A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Archive for the month “July, 2011”

We’re all going on a summer holiday

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford goes a-chuffing
I’m now going to share one of my private interests with you. It’s alright, it’s not shameful in any way although, it has to be admitted, some people will look on me with a mixture of pity and/or incomprehension.
People like me, who like the same things as me, have become a bit of a cliché for those weird people who don’t understand us and they give us strange titles: they call us ‘anoraks’ or ‘train-spotters’.
This is quite reasonable because a lot of people with my interests do actually wear anoraks when they go out to spot trains. However, that’s not a particularly accurate appellation in my case because: a) I don’t actually stand by railway lines and note the numbers of passing locomotives, and; b) I don’t have an anorak.
I’m not an extremist: I can’t shut my eyes and tell you what type of locomotive is approaching by the sound of its engine, I don’t pore through every ancient photograph counting the rivets in the boiler; I couldn’t tell you a Class 34 from a Class 43 without seeing the number on its side and I haven’t got a clue about relative tractive effort and tow-bar loadings. I never even wanted to be an engine-driver when I was a child.
I am, however, someone who loves railways – I have an OO-gauge model layout that, when the mood takes me, allows me to ‘play trains’, I do have a fair number of railway-related books on various shelves around the house (although many of them are quite dusty from being ignored over the last few years), and I enjoy visiting preserved railways to see the big beasts in action.
In fact I plan to do a fair bit of that this very summer, when I can tear myself away from Minster duties. In this part of the world we have two extremes – the North Yorkshire Moors Railway at Pickering that carries 350,000 passengers a year, and the Appleby Frodingham Railway which punts a dozen or so enthusiasts at a time around the Scunthorpe steelworks sidings – but there are dozens more to choose from all around Britain. I shall visit a few of them over the next few weeks – maybe even some in Wales.
While I do so I wouldn’t be surprised to bump into a few individuals who normally wear a dog-collar during the week. Keen observers of the human condition may have observed a high correlation between church officials and railway enthusiasts: indeed, in the Minster both the vicar and musical director share my interest in this area; and, by happy coincidence, 2011 looks like being a good year for us.
We are planning to have our own model railway in the north transept in early December to help promote the campaign to reopen the York –Beverley line, using models of both Minsters to bookend the layout. Then, on December 17 we expect to welcome 400 members of a rail tour who are travelling from London to experience a carol concert under our roof.
(As an aside – I suspect it’s not true that a disproportionate number of clergy etc are railway-ists although it’s certainly true that an unusually high number of the best model railways over the last 60 years were built by clergy. In addition two leading railway photographers were bishops and, of course, the creator of Thomas the Tank Engine was a vicar. It’s probably because they only work on Sundays so they’ve got plenty of time to perfect their art.)
Our musical director is undoubtedly inspired by the rhythm of the engines and wheels on tracks, but my own love affair is more complicated.
Perhaps it is because a smoothly-running railway is a perfect demonstration of humans working in cooperation to achieve something greater than themselves – just like John and I do as virgers in the Minster.  
Perhaps it is because the sheer scale of the engines reminds me that there is something greater than us in the world. Perhaps the intricacies involved in trying to get the various locomotives, rolling stock, rail routes, points, signals and passengers all in the right place at the right time mirror those required by the virgers to get a church service set up, running smoothly and ending without apparent error. 
Maybe, as far as the model railway is concerned, it is the way in which turning a small electrical transformer can make my miniature world run the way I want it to, in contrast to the out-of-control mess that is reality.
It’s even possible that my love affair dates back to happy childhood memories of hissing, leaking steam trains; filthy cigarette-stinking carriages; sticky chewing-gum infested carriage floors; inedible crispy and stale cheese sandwiches and rock-hard sausage rolls that combined with the unique excitement of going away on holiday to become an overwhelming pleasure.
Whatever the reason, this summer will find me happily indulging my love of the old four foot eight and I shall be as happy as a ballooning kitsch-garden-fetishist who has just crash-landed in the middle of the Ideal Gnome Exhibition.
Only more so.
It’s truly Heaven on Earth.

York branch of Guild of Vergers visit to Thirsk

Tuesday 26th July 2011

A brief half-day visit to Thirsk, located centrally in our region, saw more than 20 virgers, family and friends gather in the structurally-unchanged C14 parish church of St Mary’s. A splendid high building  dating largely from 1430, with later clerestory, chancel and tower, the church boasts six hatchments from the Bell family beneath a fine mediaeval carved roof. Of particular note are the chantry screens and (largely) C15 21 foot tall font cover, while two Georgian pew doors survived the inevitable (but quite sympathetic) Victorian restoration of 1876.
During the C16 an apprentice-hermit lived above the south porch, reaching his solitary residence by means of a rope ladder before graduating to a cell in the Old Lady Chapel in Osmotherley. Today there is a spiral staircase to the room and no hermit.
The crypt has an unusual history as well – originally built when the chancel was extended over a dropping hillside it probably served as overnight accommodation for visiting priests and now, after a bad flood last winter, has been remodelled to form a versatile café area.
One particularly unusual stained glass window dates from 1932 and records the life of Sir Robert Bower who was, supposedly, the most handsome officer in the British Army. It has to be said the window doesn’t really do him justice if this was truly the case.  
We were guests of verger John Lazenby, the longest-serving member of the branch who has been proudly serving what is often called ‘The Cathedral of North Yorkshire’ for 48 years.
After our welcome by Rev Canon Richard Rowling we were given a talk about the church by Tourism Officer Margaret Hunton, followed by a communion conducted by Rev Graham Bowkett. The party then dispersed to eat our way through the various catering establishments in the town while several also enjoyed a visit to the James Herriot museum in the town – the famous writer was the local vet and was married in St Mary’s, as were his daughter and granddaughter.
For further information about the CEGV York branch or membership enquiries contact Branch Chairman Richard Babington on 01964 630263 or via

A glimpse into what might have been

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford wanders in the grounds
I don’t often get outside the Minster during my normal working day.  Oh, obviously I pop across the road to do virgerly things in the Parish Hall and occasionally, and as a special treat, I’m allowed to go into town and acquire some essential ingredients such as Domestos. But actually wandering around, with time to just stop and look at things is a rarity.
So, when I found myself in the south churchyard this week with a perfectly good excuse to waste a few minutes I thought I’d have a closer look at the old place.  And suddenly I was very, very surprised.
I know what the Minster looks like from the north – after all, I go past it at least four times a day and I’m not unobservant – I’ve seen the multiple statues, the flying buttresses, the windows, the proportions, the trees – heck I know it as well as the back of my hand, wherever that may be.  So the south side of the Minster is just the same, isn’t it?
You’ve probably worked out that the correct answer is ‘no’. It’s substantially different and, once I started looking closely, it felt like I was slipping into a parallel world. The familiar became unfamiliar and I started seeing things as they might have been, rather than as they are. Gosh!!!
A glimpse of what might have been – end of part 1
+++++ Commercial break –
 I have been asked to remind all traders in Beverley that the closing date for sponsors for the Christmas Tree Festival in the Minster this year is the 31st July 2011. If you have lost your forms or want further details please telephone (01482) 868540. Thank you.
          End of Commercial Break +++++
A glimpse of what might have been – part 2
It’s all to do with the south wall of the south tower. There, tucked away behind some 18th century buttressing, are arches and carvings, plus evidence of a much lower floor level for a now-lost building. And, in a parallel world so beloved of science fiction series such as Star Trek, where an evil version of me would now be sporting a beard (no, hang on, I’ve already got one – that’s confusing – sorry); in this mythical parallel world the former building would now be complete and serving as the Parish Church of St John and St Martin. Simultaneously, the present site of Beverley Minster itself would be an open field with a few stumps of stone dotted around.
For, in truth, 16th century religious reformers had no need for our very Catholic, relic-worshipping Minster in the new, improved Church of England. No, in their drive to democratise Christianity the aim was to create a network of local churches where anyone could drop in, sit down and listen to a preacher discussing a religious matter – then debate it afterwards. You didn’t need a huge, beautiful and distracting building for that – a small, simple one would be quite sufficient.
And so it was that the old charnel house, (where the bones of the dear-departed were stored) with its upstairs chapel was designated as the new parish church for southern Beverley, The Minster was put up for sale by the King’s agent to act as a cheap source of lead and high-quality limestone – ideal for the burgeoning Tudor mansion-builder market.
You can be sure that, if this had gone ahead, the Minster would have been stripped of most of its materials within a very few decades and all we’d have left would be a picturesque open field with isolated wind-breaks and an artist’s impression on an English Heritage notice board.
In this case, however, we can thank the 16th century Beverley Town Council for a far-sighted act of investment (and that’s not something that’s been said often over the centuries, but thoroughly deserved in this case). They bought it and preserved it for us to enjoy, demolishing the old charnel house and chapel to help pay for it.
I think we got the better of the deal.
Meanwhile, in my parallel universe, the town of Beverley without the Minster is a poor shadow of ours: the county’s administrative headquarters is based in centrally-placed Driffield and this swampy part of East Yorkshire is noted primarily as the rather damp northern fringe of the sprawling city of Hull. The ancient man-made Beverley Beck fuelled the Industrial Revolution locally and attracted many heavy industries over the centuries but all that is left now are some rotted ruins and heavily-contaminated land.
Vain efforts have been made to create a tourist industry but, with no natural features of note, no landmark buildings to attract visitors and a general air of cut-price decay, the effort was a miserable failure. A long-running campaign to persuade managers of the busy railway line to Driffield to build a small halt at Beverley seems to have died – its argument that it would help attract commuters to live in new low-cost estates on the site of the former industrial area not attracting any would-be developers either. 
It seems frankly unbelievable now that, once upon a time, people travelled hundreds of miles just to visit an old church in Beverley.
A glimpse of what might have been – Epilogue:
Meanwhile, back in this universe, I had a profound thought.
Question: What do you call the anxious wait before a musician starts to perform?
Answer: Pre-Minstrel Tension.
Thank you and good night – you’ve been a lovely audience.

We have a niche that wants filling

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford contemplates a commemoration
I should like to issue a statement on be’alf of aaaall members of Church of England Guild of Vergers (sic), Beverley Minster branch:
“After a long process of due consultation and consideration the executive committee ‘as unanimously voted in favour of the following proposal. ‘We note the forthcoming 60th anniversary of t’election of our glorious leader Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas Queen, Defender of the Faith; records its gratification with ‘er dignificated conduct over the said six decades, and proposes that the relevant h’anniversary should be marked by a suitable permanent commemorative object – viz. one life-like statue, to be produced by comrades from the allied Guild of Masons – which is to be mounted permanently in a suitably prominent location around the exterior of the People’s Palace of Beverley Minster Parish Church. We call on all right-minded citizens (male and female) to support this campaign as a constant reminder of t’struggle for equal rights and suchforth.’
Motion proposed by Comrade John Dell: seconded by Comrade Neil Pickford.
Sorry, had a bit of a 1970s flashback there, probably prompted by recollections of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. Ah, those were the days: industrial disputes, trade union officials stalking the land, dominating the ‘Today’ programme with their garbled syntax; British Leyland headquarters (probably) regularly updating a noticeboard saying :’X minutes since last strike’; British music still largely ruling the civilised world (excluding France) and I, a muscular Adonis who only weighed nine stone four.
As a bumptious 21 year old in that year I religiously bought three copies of the Sex Pistols’ notorious ‘God Save the Queen’ in an attempt to make it Number One on the 25th anniversary and therefore shake the very foundations of ‘The Bourgoisie’(who, or whatever that was). What a prat.
How things have changed in the intervening third of a century. Several weeks ago the largest British-owned car manufacturer didn’t… (actually, what is the biggest British-owned car manufacturer now? I’ve lost touch); there wasn’t a single British act in our own pop charts, let alone overseas (ah, the shame – damn you Simon Cowell). Oh, and I’m six (and a bit) stone heavier – and not a prat.
So when John suggested it would be a good idea to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee next year with a statue I listened with interest – not least because the last time a monarch celebrated 60 years on the throne we took it as a good excuse to transform Beverley Minster.
The Reverend Nolloth, our vicar from 1880 to 1921 was a wealthy man who married an even wealthier woman. They had no children and so adopted the Minster as their surrogate offspring, lavishing their fortunes to beautify the building in whatever way they felt best – and we see the glorious results to this day.
In the years leading up to Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 the Nolloths helped fund a major statue-carving exercise that filled vacant niches around the West Door (both inside and outside) and on both our west towers. An incredible enterprise, a total of 190 external figures and 24 internal ones were carved, initially by full-time Minster mason Robert Smith with the project finally completed by Percy Baker in 1905.
Pride of place was reserved for the contemporary figure of the Queen, which was mounted in place on the north tower, looking straight up Highgate (incidentally, the statue immediately above her is of Henry Percy, 4th Duke of Northumberland – one of only three surviving mediaeval external statues. The others are of St John of Beverley and King Athelstan, and are found high up on each side of the east window. They can be seen by craning your neck while driving from Flemingate – which is not recommended, incidentally. But I digress).
Now then, if you look up at the north walls from Highgate you will see there are still a few empty niches and, surely, it would make a lot of sense both historically and as a simple mark of respect, to use one of these to host a 3D image of Her Majesty, the leader of the Church of England.
After all, she’s already been to the Minster twice (in 1997 and again in 2002, to mark her golden jubilee) while Vikky herself never once visited, despite our patriotic endeavour.
I have no idea how much such a commission would cost these days although I’m sure, if money was tight, we could ask China to knock out several thousand of them cheaply which we could sell on, and so subsidise our efforts. But if we are going to do anything about it then it’s probably the right moment to start something rolling.
Is there anyone out there who will volunteer to set up a fund-raising campaign? I’d do it myself but I’ve got to shift a whole heap of chairs over the next few weeks and I doubt I’ll have the time. But I’ll happily chip in a fiver (equivalent to one hours pay, after tax) as a goodwill gesture. I could probably raise the money by selling my surplus copies of ‘God Save the Queen’ to some museum dedicated to The Decade That Style Forgot.
I’d quite like to forget a lot of it myself – eurggh, how embarrassing.

You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford contemplates matters theological and practical…
Firstly, let me reassure my many concerned readers that, so far, I have not been injured in any way this week. Not even a twinge, thanks very much for asking.
So we can concentrate on my emotional problems rather than physical, and quite poignant they are too. You see, I have been in contemplative mood following the end of the last-ever REaction event in the Minster.
REaction, I should explain, is (or was) a day-long get-together for school years 6 and 7 where they have fun and do something that ties in with the national curriculum on religious education (I can feel your eyes glazing over already, but hang on. It’s important).
Last week we were timetabled to have nearly 900 schoolchildren at the Minster spread through Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. They would be encouraged to think about matters of social or ethical concern, run around and sing while by far the best session (of course) was a brief trip in the roof of the Minster, choreographed by John Dell and narrated by yours truly.
We pioneered the event 10 years ago and it’s been adopted all around the East Riding and beyond since – but now it’s finishing as existing Local Education Authority spending is reassessed.
Not everyone liked it – I think particularly of the visitors who made it very clear that they hated loud music playing in the nave when it coincided with the few minutes they had decided to spend as tourists in our free-entry, world-class attraction.
“Makes me ashamed to be an Anglican” was one comment: another person wrote a long diatribe in the visitors’ book saying, in essence,:”It didn’t orta be allowed.”
Well, I know my well-meaning church has a reputation for faffing around, trying not to annoy anyone and putting off decisions on just about everything, but there are some things which just need saying straight out – so here it comes. People like that make ME ashamed to be an Anglican and yes, yes, YES! It did orta be allowed.
What could possibly be wrong with 300 kids smiling and laughing and having a good time while thinking of religious and ethical matters in a church like the Minster? A church which, long-term readers may remember me saying, was the headquarters of the northern branch of the Guild of Music in the 14th and 15th centuries. Our world-famous collection of statues shows the wide range of noise-making devices that would have been honking, squeaking, screeching and thumping inside our walls on celebration days. 
Beverley Minster was designed and built to demonstrate and shout about religion in a noisy and showbiz sort of way. These angry visitors imagine that their image of a silent (and probably empty) church, with doors eagerly open for them to enjoy is the only one that is valid. They are wrong, their knowledge of church history is wrong, their knowledge of Christ’s teaching (suffer the little children) is wrong, their understanding of the reason for Beverley Minster is wrong, their personal viewpoint on the world is wrong and, frankly, they are miserable toe-rags who would condemn the rest of us to greyness and decline.
If they had their way the next generation of adults would only be allowed inside Beverley Minster under strict control, would certainly not enjoy the experience and, without a doubt, would never return.
These new adults would then probably condemn Christianity and its wonderful message because of the selfishness of some of its supposed adherents, (it’s easily done – I myself became a vehement atheist for many years, thanks entirely to the behaviour of some hypocritical God-botherers.  But I eventually learned better).
If you prefer quiet churches then go to Denmark where, as I learned this week, a voluntary church tax keeps them in immaculate condition – and no one uses them (except for the traditional baptism, wedding and funeral). Our complaining visitors would probably love the atmosphere of lifelessness and sterility – I prefer to get the next generation excited and feel that there’s always a warm and tolerant welcome within our walls.
 And anyone who doesn’t agree with that statement should be boiled in oil.
BY THE WAY – the final day of REaction didn’t happen, thanks to the teachers’ strike. I wondered how many of the strikers were using this time to go on an official demonstration. I hope they all did a full risk-assessment beforehand. I trust someone checked the pressure in the tyres of the coach taking them to the demo: I hope someone tested the protest banners to see there were no sharp edges or rough surfaces that could cut or leave splinters.
Were the banner carriers trained not to wave them about in a manner that might cause distress or injury to others?  Were banners made of ecologically-sound materials that could be recycled afterwards?
Was the demonstration taking place in a safe environment, free from risk of injury from traffic or trip hazards along the entire route? Was there an adequate supply of trained first-aiders?
Could the demonstration be justified on educational grounds? Could it be linked in with the national syllabus in any way?
What if it rained?
Hmmm – I think it would have been much easier, and better, if you’d brought your classes to the Minster instead.

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