vestryview

A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Windy weather warning worries watchers

Neil Pickford looks outside – seeking reassurance
It was last Tuesday morning (my equivalent of a Saturday for the rest of the world) and I was lying in bed, enjoying a later start to the day than normal. And, outside, the wind was howling and roaring.
My mind drifted back to schooldays – an increasingly difficult task over the years – and a Shakespearian quotation from my ‘O’ levels trudged reluctantly to mind:
“Blow, winds and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
‘Till you have drench’d our steeples,”
 As the furies mounted and twisted around my snug, warm house I remembered that, only a few years ago, a tall smoke-stack had towered above the very spot where I was idly laid. I was pleased when we had it demolished because I’d always felt it had a rather threatening and dangerous presence.
Today there is just a continuous stretch of smooth tiling and I can continue to sleep peacefully, whatever the wind speed outside.
Now I know it’s not often that chimney stacks are blown over by winds – but it does happen. And, after all, it’s only got to happen to you once to be exactly one time too many. And it’s not just chimneys – we’ve all seen the localised debris around Beverley when a storm hits – the roads strewn with overturned wheely bins, broken branches, fragments of tile on the pavements; etcetera, etcetera. Believe me, it’s quite an entertainment cycling round the various obstacles on my way to the Minster after a night like that.
And when I arrive at my place of work I have to check for damage because it’s my legal responsibility to make sure that it’s safe to open to the general public. So far we’ve been lucky – although perhaps ‘lucky’ isn’t the right word. After all, when a great golfer popped a shot from a bunker to within a couple of inches of the hole and a spectator commented how fortunate he’d been, he replied, witheringly: “Yeah, and the more I practice the luckier I get.”
It’s a fair comment, and one of the reasons why the Minster has been ‘luckily’ free from draft-derived damage is that a lot of time and money is spent on maintaining it – and it needs to be. You may remember that a pedestrian was killed when a pinnacle fell from the roof of All Saints church in the centre of York a few years ago. I walked past that very church at least ten times a week for three years before the accident and it certainly made me extremely aware of what might go wrong with a tall, exposed building.
And what is more tall and exposed than the Minster? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way because you can experience exactly how exposed it is if you come on a roof tour during a storm.
On a day such as today (or last Tuesday week, as it is to you) you will hear the roof over the transept creaking and groaning like an old wooden ship at sea. This is because the roof itself, despite being rebuilt in the 1720s and strengthened in the 1820s, still sticks to its original design – one which the Romans would have recognised. It was built to be strong and resistant – not subtle and responsive which, it turns out, is a better strategy for long-term survival against the elements.
By the time they got round to building part two, however, our ancestors had learned a few things – not least, how much of a battering the old place was going to get over the years from these elemental elements. So they built the nave roof using a completely different technological concept – and it worked.
I shan’t spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t been up there yet but our ancestors were brilliant, which is why the Minster nave can boast a virtually complete set of original 650 year-old timbers throughout.
However, not everything is as reliable.
For the last few months the west end of the church has hosted scaffolding that was erected to help masons replace some big and rather wobbly stony bits. These had worked loose and there was a danger that they might fall if rocked by, for example, very high winds.
Gosh, isn’t it ‘lucky’ that we started work on them before the latest storms struck? You’d almost think someone ‘up there’ was looking out for us!
And, of course, they are.
There is a fixed programme of intimate annual structural inspections and incredibly detailed five-year ones prescribed for the Minster and, of course, constant ongoing checking between these events.
Much of this checking is done by the Minster’s own handyman extraordinaire Steve Rial, aided by his part-time colleague Paul Hawkins, although ‘handyman’ isn’t really the right word here. Steve is actually an expert plumber and glazier, which means he’s the ideal man to repair the lead roof and leaded windows, but he’s also got to turn his hand to anything else that needs doing at a moment’s notice – and sometimes that involves dealing with bits of the building that are potentially dangerous.
It’s a good job the two of them each have a head for heights – during December and January they’ve been working away some 90 foot above the ground, repairing ancient ridges that are thin and brittle, preventing the wind from ripping off stretches of the ancient materials and dumping them onto unsuspecting pedestrians.
So I shall be able to sleep soundly again tonight, whatever the winds, knowing just how ‘lucky’ we are – and why. Thanks guys.
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