Whispers in the graveyard
Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford timidly explores beyond the West Doors.
I’m afraid my already-delayed tale of Car Park Johnny will have to wait for another week as a more pressing subject has presented itself for consideration. It’s all to do with the open space immediately surrounding Beverley Minster itself – the old graveyard in other words.
Firstly, let’s acknowledge straight away that the word ‘graveyard’ immediately evokes powerful feelings: when I was a child I was terrified (and thrilled) by thoughts of rotted bodies climbing out of their damp, smelly beds to lurch slowly among the living.
Despite the fact that the nearest cemetery was miles away – a distance that my imaginary zombies would have taken several days to cover in their shuffling, tedious way – I would lock my bedroom doors as soon as dusk fell. This rather restricted my social life during my teens and early 20s but that’s a different, and rather sad, story. I won’t go there, if you don’t mind.
Anyway, you’ll be glad to know that the Minster graveyard is nothing like that and, over three gloriously sunny days earlier this month, it was host to more than 500 schoolchildren. As far as I know none of them has gone home screaming or suffering major psychological traumas.
It’s hardly surprising – in the bright sunshine it is a lovely spot, more like open parkland with a few rectangular stone blocks lying on the ground than the misty, cold and dark place of my childhood nightmare.
The 10 and 11 year-olds were all present for the annual RE-Action events – three days when the Minster opens its doors to schools from all round the East Riding and hosts activities such as dance, singing, roof tours (yes, provided by the virgers, six times a day. Legs and throat much better now, thanks for asking).
If the weather is fine, which it normally is, then one of the sessions involves a running-about quiz outside in the open air stretch bordered by St John’s Street as well as al fresco packed lunches being consumed in the brief period between activities. Our magnificent West Doors are swung open, the sun shines in and the world seems a happy place.
You may well have seem them all, safe behind the street fencing, having a lovely time away from school. “What a nice place for a refreshing break,” you may well have concluded, viewing the innocent scene. “I might pop in there one day with a sandwich if the weather holds.”
Indeed, whenever we open the gates for a wedding or suchlike people wander in and enjoy themselves. The problem is that we may not realise they are there, especially if they’ve trotted round to the East End. Once the happy couple has finally departed we then lock the gates and, if the doors are closed, then there’s no way out.
There is a tale of a family who once got locked in for three days and only survived on wild berries and any church mice they were able to catch – the virgers only found them when we went out hunting for our own lunch.
Yes, it would be fantastic to relax in that safe, open area or inspect the outside of our magnificent building up close – but I’m afraid you can’t, and both Virger John and I are very sorry about it.
The Minster can’t just open the churchyard to the general public because we’re not responsible for looking after it: although it’s our land it’s actually maintained by the council as part of its statutory duty to care for all redundant churchyards and we currently have no agreement to make it easily available during the day. (Incidentally, we’re also not responsible for trimming back any overhanging branches, but if you let us know there’s a problem we’ll pass the message on to the relevant people.)
We have spoken to various churchwardens and members of the congregation over the years and almost everyone appears strongly in favour of making the grounds much more accessible – possibly with a few sponsored seats around the periphery in memory of a dear departed one – but we’ve never taken it further. Possibly because we suspect (perhaps wrongly) that the process would involve countless committee meetings and endless hours compiling mission statements and health and safety policies. More probably, we’re always interrupted at that point by the urgent need to provide more toilet paper for the ladies’ loo so we forget about it.
It’s also possible that we get sidetracked into discussing improvements to access at the west end for wedding cars – but that’s yet another story.
I may return to it next week, if the increasingly frustrated Car Park Johnny doesn’t get to me first.
First published July 2010