A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Archive for the month “September, 2011”

The same old grind, but with added sparkle

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford flexes his muscles
Now if I was in charge of a US TV hit series, or something like Doctor Who, I would have a team of writers and advisors helping me maintain the high standards that have come to be associated with the ‘brand’ known as ‘View from the Vestry’. I would float a few ideas, my employees would respond with honest criticism (or, more likely, sycophantic barking noises) and we could continue down my nominated path until we had all thrashed out an acceptable script or draft for whatever project we were producing.
Obviously, as a brilliant and talented TV show-runner with the power of life or death over the career of any employed scribes I would expect instant agreement about all my fizzling ideas. However, sometimes if I, the employing genius, came up with something that was just so, so, sooooooo unbelievably hackneyed that undiscovered tribes in the remote Amazon rainforest already knew the plotline then a particularly strong-minded (or suicidal) junior wonk might just interject: “Umm – are you sure, sire, lord of all that’s wonderful?”
To which I would wittily riposte: “You’re fired!”
Scaling down the situation to my own rather more modest circumstances I might, for example, conversationally mention to my wife and family that I could pen this week’s missive on the subject of moving chairs in the Minster.
“Been there, done that,” they might then respond. “Try something new.”
“You’re tired!” I might then reply amusingly. “You just can’t see the endless fascination that exists in stories of me moving chairs around the Minster. After all, there’s an infinite variety in the way we move them: do they get shuffled closer or further apart? Do we turn the chairs in the nave to face the west instead of the east? Do we fill the side aisles with chairs, and are they plastic or wooden? Do we arrange them straight or diagonally? Three, five or six to a row? How far back?
“Do we use only the round-hole plastic chairs or the square-hole ones – or a mixture of both? And if so, in which aisles should we put each set?”
As you can see, there’s a vast range of fascinating permutations and so I think I’m quite justified in ignoring malicious falsehoods claiming I have ever picked a boring subject for my readers/viewers/listeners/whatevers.
Indeed, only today somebody asked me how I managed to consistently keep coming up with new and interesting subjects for my weekly blog and I modestly replied that I hardly had to think at all. All I do is report on my fascinating life as it happens – it’s just packed with exciting and glamorous episodes – as you can tell in the forthcoming paragraphs.
You see, as luck would have it chairs have actually featured quite largely in my life over the last week – yes, honestly. I’m not just making this up for your entertainment.
Only t’other Saturday we were host to a massive fund-raising concert which featured The London Chorus, East Riding Sinphonia plus other singers in an ear-shattering performance of Verdi’s Requiem. And flipping good it was too. Wow, what a terrific noise!
Sadly, due to decisions taken by well-meaning individuals when reordering the interior of the Minster in the 1970s we currently have some fixed choir stalls which are in exactly the wrong place when it comes to staging such a major event.  If they were on wheels we could push them to one side and build all the necessary staging in front of our magnificent organ screen but they aren’t so we can’t.
If I could just enter a brief aside here: these choir pews are not particularly important, historically speaking. Mass-produced Victoriana, they’ve been used in several places around the church before ending up where they are, on a lashed-together wooden frame which leaves both halves of the singers some three feet further apart than our present MD would like.
We virgers have a simple solution to this problem which involves a chainsaw and a skip on the back of a fast lorry but, sadly, we have to go through ‘Proper Channels’  which might take years to sort out. Until then it means that the virgers have to shift all our nave chairs through 180 degrees whenever there’s a concert involving more than 100 singers.
So we did that and then, between10pm and midnight on Saturday night we were dismantling everything because, of course, the next day was Sunday and we had to have everything reversed to their normal positions.  By the way – guess which virger’s shift started at 7.15 next morning. Yep, mine.
And on the following Saturday we had TWO big concerts scheduled and, surprise surprise, they wanted the chairs turned again. And so we did that. All 400 nave sit-upons rotated or relocated and another 200 set up down the aisles.
And, of course, we then turn them all yet again for the Sunday services. What fun. 
There you are – as promised, an insight into another endlessly fascinating chapter in my life. Now please excuse me but the only chair I really want to see for the next few weeks is a nice, comfy one.
A full archive of around 150 articles from the View from the Vestry collection is free here at: – and a CD with a selection of 13 of the best, read by Neil Pickford himself, is available at the Minster shop, price £5 –or email for details.

If the face fits – what should I do?

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford gets very reflective.
We had that Roger Taylor, drummer with the venerable rock band ‘Queen’ in the Minster the other day – or did we? Actually, I’m not really sure now.
I’d been sort of casually glancing around, just taking in the overall picture, when a certain face struck a chord in my mind.
It wasn’t – was it? No, it couldn’t be – or could it? Why would he? Well, why shouldn’t he? I mean… I needed to look closer and, sure enough, the jaw, mouth and lower half of the face was a dead ringer for the man who drove stadiums wild as they heard ‘We Will Rock You’ thundering through the ether. Fantaaaastic – I started to smile, then checked myself.
Was I sure it really was him? He’d be a few decades older than the good-looking chap who helped create the unending ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (back in what my younger son charming describes as ‘mediaeval times’) but surely the top half of his head wouldn’t have changed that much. I needed further information so I sidled closer and strained to hear him speak.
Eventually he uttered and I’m almost certain it was the voice of a different person. I’m glad I didn’t bounce up and offer an embarrassingly over-the-top welcome to a perfectly ordinary, and probably quite shy, visitor.
But why was I in such a dither over a particular individual coming to the Minster, no matter how famous he might have been?  OK, I admit that he’s a bit of a hero of mine and so there was a little frisson of excitement from being able to thank someone personally for any pleasure I’ve had from their work over the years, but that doesn’t fully explain my feelings. After all, he’s just a human being, the same as the other 70,000 who walk through our doors every year.
It’s not as though I haven’t met a few celebrities in my time – even some of my heroes such as  Spike Milligan, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Roy Wood and Vivian Stanshall to name but a few (he shamelessly and proudly name-dropped). I’ve also met and interviewed dozens of remarkable individuals: authors, actors, singers, political and business leaders – even the Archbishop of York – and I’ve enough experience to know that, underneath it all, they’re just the same as you and me. Blood pumps around their bodies just as it does in everyone else, they still require sleep, food and other basic essentials. It’s just their experiences that mark them out as different.
And these different experiences don’t necessarily make them interesting people.
Despite this world-weary knowledge I still found myself thrilled by my proximity to someone who’s been given a lot of money, some of it from me, for hitting a stretched skin. Was it a weak-minded pursuit of celebrity (I’m certainly willing to admit to weak-mindedness), or is something more significant involved?
No, I don’t think there is and, in fact, I know I shouldn’t have been feeling this way at all.
You see the whole thinking behind the creation of my employer, the Church of England, nearly 500 years ago, was democratic. All are equal in the eyes of God. Our priests are not superior to the common herd; we all share bread and wine on equal terms. We were all entitled, nay, expected, to think about the message of the Bible for ourselves instead of just accepting some load of gobbledygook from a man in a dress who could read things in a foreign language. And I accept all that.
So if all men (and, possibly, women) are equal then why on earth will I feel a huge burst of excitement at the promised arrival of two famous actresses to perform at the Minster in December?  It completely flies in the face of the equalitarian teaching of the church, and yet I’m not the only one who will feel it, am I? After all, the whole purpose of getting ‘big names’ at events is to attract the crowds – and they will come, of course we will.  
Perhaps it’s just our sad hope that a little bit of sparkle, of ‘star dust’, will shine on our drab, wretched existence for just a few seconds, then brighten our memories for the rest of our lives. Perhaps it’s the same attraction that makes us actually visit a football match instead of watching it in greater comfort, and with action replays, on the telly – there’s an unquantifiable but tangible sense that it’s more real, more complete, that you are actually participating in the event and are being enriched by it.
I don’t know that it’s a particularly positive aspect of human character because it makes us prone to uncritically latch on to leaders who can take us into bad places. But it does make us feel good and gives us a warming tingle when it happens.
And if I ever find out it really was Roger Taylor, and I missed the opportunity to shake his hand, I shall be absolutely devastated. 
I admit it. I’m a sad old git.
A full archive of around 150 articles from the View from the Vestry collection is free here at: – and a CD with a selection of 13 of the best, read by Neil Pickford himself, is available at the Minster shop, price £5 –or email for details.

3D or not 3D, that is the question

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford questions his resolution
There’s so much to write about in my world this week that I’m spoiled for choice – although how much of it my dear readers would enjoy is a moot point. There’s only so much interest you can sustain in me raging. Especially if, let’s say, I was arguing that God Himself could never invent enough torments to punish certain sectors of the financial service industry.
Nor it is likely to fascinate my same dear readers if I was to boast incessantly about how my wife’s wonderful little Beverley B&B (Hunter’s Hall, conveniently located for almost everywhere in the entire world) has just been granted a silver award for excellent quality of service and another in recognition of the high standard of breakfasts provided.
I suspect my relief at the gradual improvement in table position of Bristol City after an embarrassing start to the season will find little resonance among partisan ‘Tigers’ fans – neither would my satisfaction at completing a complex model railway rewiring operation.
You might be more interested if I dropped in a little vignette about ‘downstairs’ in the Minster, such as the one that occurred on Monday when John and I were already several minutes past our going-home time and I discovered that the cistern in the Ladies section of our loos was hanging off the wall.
Instead of regarding it as someone else’s problem to be cured by summoning a plumber we waded in (not literally) and, within a couple of minutes, had the thing back in place and better-attached than it had been before.
But perhaps it’s not THAT interesting.
Now I come to think about it I’m not sure if you’re going to be particularly fascinated about my latest dilemma – how to create a cartoon-like representation that illustrates how, and in what sequence, the Minster was built.
Now earlier this year I said that, if I mastered a certain 3D CAD (Computer-Aided-Design) programme (proper UK spelling being used, did you notice?) then I’d try to produce something that walked, talked and called me ‘Mummy’ to demonstrate the latest findings. This might be especially interesting as these latest findings disagree with many of the earlier ones and therefore make our guidebooks slightly redundant.
Anyway, for a variety of reasons, that project hasn’t actually blossomed. In fact, to be brutally honest, it’s been completely dormant. Firstly, I haven’t even loaded the programme (correct spelling) into my computer yet, let alone started learning how to use it. Secondly, the only way to get the information correct would be a very time-consuming process involving a key researcher sitting beside me – and one of them is out of the country while the other has belatedly rediscovered the joys of having a social life and is rarely available any more.
So, once more the future of this entire project – like so many others in my life over the years – boils down to the following simple question: do I try and do it all by myself, with whatever few facilities and resources I’ve been able to accumulate over the decades; or does it just disappear into that huge dump that is best labelled: ‘Good intentions – failed’?
I’m a cussed so-and-so at times and am quite capable of gritting my teeth and burying myself in the task, emerging some unknowable time later pale, malnourished and unwashed but triumphant – only for the entire world to ignore my efforts. 
I’ve actually already thought of a way in which I could create something that would do the job I first planned, but in a much more simple way. It could still be altered over time if new information came to light and can be displayed without the need for a computer. All it needs is a supply of photocopied line-drawings of the Minster and some colouring pens.  So maybe I’ll do that next week, after I’ve been out and about to sell some advertising in our guide to the Christmas Tree Festival this December.
It’s a varied life, isn’t it? Plenty to write about, as I said at the top and perhaps surprisingly, that was the impression I intended to create when I started this piece.  (Trust me, that isn’t always the case – it’s not uncommon for me to start in one direction and finish in another – a bit like God/evolution and the duck-billed platypus, perhaps).
No, I wanted to create an image of a job that mixes the mundane with the mentally-challenging, the physical with the philosophical, friendly with forthright, leading and led. I suppose the one word that best covers all the above is ‘practical’.
And why do I want to do this, dear reader? Well, it’s because we’re currently looking for one of these paragons of every virtue to join the happy team of John and me on a part-time basis and cover for us when we’re on holiday or otherwise occupied. An advert will be appearing in the next few weeks and it seems sensible to pre-warn would-be virgers of what the job entails.
Oh, there’s another vitally important criteria to bear in mind as well. Must be cheap.
 A full archive of around 150 articles from the View from the Vestry collection is free hereat: – and a CD with a selection of 13 of the best, read by Neil Pickford himself, is available at the Minster shop, price £5 –or email for details.

York branch of Guild of Vergers visit to Sledmere

Approaching Sledmere House
Tuesday 6th September 2011
Way up in the windswept wilds of the Yorkshire Wolds is an oasis of calm, rustic tranquillity that was carefully crafted by Capability Brown. Sledmere House, west of Driffield, was our destination for the day at the invitation of Sir Tatton Sykes and his brother.

The roof of the family chapel
They in turn were our guests at the Anglican communion service that  marked the beginning of our visit, which took place in their family’s Catholic chapel. After lunch nearly 30 vergers and family then enjoyed a specially arranged tour of the house which took us behind the roped-off areas. It was a considerable relief that we were allowed to sit in some of the many chairs and divans in this home which was painstakingly restored after a major fire in 1911.
One of the unusual features is an organ placed at the bottom of the central staircase which has pipes located in a cupola far above. Its ability to fill the house with sound was demonstrated by trip organiser and Branch Chairman, Richard Babington throughout our visit.
Next door to the house, but inaccessible from the estate itself, is the parish church of Sledmere, the maintenance of which the Sykes family has supported financially, despite their own Catholic faith.  An attractive building, it was left where it was when the rest of the village of Sledmere was relocated to improve the view for the masters of the House..

On a purely practical note, the signage around the entire estate was a model of simple, unobtrusive clarity and could usefully be copied by many churches that also cater for large visitor numbers.

For further information about the CEGV York branch or membership enquiries contact Branch Chairman Richard Babington on 01964 630263 or via

Panic in the vestry – the unanswered question

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford starts screaming
We had a disaster strike us last week which, if nothing else, reminded me that a life based on electronic records is liable to be a disappointment. 
Nobody had done anything wrong, a simple database that had been left open on the virgers’ laptop for several hours was closed in the normal way but, when we wanted it again, it had vanished.
It’s such a frequently-used set of information that we’ve got a short cut to it but, instead of the beautifully precise-looking columns of information we would normally expect there was just a small box with a grave warning. The system could not find the file. Do we wish to browse and locate it ourselves?
‘Browse’ – doesn’t that sound such a relaxing word? It implies sitting down in a comfortable leather chair, possibly with a cut-glass tumbler containing the finest whisky beside one (to be sampled and appreciated a sip at a time), flicking casually through crisp pages. One might allow a slight murmur of interest to escape if one is distracted momentarily by an entertaining diversion. One is, however, confident that one will end up, satisfied, with the information one requires.
 ‘Browse’ really doesn’t convey the mood of desperate, steel-eyed and barely-controlled panic that was my response.
Did I wish to…? Too flipping right I ‘wished’ (no, HAD) to locate it because this particular file, dear reader, was the one in which we’ve recorded everything about our roof tour revenues for the past four years: comparisons, averages, running totals, percentages, contacts – the lot. I was nearly hyperventilating when I found out it was missing but, by a massive effort of self-control, I managed to keep thinking clearly about what might have happened.
Now this may sound a bit over dramatic to you and I totally agree with you – now.
In the cosmic scale of things it really doesn’t matter about the information that John and I had so carefully collected. In fact much of my anguish was because Nerdy Me was constantly thrilled with the beauty of the raw spreadsheet I’d made, not what the figures actually were.
 I have previously boasted that, before I saw the light about the false world that’s created by our dependence on computers, I was a bit of a whizz with good old Excel and Access programmes (sorry, I refuse to use the American spelling – merely out of sheer contrariness, you understand). Well, I had seen a way to utilise my old skills in the service of the church and so created this piece of gloriousness, this pixelated perfection, this digital delightfulness – and it was good. Now here it was – gone.
So it was mostly in the role of a bereaved parent that I mourned my missing multi-coloured masterpiece.
Oh, I had backup copies but, sadly, not recent ones. A version of my marvellous creation still existed but there was so much recent data missing that the thing was pretty worthless, both for this year and the next, and without proper data it wasn’t really alive.
I won’t boast about my achievement in finally tracking the errant file and restoring it, although I could. I had to think like a computer – sullen, uncooperative, un-communicative except in random non-language – a bit like a stereotypical teenager, I suppose.
My efforts paid off and when those figures finally reappeared on my screen it was a very happy moment indeed.
Naturally I now have backed- up copies all over the place, most of which I will forget to update over the next few months, but that’s the way we fallible humans are.  I could probably create a further linked spreadsheet that would do the job semi-automatically, but that’s the way to total madness, so I won’t bother.
Anyway, having retrieved the data I thought it might be a good time to actually use it. Could comparative analysis wrench any powerful information from the figures? After quite a lot of study I concluded that, no, it couldn’t find anything vital, although one or two interesting things had become apparent.
Firstly, despite a boost over the August Bank Holiday Monday when we earned three times as much revenue from roof tours as the same day in 2010 the overall figures for the month were down on the previous year – and that’s very disappointing.
Despite some poor bank holidays earlier in the year which pulled our running total down John and I had worked our little legs off to lead 21 per cent more people up the central tower by 31st July.  Hooray!
Yet, just one month later this percentage gain had dropped to 14 per cent – revealing that we’d only done about four-fifths of the business we’d done the previous August.
This was despite climbing the steps even more frequently than last year (41 times compared to 39) but the average size of the groups had dropped from 5.4 to 4.3 people on each tour – and I can’t work out why.
Considering how well we’ve done in the rest of the year it’s rather depressing and baffling. I wish I hadn’t found that flipping spreadsheet now – sometimes ignorance is bliss.
A full archive of around 150 articles from the View from the Vestry collection is free here at: – and a CD with a selection of 13 of the best, read by Neil Pickford himself, is available, price £5 – email for details.

A new beginning, or more of the same?

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford has a new perspective.
If I look up I am confronted by a large picture of a Dalek – quite appropriate really considering that Doctor Who returned to our TVs on Saturday but that’s purely a coincidence – the picture is up there anyway, independent of any televisual transmission of the time-travelling tinkerer.
The picture occupies pride of place above my desk, along with a wonderful photograph of slowly-flowing water in the River Derwent. I am ultra-aware of it at the moment because I’ve been sitting at my desk for over two weeks, on and off, looking at it.
OK, that’s obviously a bit of an inexact statement because if I’d been sitting at my desk for two weeks I’d either be in a dreadful physical condition or I’d be dead. In fact I am neither.
What I really mean is that I have not been at work during those two weeks – I’ve been on holiday, albeit mostly here in Beverley, but I haven’t actually been in the Minster.
Actually, that’s an inexact statement as well because I have been in – several times. Granted I wasn’t there in my normal role as chair-shifter and toilet-roll replacer but nevertheless I was still wanted to talk with virger John and various other members of the team on different matters. And, do you know what? It felt fine, not at all like an unpleasant intrusion into my private time.
That’s so different to previous jobs – frankly I rarely gave a thought to my normal paid employment while I was enjoying any R and R – except perhaps to curse the fact that each day spent away was one day closer to having to return.
But you already know my positive feelings if you’ve stuck with this blog through thick and thin, so let’s move on.
‘Oh dear’, I feel you thinking. ‘Because he’s been on holiday he hasn’t got a thing to write about. The poor fool’s got to churn out 900 words today and not a thought in his head. He’ll have to witter on pointlessly for another 525 until he finally gets to the end. Blow this for a game of soldiers – I’ll watch the telly instead.’
And, to a degree, you’re right – and wrong as well.
Although I’ve not been physically present in the Minster (much) over the last two weeks I’ve not been detached from it mentally – indeed not! In fact I’ve been working constantly on this flipping ‘View from the Vestry’ CD that I was banging on about last week.
 Now ‘flipping’ may not be the best adjective to use if I was trying to sell it to you, but it’s certainly one that keeps occurring to me. You see, somewhat naively I thought that reading out my words would be a simple task once the microphone had been shoved in close proximity to my beard. Wrong! It’s flipping hard work.
Although I write in a rhythm that reflects the way I speak, the printed word doesn’t take account of the fact that I have to breathe and, also, occasionally stumble. Listeners don’t want to hear those things and so I had to very, very carefully edit them all out – and once you’ve listened to your own voice about 20 times saying the same few words over and over again then the novelty wears off. In fact, by the end of the process I felt my supposedly humorous writings were about as funny as a mouldy piece of cheese – although (he added hurriedly) everyone else seems to think that the 60 minutes of material contained therein is quite engaging and well worth a mere £5 of anyone’s money (to order a copy just e-mail – thank you).
But the real point of this article is not to praise myself (no, really, honestly it isn’t), nor to point out that it’s my 56th birthday next week. No, it’s to give huge credit to the talented musicians and recording experts who put together the 30-second burst of music that precedes each ‘chapter’ on the CD.
The tune itself may sound a touch familiar to some people – it’s based on the Beverley Minster chime that rings out every hour.
These chimes are unique, having been composed by Minster organist John Camidge for our new bells when they were hung in 1901-2 and I tend to ignore them normally – but now they’ve been given a new lease of life and I think the result is brilliant.
So step forward and take a bow please, Gerald and Timothy Pickford, a.k.a. the West Beverley Wind Quartet. (Yes, quartet.  Gerald, who also arranged and mixed the piece, plays clarinet, while Tim played tenor, alto and baritone saxophone).  It’s a unique combination.
I shall try and make recordings of this available via the interweb thingy so that more of you can enjoy it in future, maybe as a ringtone or suchlike.
I couldn’t be more impressed with the results – and that’s not just Proud Dad talking.  Maybe I’ll get a new iPhone (or similar) for my birthday (next week) so I can listen to it again and again when I’m back at work. Hooray!
If you can’t wait or don’t want to pay for the CD then a full archive of around 150 articles from the Mister Minster and View from the Vestry collection is available here at: – and you can read them aloud for yourself.

Post Navigation