A sense of perspective is not always good
Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford travels and thinks
To some people a summer holiday is a month-long trip to the sun, immersing oneself in the culture, climate and alcohol of a different country. To others it is a few weeks exploring the varied scenery, accents and local brews of our own British Isles.
To this virger from Beverley Minster it’s an overnight stay in mid-Norfolk, a one-way journey on a preserved railway branch line and a shared bottle of maison rouge to wash down a curry. And who is to say which of us is right?
As it happened, the southern station of the railway is next to a very prominent former abbey at Wymondham which now serves as a parish church. It, like Beverley Minster, was dissolved at the time of Henry VIII but, unlike our own beloved structure, the larger section belonging to the monks was dismantled afterwards. Only the part reserved for parishioners has been left standing.
It is big, it has lots of Norman arches, life-size angels in a richly patterned wooden roof, an incredibly ornate altar screen which was commissioned and erected last century, picturesque and evocative ruins and a history dating back 800 years. I stood there, surrounded by all this glory and history, the interesting architectural details, the evidence of dedication and love for the building and I thought: ‘So what?’
It wasn’t a reaction that pleased me – in fact I was rather shocked. Here I was, dismissing something that was beautiful, fascinating and the product of many years of restoration – but I did.
I analysed my miserable response and realised that the whole thing just wasn’t ‘doing’ anything for me.
I’ve been spoiled, that’s the problem. My workplace is Beverley Minster and, frankly, compared to our famous landmark, it’s going to take a heck of a lot to impress me. Oh, I’m not immune to the charms and claims of other places: York Minster is flipping big (albeit, visually, just a fatter version of Beverley Minster); St Paul’s Cathedral is magnificent (and once employed Nicholas Hawksmoor – who subsequently saved Beverley Minster from ruin in 1716): Westminster Abbey is huge (with west end towers modelled on those of Beverley Minster – by Hawksmoor, no less) and – oh well, I’m sure you can see how this is going. Plus, in any case, I’ve learned its quirks and ins-and-outs over the years in a way that I never can with a single visit elsewhere. And I’m very fond of it.
Back in the days of the Reformation and also after the English Civil war my thoughts might have been considered somewhat heretical – even idolatrous. During these times when evangelical Protestant reformers closely resembled the Afghan Taleban (abolishing Christmas and public entertainments, for example) my affection for a simple building would have been regarded as distracting me from my duty to concentrate on worshipping God.
In those zealous days the ‘cure’ would have been somewhat brutal– quite probably the building would have been ‘de-beautified’ by enthusiastic men with big hammers.
Whether or not glorious buildings distract people from the ‘proper’ form of worship is a theological point I shan’t even try to answer – that’s one for the vicar. I’ll just concentrate on moving tables and chairs and marvelling at each new example of creativity and craftsmanship I discover, virtually on a daily basis. I’m just glad the hammermen didn’t visit Beverley.
Mind you, I’m not stupid or ignorant (although that’s not what my teenage sons might say). While I happen to think that Beverley Minster is a wonderful example of fallible humans working together to create something sublime I know it’s not the best in the world and I had a small tour group the other day that brought this fact home to me. One of them was from Poland and, when she named her home region a battered old recollection scratched its way from inside the rusty biscuit tin of my mind.
“You’ve got a few big churches of your own around there, haven’t you?” I tentatively suggested, hoping my memory hadn’t let me astray (like that embarrassing time when I confused Charles and President Kennedy, but that’s another story altogether, thank-you-very-much).
“Yes” she confirmed and I suddenly realised I had to ditch about half my regular chat. No point saying that every inch of stonework in our building was once brightly painted– she had at least three magnificent examples of just that style within an easy cycle ride. They are all bigger than the Minster, full of pomp, circumstance and spectacle. Most superlatives I normally quote would have been slightly lame compared to those she could fling back at me.
But we still had a good tour because, instead of lecturing, I just let them look for themselves. They loved our ancient tread wheel crane, the lifting boss, the story of the leaning wall and the wonderful engineering in our nave roof. It was fun – the human, fallible side of the building came to the fore.
So I don’t care if we’re not the biggest, brightest, busiest, or best: to quote Genesis (the band, not the book): “I know what I like and I like what I know”.