A view backstage at Beverley Minster

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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