A view backstage at Beverley Minster

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.

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