A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Archive for the month “November, 2011”

Outwards and upwards – a mighty tale

Neil Pickford confronts a classic conundrum
After many fallow months I recently found myself having to deal with an old chestnut. By this I mean that a life-long Beverlonian who had popped into the building for the first time in many years (and very, very welcome they were too) tried to confirm a half-remembered piece of information with me.
“This was all built with ramps, wasn’t it?” he asked rhetorically as he waved his arm around to indicate the entire structure. “They carried earth here from the Westwood and piled it up into ramps, then dragged the stones up them, didn’t they? That’s why there’s all those holes on the Westwood, isn’t it?”
Well, I had to break it to him that this wasn’t true. What we’ve got here is probably a mixture of two different (and in their own way, quite interesting) stories that reveal a lot about the society our ancestors used to live in.
It’s so interesting in fact that I feel myself drifting into educational mode so, if you’re not in the mood for that and would prefer a few quick laughs then you’d be advised to switch to ‘Yesterday in Parliament’ or the weather forecast, (author listens to sound effects of screams and numerous feet exiting stage right).
Here goes: firstly, never make the mistake of thinking that our ancestors were stupid, just because they didn’t have our modern technology. In fact, because they didn’t have modern technology it meant they had to be inventive to solve major problems like how to build a massive Minster using hand tools, simple physics and incredibly good organisation. Their results show they were at least as intelligent as us (you can see that quite clearly in the brilliant structure and design of the nave roof they built 650 years ago). They were also fantastically strong compared to we modern wimps but I’ll come to that in a moment.
Firstly, let’s deal with the mental side. Our ancestors didn’t need to build ramps because they’d already invented the crane to do heavy lifting work for them. Proof of this is found in innumerable drawings from the 13th and 14th centuries depicting various cathedrals and castles under construction. They clearly show cranes involved in the process of lifting stones so by 1721, when they came to assemble the magnificent monster tread wheel crane in our roof, it was already very, very ancient technology. Lifting heavy stones was exactly what these machines were designed to do.
Our ancestors were also brilliant at constructing wooden frameworks that supported these cranes, while simultaneously acting as braces for unbuilt arches that would eventually carry the ceilings.
They were versatile too – if you could work with wood you would be expected to build fantastic scaffolding and then switch to carving items of exquisite detail and durability, such as our West End doors and font cover.
But although we didn’t need ramps to build Beverley Minster I’m not saying that Beverlonians didn’t do an awful lot of earth-shifting during the process, because they did. But it wasn’t for structural reasons, but the comfort of the Archbishop of York.
You see, our Minster is located right on the edge of what would have been marsh or swamp, as is obvious when you come on one of our roof tours. When you look out to the north you see the town of Beverley rising gently to St Mary’s, packed full of buildings.
To the south, however, there is virtually nothing (or at least there wasn’t until developers started building around Long Lane a few decades ago). That’s because the land is soft and on the spring line: the soil is saturated and if you dig a deep trench it will become waterlogged quite quickly.
(And that, I’m sorry to say, also busts the myth about secret tunnels into the Minster, because you’d drown if you tried to use one. Pity, because I’d love it to be true, but them’s the facts, ma’am.)
Anyway, just to the south is a large field that preserves a wonderful open view of the Minster from Long Lane, protected from development because we own it.
It’s here where the Archbishop of York’s Manor House or Hall used to stand back in the 14th and 15th centuries – but only after he’d got the plumbing right.
You see, the archbishop was the lord of the manor of Beverley and wanted to have his country residence as close as possible to the Minster, if only out of laziness. However, he had standards and one of these was that foul water should flow away from his house rather than into it. When the Minster was first built, thanks to marshiness, let’s just say it wasn’t cream that rose to the top.
For this reason his original country retreat was built on the higher ground near where St Mary’s is today but that was too far for a dignified walk to church in full regalia, so he had his workforce remodel the landscape for his comfort. Hundreds, probably thousands, of tons of soil was dragged to his favoured location from miles around (almost certainly including some from the Westwood) and the whole site was raised by about two to three metres so that it would drain properly. Dozens of men spent many sweaty months dragging sledges loaded with mud from A to B to make sure the archbishop could have a sweet seat, so to speak.
And that, I think, is how the inaccurate story of the Minster ramps started. Fascinating, wasn’t it?
Or not, as the case may be.

What’s the collective noun for virgers?

Neil Pickford is lost for words
Sorry, I ran out of space last week so I wasn’t able to conclude my carefully considered piece on why I think, overall, the creation of the Church of England was a good thing at the time – despite its considerable impact on the wealth and beauty of Beverley Minster.
And, sadly, I think I’ve lost the thread so I’ll have to thrash around and return to it at a later date (if anyone cares, of course). Instead, my mayfly mind alighted on another subject of great interest and made me redirect my editorial efforts for this week. So here goes.
While shuffling uncomfortably in my chair t’other day it struck me that, sometimes in life, a few unconnected events can come together and create what world-famous columnists then identify as a ‘theme’.  Sometimes, when wittering on about this theme, said world-famous columnist ends up revealing a profound truth which was previously invisible to all but a select few. Said world-famous columnist is then hailed as a guru and far-seeing observer of the human condition.
I wonder if that’s going to happen today because, you see there is a strange mood in the virgers’ vestry at the moment: a sort of tense, controlled preparedness for whatever may come. Without being trite it’s a teeny, weeny bit like going into battle – a sense of trying to balance tension with relaxation as you wait.
Or maybe that’s just me.
You see, we know we’ve got a solid lump of hard work to come throughout December and so John and I are taking advantage of the relatively quiet weeks beforehand to sort a few things out while we still have the chance.
One of those things is to get used to a new person, Kevin, who has joined us as a relief virger – to universal… ummmm… relief. John and I are confident he is someone on whom we can rely, looking after the church in our absence and doing all the 1001 odd little virger-y things that crop up on a daily basis.
Already he’s learned how often a straightforward attempt to start a routine task can be diverted by three or four random interjections from visitors, welcomers, forthcoming events organisers and phone calls from various concerned individuals, as well as reminders of the ever-present need to keep the ladies’ loo supplied with toilet paper. Despite this experience he’s still with us and we old hands are delighted, because it’s a job that desperately needs doing.
This was brought home to me with a vengeance on the very first day that Kevin was being trained into his new role (and here, with a barely noticeable change of gear, comes the second item that gives form to this dribbling diatribe).
On that Monday John, Kevin and I were hosts to a gathering of vergers (I’ll spell it that way merely because most of them do, not because I agree with it) from all over Yorkshire.
John had organised an educational training session (this year kindly provided by members of the Hull Guild of Silversmiths) and then we gathered for the tedious business which keeps us formally functioning until next year.
We had 18 people for this meeting who had travelled from as far afield as Redcar, Leeds, Patrington and even Hull. Under one roof we had a gathering of individuals who, collectively, have provided hundreds of years of service to the Church of England. They were all individuals who enjoyed doing what they did, had huge care and compassion for others and, in many respects, made me feel quite humble to be lumped in their number (and that’s not me being pious or ‘holier than thou’ – it was a fact).
I realised what a fragile resource we had in that room, however, when one of them afterwards asked if I would be prepared to take over some of her Guild duties as she was getting a bit worn down by them – especially the regular overnight trips down to various conferences and meetings in the south of England.
“Well, I am 82” she confided in me.
I’ll be honest, I hadn’t really thought about it but – at the Grand Old Age of 56 – I was the babe in the room and that was a frightening realisation.  Oh, there are younger virgers around, of course there are (some of whom are perfectly capable of performing cartwheels in Westminster Abbey for the entertainment of the masses). But not many in our part of the world.
We must be bonkers – at the service some five years ago where I was formally accepted into the Guild there was one of my senior colleagues who was being commended for having been a member for 50 years.
And what was his present for this incredible achievement? Answer: a certificate and free life membership of the guild from that date on – not a hint of retirement or suchlike.
That’s when I started musing on the proper collective noun for a bunch of vergers and the best one I could think of was a ‘giving’. Mind you, some people might call us a ‘stupid’ or a ‘taken-for-granted’ but, judging by the condition of the individuals in that room, it’s a guarantee of long and happy life.
That means that John, Kevin and I can expect another 25 years or so under the cross before we sign off.
So maybe the proper collective noun is a ‘daft’.

Remember, remember – what exactly?

Neil Pickford stokes the fires
It was an annual treat for me – my short walk up to the Westwood to watch thousands of pounds of much-cherished money going boom, splutter, whizz and bang in just a few minutes, leaving only spots in front of the eyes and an slightly sweet acrid smell in my nostrils and clothes. By the sound of it I wasn’t the only one enjoying Guy Fawkes night this year – in fact the crowd noise from the massive but distant bonfire spoke of many thousands of happy families, enjoying themselves in innocent pleasure.
Even the thought that my cats were probably cowering at home did little to dampen my spirits because I know that my cats are quite capable of being terrified just by the noise of food landing in their bowls. Switch on the kitchen light when they’re not expecting it and you will see an instant feline freakout. A single cough can induce a spasm and just walking into the same room elicits a worried glance that seems to say: “We know you’ve fed us and stroked us and loved us for many years, but you’re going to start torturing us any second now, aren’t you?”
Poor, pathetic, paranoid pussycats.
Back on the Westwood I was having a moment of connection –the zeitgeist (a German word meaning ‘the spirit of the moment’) was of complete happiness, of relief, of release, of innocence.
And yet the reason we were there was because a Catholic was painfully burnt to death after merely attempting what many of us have secretly considered – blowing up the Houses of Parliament.
But we forget that, most of the time – in fact nowadays most displays don’t even burn an effigy of the person after whom the night is named and the once-familiar sight of kids demanding ‘Penny for the Guy’ beside a badly=made representation  of a human being now seems extinct.
It’s a pity really because I pushed a wheelchair containing my well-wrapped-up mother-in-law into town the other day and was confidently expecting to get some loose change chucked into her lap, but no luck there.
Anyway, while I waited for the display to begin my mind started to roam, and I slipped into a parallel universe (again).
As an aside – I once heard that someone had split the population of Britain into two classes – those who watch soap operas such as EastEnders or Coronation Street, and those who watch soap operas like Star Trek and Doctor Who. Any member of the latter clan will know what I mean when I say I slipped into my ‘evil beard’ identity. As I already have a beard then casual viewers can only tell the two versions of me apart by the fact that the evil one will be darker and neatly trimmed.
(To those of you who watch EastEnders I can only apologise because you won’t have a clue what I’ve just been talking about – however I hope it will sufficient for you to know that I am about to embark on an emotional journey of exploration, and will want to come with me.)
But I digress.
I pondered what might have happened in a parallel universe where Guy Fawkes had succeeded in his part of the plan to obliterate pretty much the entire controlling elite of British society. In effect, what was being attempted in this single explosion was the equivalent of the Russian massacre of the Polish military elite in World War II plus shooting the Queen and all her family, plus all the heads of the police and legal forces, MPs, owners of Premiership football clubs, along with a few Lord Richard Bransons and Duke Alan Sugars for good measure.
The Catholics believed that this would be a good thing as it would enable them to bring back the old religion that worshipped using the icons and relics of saints as means of attracting the attention of God.  This was a society where the priests were a learned elite, separated from the common herd (i.e you and me) by the fact that they were much closer to God and so should be allowed to get on with religion on our behalf.
It would also mean that the divinely blessed remains of St John of Beverley would still be worshipped in their gold-boxed reliquary behind the high altar in the Minster, regardless of any change in status as a patron saint of England (see my previous contribution to the world of learning and controversy on that subject). This would have also pleased the lovely group of Russian Orthodox worshippers who came to pray at John’s tomb on, would you believe it? Guy Fawkes’ Night. As I described the development of the Church of England away from its Catholic roots one of them said to me: “You sound as if you are sorry that this all changed.”
Ummm – no, not really, although I accept that, whenever anything changes as radically as the church did in 1550 you will throw some good stuff out along with all the bad. Certainly the Minster lost a lot of beauty in the process. But I also believe the gains were worth it – and I may just go on about that -= and the Industrial Revolution – in my next outpouring.
Until then, you can always argue with me at or

"Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint John of Beverley!’ "

Neil Pickford comes over all saintly
I had to climb the northwest tower t’other day to fly the flag of St George. This was to honour St John of Beverley and, as I paused for breath at the 150th step I wondered why I was doing it. It took me a considerable period to recover, then complete the remaining 78 ascenders, and I was in contemplative mood by the time it was finished.
Oh, I knew the flag was to commemorate the translation of St John (a ‘translation’ is the date when a saint’s remains are physically moved from one location to another. In John’s case it was from the crypt in the middle of the nave where he had been buried back in 721AD, to a glorious new reliquary behind the high altar in 1307).
This formal movement of holy relics was an important event before Henry VIIIth came along and spoiled things for the old boys. The date of a saint’s installation (John’s was on 25th October) was as much a feast day as the saint’s own day (normally the date of his death – May 7th for St John).
So I was flying a flag for St John – but why St George’s?
After all, back in the 15th century the banner of our local saint had equal status with that of George – possibly even greater. The reason for this was the belief that, if you took our flag into battle, you were guaranteed victory. This may have come as a surprise to John who got his sainthood for the many miraculous healings he performed when alive, not for helping kings overwhelm their rivals’ troops after he was dead.
This belief in the war-winning power of John’s goodwill started around 930AD when King Athelstan united all England under Saxon rule following a tremendous battle against overwhelming odds. It is claimed that, after a night weeping and praying at John’s tomb the monks blessed him and gave him John’s banner to take into battle.
Athelstan trounced his many enemies and stated this victory was thanks to John’s divine intervention. In gratitude he gave wealth and privileges to those who guarded John’s tomb, including the charter that set up the Minster and guaranteed it a golden stream of income from then on. Beverley Minster became one of the richest bodies in all Yorkshire and, on its coat tails, Beverley was one of the very richest towns in England.
It helped that, from the 10th to the 16th centuries, whenever kings raised a levy from the peasants to form a royal army, all people in our parish were let off, provided the flag of St John was taken in their place. So this piece of fluttering cloth was regarded as more useful in a fight than any number of able-bodied Beverlonians.  And, you know, I’m not sure that’s anything to be ashamed about.
Edward I took it into several battles, as did Teddy II, Teddy III and Henry IV – while Henry V (parts one and two) believed that John helped us win the Battle of Agincourt (where we stuffed the French 10-1 in an away fixture) because it was fought on 25th October (the date of John’s translation, if you remember) and his tomb oozed blood and oil which apparently, was his way of showing his support for the English.
On the strength of this belief John was made one of the patron saints of England alongside St George and, in 1420, the King and Queen made a royal visit to Beverley to pay homage at his reliquary.
With this kind of support at the highest levels of British society it’s hardly surprising that Beverley prospered on the back of the pilgrim trade and the social cachet that came from having such an important saint buried in your local church.
Now I have claimed, in some of my more excitable moments, that John of Beverley should really be the patron saint of England, partly because it’s never a bad idea to Big Up the home team. Bear in mind George was a foreigner (a Roman soldier, from Palestine) who never came within a thousand miles of dear old Blighty. And, frankly, can you honestly believe in the tales of a man killing a dragon? I mean, my dear, really!
Some 300 years ago the Catholic Church was dismissing many of the most-popular stories attached to him as fantasies but, despite that, concluded it was still sensible to count him as one of the ‘14 Holy Helpers’ – saints who, if you prayed to them, were especially good at delivering results. It concluded, somewhat unscientifically, that George was someone: “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God.”
So that’s all right then.
In fairness George was already well-established and tremendously popular by 1037 when John became St John so it was an uphill struggle to replace him – a bit like my struggle climbing those 208 flipping steps. And so he isn’t the patron saint of England and it’s George’s flag that flutters from our tower.
Somehow that made the climb feel even harder.
A CD with a selection of 13 of the best Views from the Vestry, read by Neil Pickford himself, is available at the Minster shop, price £5 –or email for details.

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