A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Archive for the month “March, 2012”

The end of an era

Neil Pickford looks back on a golden age
Last Friday was somewhat unusual because, for the first time in five years I was in Beverley while 200 young teens were having a good time in the Minster – and I wasn’t there.
I didn’t realise it when it happened but February saw me wash out my ear plugs for the last time after a rather excitable Youth Café. I’ve been the duty virger at almost all of them since 2006, standing stern and unsmiling in the corner to show that there is at least one responsible adult looking after the church while all around me youngsters were having fun.
Mostly my duties consisted of said “standing stern and unsmiling” plus pointing at the mop and bucket whenever a can of cola or similar had been spilled on our venerable stone floor. Maintaining a constant supply of black bin liners for the sweet shop, toilet rolls for the loo and strolling around to spot any problems occupied much of the rest of the period before lights-up and, on a few occasions, I had to offer official First Aid-approved tissues and sympathy when a little knock or graze has occurred.
Back in the (Bad) Old Days I was there on the front line when a miscalculation about the number of adult helpers meant we had to limit entry, to the annoyance of people outside. In that period the average age was higher and we had a few problems with girls sneakily carrying booze in their handbags  (although, once we’d wised up it was easy enough to spot them – they were already half-sloshed when they arrived).
But for the last few years things have been so much more organised and peaceful. It’s mostly 12-14 year olds coming these days, we’ve got a solid core of helpers who do the same essential jobs (checking in, cloakroom duties, sweet shop, cleaning, building and un-building) every time and Lee has a group of younger people who do most of what’s necessary before, during and afterwards. That just leaves the duty virger to move various bits of church furniture back where they should be and, hopefully, make a start on Henrying the floor to remove the most obvious piles of sweet papers and chewing gum before we reopen next day.   
As an aside to the various grumpy-drawers who complain that the Minster shouldn’t be hosting such a noisy, happy event I can only say: “Pooh-sticks!” Some 800 years ago our ancestors started building Beverley Minster to be a magnificent multi-use structure that would act as a triumphant venue for music, activity, movement, commerce, singing and special light shows – with a bit of religion in the background. We’re maintaining that tradition, not setting a new one.
Sorry, veered off-subject there – so back to my theme for the week.
I don’t want you to think that I gave up the Youth Cafes because I’m getting old – because I am NOT.  In any case, I’ve actually stepped down to make way for an older person – part time virger Kevin. So there.
I know all about old people – they were everywhere when I was a wee slip of a lad (but not nowadays – odd that). Anyway, they used to sit in the corner at Christmas time, smelling of mothballs and sipping sherry. Once the happy-juice had kicked in they would utter banal observations such as: “It’s turned out nice again for the time of year, hasn’t it?”
Quite often further ‘conversation’ (and I use that word in its loosest sense) then revolved around the dreadful ‘Youth of Today’ and one area of elderly consensus was in the world of music. We youngsters shouldn’t be listening to: “that beat rubbish – you can’t hear the words,” and their control of the media made sure we got very little exposure to it. Just about the only form of music we were allowed was on “Childrens’ Favourites”.
And, apparently, what we really enjoyed were musical whimsies celebrating young boys killing wild creatures; tales of brass instruments that felt sad, or mice infesting a Dutch windmill. “Childrens’ Favourites” – my bottom.
And yet, despite the oldies in the BBC, we had brilliant music being made: The Beatles, The Move, The Who, The Kinks, Pink Floyd and hundreds of almost-as-good wannabes. Then, the next generations followed with Queen, Nirvana, The Prodigy, Placebo, Muse, the Foo Fighters and Rammstein. I had thought the music of my youth would keep rejuvenating itself for the future to enjoy.
Sadly I was wrong. The music of THIS generation has different roots, and it’s rubbish.
Oh, I know I’ll be accused of sounding like my Gran but there’s a big difference. Today it’s ME who can’t make out the words.
However, I don’t mind. My music was of my time and for my time, and I mustn’t condemn the younger generations because they are different. Instead, I must judge each person by how they really are – which, after all, is one of the lessons of Christianity. The teenagers in the Minster Youth Cafe are well-behaved and have a good time without annoying anyone (much) and you can filter out the noise if you want to.
And last Friday evening I contentedly took off my wig, spat out my teeth then settled down with Led Zeppelin and a nice cup of cocoa.
Happy Daze.

The Minster: Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?

Neil Pickford contemplates the physical nature of things.
Last year my younger son and I had a fascinating debate about whether yoghurt was a solid or a liquid.
I contended it was a solid because you couldn’t suck it through a straw, whereas something like Actimel was described as a ‘yoghurt-drink’ (being yoghurt with added water) and therefore had made the transition into being a liquid. Simples!
My son wouldn’t accept the logic of my argument, and even called in science to back up his dubious thesis, using ridiculous phrases such as ‘phase transition points’ to claim the opposite position was true. I eventually won by pointing out that I was bound to be right, being both a virger at Beverley Minster and master of our household and he was going to suffer dire punishment if he didn’t agree with me.
Afterwards, however, I thought it might be wise for me to check on the accuracy of my argument, purely to clinch my position you understand. Good old, ever-reliable Wikipedia was my friend here until I read, with mounting confusion, that: “a liquid is able to flow and take the shape of a container”. Was I wrong after all?
The key, I  started arguing with myself, is what timescale is involved in this description because, if it’s big enough, then lead counts as a liquid – and I don’t mean just when it’s being heated in a furnace either. No, in the same way that yoghurt takes the shape of its container if you wait a while, so does lead – it just takes much, much longer.
That’s completely obvious once you start looking at the old lead drainpipes at the Minster. Visitors who come on our roof tours find themselves in the workshop area of Steve Rial, Minster craftsman extraordinaire, whose expertise in lead-working is vital in keeping the rain out of the building.
In one corner is a collection of new drainpipes he has constructed as part of a long-term replacement programme– and boy, is it necessary. Hanging in one place for 200 years has caused the metal to creep slowly under the influence of gravity (just like yoghurt does!) and, at the very top, the old ones look decidedly translucent.  
A lead roof may last for several centuries so most of the time the Minster can forget about them – just concentrate on the rest of the building and let nature take its course – until it finally starts wearing out. At this point something has to be done.
Guess what stage we’ve reached in 2012.
You may remember a piece I wrote earlier this year highlighting the patch-up repairs that Steve and his colleague Paul  have been doing on the ridges of the transept, replacing severely worn and corroded sheets with new ones. Well, that’s all fine and dandy for now, but it’s really only applying a sticking plaster to a huge wound. Sooner or later the rest of the stuff is going to have to be renewed – and, actually, it’s going to have to be sooner rather than later.
Yep, any year now the collecting tins will start rattling and the fund-raising campaign will begin. And, yes, of course, a howl of misery will go up from the usual ignorant chorus who wonder why the Church of England should get any help at all. “After all, it’s one of the richest organisations in the country.”
Yeah, right but even if that was true it’s irrelevant.
The Church of England itself doesn’t own Beverley Minster, we in the parish of St John and St Martin do and it’s our vicar’s name that appears on the title deeds. It’s the same with almost all working parish churches. They are the responsibility of the church membership.
But we’ve still got vast wealth available to us in Beverley Minster, haven’t we?
Of course we have, we’ve got a huge building that’s a real asset. One option is to do what those clever financial people at Woolworths did – sell the lease for a huge sum of money and then just rent the property back.
Oh, hang on. That didn’t work out very well, did it?
I suppose we could cut costs again, like not turning the heating on until the temperature drops below 40. That would save the Minster about £1,000 each week during the winter – or, in real terms, about 0.01 percent of the £7 million we’re looking for. So, if we allow our congregation and visitors to freeze over the next 200 years we’ll be able to fund the repairs ourselves.
Of course, this action would make the building fall down as well, which is rather counterproductive.
Maybe we should be sensible and, if we can’t afford to mend it ourselves, just shut up shop and move somewhere easier and cheaper to maintain. From today’s perspective Beverley Minster looks like a terrible burden that rationalist thinkers would happily dismantle.
But if you look at it over a long enough timescale things are different. Then you find that Beverley Minster has inspired such love and affection over the centuries that it not only survived even bigger repair bills but was also improved and enhanced at the same time.
So, to answer a question that used to be raised on an old radio quiz show: “Beverley Minster – Animal Vegetable (or) Mineral?” (in other words: white elephant – a growing thing – (or) – a solid substance?)
My answer, and that of many others, is always going to be: ‘Mineral’ – a gem.

Why are we waiting? Why are we waiting?

Neil Pickford gets impatient.
Oh dear, I’ve got a feeling that I’m going to upset some people this week (unlike most weeks, of course) and so I’d better get my apologies in early.
I’m sorry. I’m very, very sorry. I’m incredibly sorry. I’m really unbelievably sorry, I truly am.
I do apologise.
And before I proceed any further I must also put in the inevitable qualification: all nurses are angels (bless them), doctors do their very, very best in very difficult circumstances (bless them) and consultants are the source of all wisdom – gods of expertise that we mere mortals can count ourselves lucky to share a planet with (bless them).
And the NHS (bless it)  – which is the envy of the world (of course) has built up a pool of management expertise that is second to none (bless), having been granted vast resources to train and develop the skills necessary to coordinate this enormous organisation.
So why in the name of all God’s creation does it take so unbelievably long to get the results back from any simple test?
OK, you’ve probably guessed by now that I’ve had a trip to Castle Hill recently – and you’d be right. And let’s just nail down another set of qualifying remarks as well before I get going. Castle Hill is terrific, a fantastic facility that doesn’t want for investment or the latest equipment –  it’s clean and well-lit, it’s a pleasure to visit and I always feel better when I get inside compared to my condition when I stick the parking ticket inside the windscreen.
So why do I have to wait so long to find out if I’m dead or not, or about to die or – perhaps more irritatingly – if I can expect a trouble-free stroll to my dotage (because if I am then I’d better start thinking about pensions and retirement planning Pretty Darn Quick).
Long delays are not exclusive to our local NHS providers – I’ve been to a lot over the years in all parts of the country (mostly for other people, I’m glad to say) and the one thing you hear time and time again is that you’ll have to wait – for weeks and even months.
Oh, it’s never said like that, of course, because that would be an admission that something is not right – but you never hear: “I’ve just completed the tests and we can give you the answers you want before you leave.”
Actually, that’s not quite true – whenever my wife went in for a foetal scan to check on the development of various Pickford Juniors then we got a print-out of the best picture then and there – which was sensible really. After all, when a mum-to-be is six months pregnant there is a sort of deadline. You don’t want a delay of three months or so if you need to know whether to paint the nursery pink or blue.
So if the Health Service can gear itself up to let you take home pretty scans of the forthcoming baby, why not do the same for other results? Most of them aren’t particularly critical but if they need some expert interpretation then the consultant should be able to sit right down during their next shift and skim through the printouts from the previous day’s tests. Then communicate their conclusions to us as part of the same process – that’s why they have administrative assistants on hand, after all.
And don’t tell me it’s because there’s a backlog – it’s not beyond the wit of man to get rid of those. Once upon a time, just before I became a virger, I was News Editor for NHS Magazine. This was a glossy award-winning publication that collected examples of best practice from parts of the health service and promoted them to the rest. One particular case I remember was from Dorset where waiting lists for a routine form of surgery were stuck at around 18 months from referral.
With the cooperation of surgeons, staff, management and some lateral thinking they buckled down for about four months, imported additional staff, worked weekends and evenings, and got that waiting time down to two weeks. TWO WEEKS! And it’s stayed there ever since despite the staff going back to their normal working patterns once the catch-up was over.
Waiting is a killer – it leads to anxiety that makes the stomach turn acid, destroys sleep patterns and peace of mind, makes the old chuckle muscles weaken through lack of use – it leads to bad temper, a lowering of the overall global happiness index, a breakdown in relationships, a negative instead of positive frame of mind, chemical or alcohol overuse, an increase in weight due to extra comfort-food snacking – in other words, it makes people unwell.  And that is NOT what the NHS (bless it) is supposed to be doing.
That’s something that we virgers know all about, which is why we are always dashing about as fast as we can, responding to problems as soon as we are aware of them – sometimes we manage to travel so fast we go forward in time and get them solved before anyone notices.
That then leaves everyone free to worry about something else instead, like why can’t you ever actually find a virger when you want one.
It’s probably just that we’re keeping someone else happy somewhere else – so please be patient.
Patience is a virtue, you know, he said, (without a trace of hypocrisy).

Normal day, nobody killed

Neil Pickford has a chance to relax.
I had a surprisingly quiet day recently and this was such a shock that I thought I’d better write about it quickly before the whole event started to feel like a dream.
This strangely low-activity shift occurred on one of the two days in my normal week when I am guaranteed to be the only virger on duty (sometimes I’m the only virger on duty for my entire working week, but that’s a different story. This was just part of my ordinary rota allocation and means that, if anything vaguely virger-ish has to be done then I’m the only one around to do it).
I already knew we didn’t have any services planned for the day and, after the church closed at 5pm, I wasn’t expected back for a Youth Café event until 6.30pm – and because there was going to be a Youth Café then I couldn’t do much advanced setup for Sunday services. This meant the rest of the day was clear for cleaning, roof tours and general faffing around. Oh, and the tiny matter of moving all the chairs in the nave to allow a small instrument to be wheeled across every single square centimetre of the floor – and the Minster has a lot of square centimetres.
This strange and demanding tool actually looked a lot like a traditional baby walker trolley that so many loving parents or grandparents buy for new toddlers. We had one for our own children, hoping that it would help them a) walk and b) spell. I’ve always suspected they were slightly more successful with a) than b) but that’s not important now.
However, this grown-up version of the Baby Walker contained something rather more expensive than simple coloured cubes: the trolley was designed to transport a powerful Ground Penetrating Radar that had been borrowed for the occasion by Yorkshire Archaeological Trust. It was here to scan our ancient foundations and, let me tell you, a lot of staff and volunteers in the Minster were pretty darn excited by this.
You see, underneath the present glorious building is (we believe) the remains of a much earlier church – the one that was built (or extended) back in 1037 when Bishop John became St John of Beverley, patron saint of the deaf and dumb (and if you can’t see a glorious money-making opportunity for the Minster in another 25 years time then you’re not paying attention).
And now, thanks to modern technology that could detect irregularities some five metres below our stone floor, we finally had a chance to discover exactly what we are built on.
Let’s not pretend we didn’t have a few ideas already – there was a small-scale archaeological dig back in the 1990s that found our (not very deep foundations) were largely made up of stonework from the previous church. It also showed that the modern Minster is aligned nearly 10 degrees differently to the older one – for which we have yet to find a sensible explanation, although I have a few theories of my own.
There was already a lot of evidence above ground indicating that the old west end finished roughly where our Highgate door now stands, so we weren’t surprised to find clear signs of a solid wall in that spot – but we weren’t expecting some of the other stuff that the probing uncovered around it.
As to where the east, or altar, end may have been there were theories but no evidence. Once the results have been analysed (hopefully, by the end of this month) then we will be more knowledgeable – perhaps.
We’re pretty sure we have found the crypt of St John – luckily, it’s roughly where the guide books claim that his remains are buried, although initial evidence hints that the vault may be bigger than we first thought. 
There were also various other seemingly random blobs and blotches picked up during the patient surveying. These will probably raise more questions than answers, but that’s one of the fascinations of academic research.
Something that came as a complete and very pleasant surprise, however, was that I wasn’t required to move the chairs myself. John Phillips, who had organised this whole voyage of discovery, contently shifted the pews as required by the professionals, and spent the rest of the day clucking happily every time the machine went ‘ping’, or whatever it is that the machine did.
He put them back as well, so the day shift required far less effort from me than I had been expecting. Mind you, many of the chairs ended up in the wrong place and so I faced a fair amount of shifting to get everything as it should have been, but that was a chore for tomorrow. All I had to do now was just work through to 11pm, and help tidy up the transepts after the Youth Café.
And no, despite a host of wild rumours that spread like measles through the highly excitable youngsters, we didn’t find a corpse, or even the slightest hint of blood. Just a normal haul of empty (and sometimes not-so-empty) drinks cans and a scattered carpet of sweet papers.
So, it was quite a quiet day really. I suspect it doesn’t seem all that interesting to an outsider, but I can only report what really happened.
Could have been worse.

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