed.
And, from one minute to the next, we never know what’s happening. We check our diary each morning to find out that, say, a party of 20 is booked in at 2.30 for a ground and roof tour. No problem, despite the fact that we also have to be ready for a scheduled 2.15 roof tour.
We gear ourselves up for that only to find that five people who had promised to return for 2.15 are nowhere to be seen. Then only three people turn up for what they claim was booked as a ground-only tour, without a guide.
But then a coach turns up unannounced at 4pm and assumes we can drop everything and take 30 time-pressed individuals aloft at a moments notice.
So we do.
“It must keep you fit,” they comment as I start to ascend the 113 stairs for the third time that day. I look down at my 36 inch waist, feeling every ounce of my 16 stone carcase as I lug it up yet another step and try to control panting that sounds like an old steam locomotive under strain.
“Yes,” I wheeze. “I’d be really unhealthy if it wasn’t for this job.”
But it’s fun – it’s always a real privilege being able to show off the unseen parts of the Minster – a type of tour that you rarely get elsewhere .
When you emerge from a short passageway after climbing all those steps the first thing that hits you is a magnificent view towards the Humber. It’s not beautiful (thanks especially to Yorkshire Electricity for some gorgeous huge electric pylons running alongside the A164) but it is stunning. The looks of wonder on people’s faces are a good beginning to 45 minutes of exploring and explanation, and an instant reward for the effort of leading them there in the first place.
Every tour is different – a new blend of adults and children, characters and moods, knowledge and ignorance. We play with the material and how we deliver it – I try and generate a few laughs or, failing that, at least some smiles and we’re always watching faces, trying to gauge if we’ve still got the interest of the group or if some of them are drifting away.
We must be doing something right – we get quite a few returnees these days; people who enjoyed the tour and have brought visiting guests or family for a repeat. I’m not sure overall what sort of numbers we’ve had through the doors this year compared to 2009 but I can tell you we’ve taken 20 per cent more people upstairs this year than we had on the same date last year.
Let’s see if that brings a smile to our Treasurer’s face.
First published August 2010


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