A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Archive for the month “December, 2011”

Irresolution for the New Year

Neil Pickford eyes the future – and he’s ambivalent
Firstly, I must deal with a question that has been repeatedly asked since my last column: you don’t need to worry about Pimple. As I write, Pimple is hiding underneath the model railway in the north transept of the Minster, although I expect it to move fairly soon.
Being a virger I have a strange affinity for dirt and dust and have been able to build quite a relationship with our visitor over the last few weeks. When it has an interesting story to tell it will let me know – and I, of course, will pass it on to you, my dear readers.
However, back to the present: It was 12.30 on the afternoon of Christmas Day and the final members of the congregation had sipped and then slipped away, leaving a happy tide of Merry Christmases in their wake. I was stacking some chairs when the vicar approached with a large circular chocolate box in his hand.
“A present for you,” he announced. I smiled and then saw, with sinking heart, that it only contained torn-up shreds of paper from the morning service – the rest of the chocolates having been scoffed by a hungry horde of celebrants earlier on.
“Hmmm,” I said politely, and thought- hard. 

“That’s probably a very good metaphor for the life of an average virger,” I concluded.

“You might get a column from it,” he replied gaily as he whirled off to sip champagne.
“Well, that’s the only good thing in it then,” I said, amusingly – some five minutes after he’d gone, which was rather too late.
Well, you see, my rapid riposte circuits were quite worn out – as was I.
After all, I was tidying up after my fourth major service in less than 24 hours (Virger John having done another two during the same period) and this was the end of the busiest month of concerts and events we’ve ever experienced.
On top of the normal cycle of big Christmas services we two virgers have assembled and disassembled staging and chairs for no less than 17 very different one-off events in 19 days, with various parties and seasonal specials on top. John’s arms have been hurting for several weeks and I managed to bash my forehead with a large candle stand as we dismantled the final concert of the year, so we both carry scars.
And yet, on one of my rare nights off from our unending sequence of concerts, I drove 80 miles to watch – of all things – another concert- and as a result I’ve been doing a little thinking.
I had travelled along the M62 to watch Roy Wood, the former ‘Wish it could be Christmas’ Wizzard himself, who was in fine voice and with an excellent band. I know I was really looking forward to the gig, but, on top of that, there was a wonderful atmosphere about the venue which, even as I first walked through the door, made me a promise that I was going to have a wonderful time. 
The Holmfirth Picturedrome (for that was the building in question) describes itself as the: “finest intimate music venue” in the north of England (with a capacity for 650 souls at any one time) and I’m not going to argue with that. It’s highly popular with musicians and performers and attracts audiences from many miles around – it’s also profitable.
And yet, at root, it’s just a basic box – exactly like our own Memorial Hall. But there the similarities end.
A former cinema, the owners spent a bit of money removing the fixed seats and screen, then painting the place. They’ve done some structural work, creating a modern, inexpensively-constructed mezzanine gallery along each side and a large upstairs balcony. There was a bar at each level – and that was it. A fully functioning venue that is commercially viable and very busy, attracting lot of big acts because they enjoy the atmosphere of the place.
Compare and contrast that with the big box that is Beverley’s own Memorial Hall where, after years of promises and many, many tens of thousands spent on consultancy fees, we still are waiting for any developments. Despite the existence of numerous art and festival organisations locally the building itself has many gaps in its diary. And yet this was supposed to be an improved version of our old Playhouse, with many hundreds of thousands of pounds available to fund its transformation.
I mourned the closure of the Playhouse and miss the types of act that used to appear there. I envy Pocklington for its Art Centre (and very little else) and I want one in Beverley, so I really wish the Memorial Hall well in its ambitions. But time is passing and money is disappearing….
However, all is not lost. We’ve already got Beverley Minster and, as I think we’ve adequately proved over the last few weeks, we’re a darn good venue.
What’s not to like? The setting looks magnificent (not just good, but fabulous, as everyone who performs there will agree). We have demonstrated that the building’s natural acoustics are perfect for many types of music and, when linked to a modern and expertly-fitted PA system, we can ensure high quality reproduction to all parts of the building for other types.
We’ve got a lot more flexibility in staging and seating than Holmfirth, we’ve also got the Parish Hall, Emmaus, Peter Harrison rooms, and new toilets which have been fitted up to the highest standards.   Best asset of all, we’ve got the powerful partnership of John and me available to assemble staging and make things work smoothly.
And to anyone who says that such things shouldn’t happen in a church I can only say: “Rubbish – you don’t know your history.”
Beverley Minster was built as-and-for theatre. The whole place was full of music and performers (that’s why we have a huge and world-famous collection of 14th century carvings of musicians and dancers through the whole building). The inside was painted in vivid colours, there were no rows of seats or quiet spaces for the general population – even the seemingly endless succession of prayers and chants in the Quire were conducted against the background of a boisterous crowd in the main part of the church.
The vicar is happy for the building to be used thusly, the treasurer smiles broadly whenever he receives a cheque and we virgers appreciate the overtime and free muscle-developing exercises we get in the process.
And it makes many, many people happy – so what’s not to like?  

Festive frolics and a fabulous fictional fable

Neil Pickford comes over all whimsical
Once upon a time there was a little ball of fluff that floated round in the wind and its name was Pimple. It used to be blown here and there, not knowing where it was or where it wanted to be, and just listening and watching when it came anywhere near the hard stuff below it.
Pimple was an explorer, without a plan or a care in the world and it loved always finding somewhere new. The favourite day in its whole life was when there was a sudden: “Whoosh” and Pimple found it was stuck firmly on the nose of what it later learned was called a reindeer. The reindeer, and all its friends, were in a hurry because they had to pull a huge sleigh full of boxes all around the whole world in less than 24 hours and they travelled to everywhere, (literally ‘flat out ‘ in Pimple’s case) until the task was over.
Pimple had been floating around without a worry for many, many months after this chance meeting but it had fallen into some stronger winds lately and was getting bashed and biffed about. Normally Pimple didn’t try to fight the furies but it was getting cross with the wind always yelling and shrieking and decided it wanted a rest.
As Pimple was bounced from here to there and everywhere it saw a huge, cross-shaped building and felt that this might be a nice place to have a holiday. It was very pretty and full of the sort of good feelings that Pimple liked feeling. So, as the wind sucked and puffed brainlessly Pimple took the chance to slip and float down towards this lovely building. As it got closer Pimple realised it had never felt so much happiness in one place in its whole life. So it let a gust of wind blew it through some huge wooden doors and down again to a flat yellow-grey surface which, as Pimple got closer, looked more and more like the ….
Pimple was a bit frightened and bothered when it finally touched down so it lay there, flicking slightly as it took stock, but all the time the nice feelings grew stronger and stronger. Everyone was looking at lots of green tree-things which puzzled Pimple – they were supposed to be outside, not indoors. Still, as everyone seemed so happy Pimple wasn’t going to spoil things by complaining (a nasty habit it’d picked up by absorbing the feelings of humans). Gently, small bits of the green things were falling from the trees and landing on top of Pimple, but they were light and Pimple was happy to be covered by them – hidden from view.
Pimple couldn’t count, so it didn’t know that many thousands of feet were walking past the little spot it had found to hide in. All it could tell was that people were happy, interested, surprised and satisfied – all day long. Dimly it registered that, when almost everyone had finally gone there were a few humans somewhere in the background, moving things around, but they weren’t as important or interesting as the masses of happy people, so Pimple dozed.
Later on many more feet passed Pimple and then there was a lot of noise. This noise also seemed to make the humans on top of the feet very happy so Pimple was happy as well. Pimple was so excited that, afterwards, it didn’t pay any attention to the few humans in the background moving things around because they weren’t as important or interesting as the masses of happy people.
After a while Pimple woke up to find all the feet had gone and the big green trees were being moved. There was no wind around to blow Pimple on to its next adventure so it tried to hide when it saw a big noisy tube coming that sucked up all the green bits around. With a shudder it felt the last of its camouflage being dragged away and realised that the big sucker was going to suck up Pimple too.
If Pimple could feel angry or frightened then it would have felt like that now – but Pimple couldn’t. All it could feel was the calm, ordered mind of the tube-holding human as it steadily worked through its big task of making the ground un-green and clean again. But that wasn’t important.
Luckily Pimple was expert at riding the draughts and, as the sucking sensation flicked Pimple around it managed to sneak round a corner and find some peace and quiet underneath a big table.
Every now and then more groups of feet would come to the table and say strange things about a railway, then go away happily so Pimple enjoyed that. When the feet all went away and just a few humans were left, moving things around, Pimple dozed because they weren’t very interesting (although surprisingly content, as it happens).
At some time over the next blur of days Pimple heard the sharp: “WHOOSH” noise that reminded it of the team of reindeer and their load of boxes. Pimple wondered why everything had to be done in such a rush – why didn’t the reindeer do just a bit of the work every day instead of all in a tearing hurry. But that was another mystery and Pimple didn’t enjoy mysteries, just experiences.
Not long after the whooshing reindeers had gone by the big building was quiet again for a long time with just a few humans wandering around and moving things – but they weren’t interesting or important. So Pimple decided it was time to move on again.
What adventures will Pimple have in 2012, dear readers? Tune in next week at the same Bat-column, same Bat-newspaper and see if our hero has escaped. ‘Til then, Merry Christmas.
Now please excuse me while John and I move a few things around.

Living Aphorisms during Advent

Neil Pickford explores the literal world
noun – a terse saying embodying a general truth, or astute observation, e.g: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton).
It probably won’t surprise you to know that I was moving chairs on this particular Friday – a LOT of chairs. It was after 4pm and the church was closed so it was just me on my own little ownsome – and all these chairs. Everything was black: I had decided that there was enough light coming from the floodlights outside to let me do this fairly routine task without pouring yet more profit into the pockets of our electrical supplier, so I was clattering away in a dark but not gloomy world.
It was easy – and as the rows of newly-moved chairs lengthened so my mind started to wander, as it does.
Here I was, working away in considerable darkness. Could I do it in COMPLETE darkness?
So I closed my eyes and kept on working.
At first things went well – I was toiling in the south aisle and I’d already got stacks of plastic bottom-holders in regular spaces along the wall. I was easily able, by touch, to lift one, tilt it slightly and clip it to its predecessor, counting out groups of five and then moving back two paces to start the next section. Hands out – orientating myself to the chairs in front; getting them all parallel. Easy!
Gaining in confidence I turned to start downloading from the next pile and tripped over one of our floor-mounted radiators.
Opening my eyes I found that what I had fondly believed would be three lines of neatly-ranged chairs were, in fact, an untidy mess.
Grumbling gently as I rubbed my ankle I concluded that, in this case, the phrase:  “I could do this with my eyes shut” wasn’t literally true.
Rocked by this revelation I wondered just how true some of the other aphorisms that pop up in casual conversation really are. You know, those little social lubricators that pour out unthinkingly when your brain is tired or you’ve had enough of a particular topic: “Once bitten, twice shy”, that sort of thing.
Earlier that same day, as it happened, I’d been for a blood test where the phlebotomist had unsuccessfully attempted to extract just a few drips of my precious red fluid for someone else to enjoy. This was only three days after a different phlebotomist had also failed in this routine task and I had amused myself by twisting another aphorism: “You can’t get blood out of a virger”
Now inspired, I decided to examine some other ‘astute observations’.
“Man cannot live by bread alone”: Hmmph – for a large part of this year I lived without bread at all in a (vaguely successful) attempt to lose weight. A previous vicar once told me that he found the smell of toast wafting from the virgers’ vestry to be very distracting. “That’s a pity,” I said.  “I find it positively ethereal” – as well as virtually impossible to resist.
The misery and longing I felt during 2011 every time I scented freshly-baked or toasted and couldn’t share, would make me amend the aphorism to: “Man cannot live without bread” and I offer my most profound sympathies to anyone who will never know its joy.
“If you can’t beat them, join them.” What a supremely cynical piece of wisdom, and so wrong-headed. Any poor individual with a sense of loyalty to a football team, for example, knows this is ridiculous. For example, Manchester United ruled the roost for many years and consequently have many fair-weather fans who will soon gravitate to their local rivals when the Light-Blues top the Premiership – and they miss the point.
There’s no deep pleasure to be gained by these dilettantes who rarely experience defeat and consequently cannot appreciate the euphoria of hard-won victory against all odds. Whereas poor saps such as myself (who is helplessly tied to Bristol City and winces at their current position in the Championship), can still derive huge pleasure despite the downturns. In my case, it’s from knowing we’re currently two divisions above local rivals Bristol Rovers. Another failed aphorism, methinks.
The pen is mightier than the sword.” That’s obviously written by someone who’s never been in a fight. Ha! Which would you prefer if you were being threatened in a dark alleyway: a weapon, or the chance to write a letter of complaint to the European Court of Justice? In those circumstances I don’t think many people would spend their time searching for a stamp.
So, once you start to examine them, many of these ‘pearls of wisdom’ don’t bear close scrutiny. However, there is one that I’ve always appreciated: “if you don’t know what to write, write about not knowing what to write.”
Excellent advice, in my humble opinion.
So it’s nearly Christmas – but there’s still just time for you to buy an audio CD contained a selection of these very columns, uttered by my own sublime voice – to give as a loving gift to every single member of your family and circle of friends. “Three Chairs”: sixty minutes of me – a snip at £6 from Beverley Minster shop or email me directly at and we’ll get you all the copies you want in time for the big day.
Just imagine the tears of gratitude in their eyes. Just imagine the many good causes who will benefit from your kindness. And ignore any aphorism beginning: “A fool and his money…..”

Trees and tracks, and all points in between

Neil Pickford blows his whistle, again
I do hope our beloved Henrys are in fine fettle at the moment because they are about to be called upon for prodigious, powerful, pneumatic purging and purification (I’m sorry, my alliteration function button is switched ‘on’ again).
Using more normal terminology I am trying to say that our vacuum cleaners will have to work extremely hard soon, otherwise one event in the Minster is going to foul up another.
If you are reading this enjoyable, enervating, energising, educational and expletive-free epistle (sorry, again) during the week of publication then you have still got time to hie down to the Minster and look at 40+ Christmas trees in all their glory, creating a festive forest of fun-flaunting finery (sorry) and raising money for the church.
Then, after the arboreal arrivistes depart I expect that they will leave behind a fine carpet of needles and suchlike, which will be absolute hell for the event immediately following.
This, you see, will be the relaunch of a famous model railway layout that has been displayed on Blue Peter, no less.
Yes, this miniature recreation of Market Weighton station is being assembled in our north transept to link models of Beverley and York Minsters – highlighting the campaign to reopen a railway line between our two ecclesiastical edifices (and to provide environmentally-friendly pilgrimages between them, of course).
The layout won’t actually be running constantly but we’re hoping it will still be active at key times when the church is open (including during concert evenings). However, it certainly won’t be in action if it’s faced with a constant invasion of pine needles which, at OO scale, are approximately 10 feet long and quite capable of derailing the Wolds Wanderer or whatever is running at the time.
So the Henrys will be in action as soon as the last Christmas tree has been heaved into its sponsors’ transport and we won’t stop until we’re satisfied the final traces have gone.
And then the school Christmas services begin and the enemy switches from greenery to silvery – to be precise, tinsel.
Ah yes, tinsel – we love it! Nothing adds more glamour to a building than an even sheen of sparkle between the flagstones – or on a miniature railway where it can short-circuit the tracks and provide a picturesque sparkle of electricity.
But don’t let me sound like a grumpy-paws because I’m really looking forward to it. I claim a little bit of credit for the event being staged because, once it was learned that York Minster had a big model of itself that would complement our existing one of Beverley I was part of the group that had a brainwave.
Linking the models by a model railway could promote the Two Minster’s Rail Campaign – a cause very close to the heart of the vicar, the musical director and me.
Just think what a boon it would be if the line was open right now – I know that many people from Beverley would use it to travel to York and do their shopping (possibly mixing in a little convivial refreshment of the type that is so discouraged among drivers, especially at this time of year).
Returning with your presents, spending quality time with family and friends while whizzing past miles of miserable motorised queuing commuters – what could be more convivial?
And, of course, there’s no reason why it can’t be a beneficial two-way process. At a rough calculation, if  just one per cent of the shoppers coming into York decided to take the line into Beverley instead then it might just about double the turnover in local shops – as well as visitors to our Minster.
And why shouldn’t they come to Beverley? I suppose it’s easy to get complacent when you live and work in the place but, as I rediscovered when I stomped the streets a few weeks ago to get some advertising in our Christmas Tree brochure, there’s a new swathe of independent shops supplying the sort of thing I’d assumed I was going to have to go on t’internet for.
Only this year I was moaning that Beverley’s shopping didn’t offer much for the male spender: we’d lost toy shops, DIY retailers, specialist CD & DVD rental and sale outlets and the whole place was overflowing with women’s clothing and coffee houses. Just look around – it ain’t true and it’s wonderful.
This was brought home to me when two recent guests at my wife’s wonderful three-star, award-winning B&B Hunter’s Hall (still a few rooms left before Christmas – see for details) turned out to be repeat bookings who’d been so impressed with the town during a business visit that they had come back to buy a house and relocate ‘oop north.
The property they’ve bought is actually close to the route of a reinstated Two Minsters’ railway line – I hope they’re train fans.
On a different tack – apologies to anyone who thinks I’ve ignored them recently and, conversely, anyone who thinks I may have been winking at them in a somewhat personal manner. I’ve been wearing a new type of prescription contact lens and getting used to them has been a bit difficult.
Or that’s what I intend to tell the police if anyone complains.
If this hasn’t been enough for you why not browse some of my old articles at – or even buy a CD of me reading some of them. Just £5 in Beverley Minster shop; an ideal Christmas present for the family member you really love.

Say ‘Cheese’

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford gets in touch with current thinking
I have recently started what my wife calls my ^Don’t eat so much bread and cheese, you fat fool” diet which is, you must admit, both simple to understand and motivational at the same time. However, to be honest, it has not been a festival of fun. In fact I feel that a little pleasure has disappeared from my life.
So I wasn’t too surprised the other day when I was accused of not smiling brightly as I scraped some fresh chewing gum off the flagstones inside Beverley Minster (oh, the glamour of my job).
As the person who made this accusation wears very thick spectacles I could have argued that they were mistaken, but it was true.
Even though I’ve tried to hide it I must admit that my normal bouncy, joyous and sunshine-bright personality has been a little less upfront than normal. I may have even been a trifle sombre for a few seconds during this cheese-free week.
Anyway, in an attempt to recover my ‘joie de vivre’ I decided to re-read some of my earlier columns and remember the glowing tributes that have been showered upon me since I started contributing to the Advertiser.
Well that didn’t take long, did it?
My mind drifted further afield for something that might raise my spirits. I was searching in vain for anything I have written that has attracted praise, and then it hit me.
It’s just a few words that have only existed for a few months, but already I’ve had two copies stolen from where they were on display, someone else asked me for a personalised version to be printed, which was then proudly mounted in the cab of a delivery van and, only yesterday, I heard someone repeating the words over-and-over as if to remember them for posterity.
I must share this jewel with you now. It is a sign I designed to address a constant problem, and reads:
If you miss and make a mess
Help reduce the cleaners’ stress
Please use some toilet roll –
then use some more
And leave behind a nice, dry floor.
Thank you
                                                                   William Shakespeare (honestly)
… … and I felt SO pleased with myself.
Now this particular sign happens to be located underneath one of the new electric fire-safety lights that we are currently (‘current’ – ‘electric’ – did you see what I did there, readers? Sorry) …fitting throughout the Minster.
Once you start trying to comply with the latest regulations you realise what a huge amount of work it entails and, after all, it’s not that long since we upgraded to what were then regarded as the highest standards. Still, as the large public venue for many, many miles we have a responsibility to be as safe as possible, and that means continuing to monitor and implement changes in the regulations.
Because the new regulations about emergency lighting are so demanding it has involved a lot of new wiring, and this has brought its own surprises.
Once we started looking for the best way to provide continuous illumination to escape routes we found that the main wiring system had been very much lashed together over the years. Last Sunday, for example, we discovered (the hard way) that the fuse for the lights inside the main Highgate entrance is in a box in the lower bell-ringing chamber.
This is some 50 feet above the ground and, to achieve this irritating result, a previous Sparky had completely ignored another, much more obvious, fuse box at ground level.
We’re finding similar little oddities all the time – if we lose a light ‘here’ then the solution will probably be found somewhere over ‘there’.
It keeps me fit, clambering around the building and chasing problems – so maybe I don’t need to be on a diet after all.
I feel my smile returning.
First published June 2010

Now is the time to be merry – or is it?

Neil Pickford considers the why and where of it all
It’s all going very well so far isn’t it? I mean, compared to last year when we were blanketed by snow and all the pre-Christmas events were cancelled as if the NoFun brigade had taken control. No sign of that happening this year, I’m glad to say.
Actually, that last sentence is complete cobblers, the product of wishful thinking because, you see, it hasn’t happened yet. Oh, I know it’s happened (or not) to you by now because you are reading this in December whereas I am composing these exciting words while still firmly ensconced in the latter days of November. I’m actually on holiday at the moment, filling in my time by rewiring my model railway, forecasting the weather and pumping iron, ready for the fray.
Still, by the time you read this a ‘daft’ or ‘giving’ group of Yorkshire virgers will have already digested our Christmas lunch (which will be/was absolutely lovely, of course).because  the only chance we have to meet together before Christmas is in November as we’d never get time once Advent has started. Luckily, the Minster’s own staff will be able to grab a quick hour together on the Monday before Christmas, which will be nice.
Having said that, I’ve actually been finding it quite hard to get worked up about December.  I suspect that this is because familiarity breeds contempt, as the saying has it. You see, when I first became a virger some five years ago the seasonally-packed diary was a thing of wonder and fear. How on earth could John and I possibly get the church ready for all the different carol services, concerts and events that were planned and crammed into just three weeks.
It’s less daunting this year – partly, I suppose, because we’ve learned a few tricks along the way. Turning 400 chairs around to face the west is far less of a problem that it used to be because we’ve developed a system for doing it while the rest of the world assembles or dismantles the mass of staging that will support the East Riding County Choir in full ‘Messianic’ mode this year.
For the rest of the month the seats will be firmly facing east and we’ve also learned how to create a set of staging that seems to be acceptable for almost all performers. Oh, there will be individual tweaks for each event, of course, but that’s a lot easier than rebuilding the whole thing from scratch every time.
We’ve got a few apparently horrendous combinations – not least on the final day of term when the High School fills the Minster, overflowing the nave and requiring extra seating in the transepts.
That’s not a particular problem but, joy of joys, our final Youth Café of the year is scheduled for that very night. You’ll never guess which part of the Minster it’s sited in, will you?
But it’s not going to cause us any worries – we’ve got at least three hours between events and, with the help of some clever pre-planning and a certain number of extra muscles, we’ll be ready.
One thing that seems to have got harder over the years, however, is performing the virgers’ very unique version of ‘Riverdance’.
This is a remarkably beautiful performance that takes place in the slightly unromantic setting of the Minster’s industrial rubbish bins. At a suitable moment when, for example, piles of cardboard packing are sticking out of the lid and there’s still three days until ERYC’s Refusians swoop to clear them, we unleash our powers of dance and crush the contents beneath us.
Not so long ago John and I would hoist ourselves onto the packed pile of packages and leap up and down, whistling an appropriate tune such as: “My Old Man’s  (not) a Dustman”; “He Ain’t  Heavy, He’s my Virger”; “Whole Lotta Lumps”; and, for older readers, I would perform that 1950s favourite: “The Bristol Stomp”.
Except that I don’t these days. I don’t know what happened but suddenly I just can’t seem to climb the sides of the bins anymore. Oh, John can – and he does – but I’m now at the embarrassing stage of grunting, sweating, getting red in the face and failing to ascend to the stage. Even if I could get up I’m not sure how much of a performance I would put on as I’d still be wheezing and coughing while John, on his side of the bin, would be halfway down  and starting to wonder how he’s going to get out again.
I could try and blame global warming but I suspect it’s because I’m fat, unfit and getting old, and probably more of the first two than the last.
Mind you, if we move enough chairs and staging around over the next few weeks then that should do something about my fitness levels, but the fatness, I fear, will still be there.
Of course, if the weather turns nasty again you can forget everything I’ve just written, because it won’t be like that at all.
Sometimes I wonder why I bother …..
Never mind.  If this hasn’t been enough for you why not browse some of my old articles at – or even buy a CD of me reading some of them. Just £5 in Beverley Minster shop; an ideal Christmas present for the family member you really love.

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