A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Heaven scent

Neil Pickford lets his nose do some work

I was at a garden party the other night and there was wood a-burning in an open grate. It smelled lovely and my mind flicked back over the decades to my days in the Boy Scouts. There were times when I was so familiar with open fires that I could detect different scents of at least three types of wood from the blend of whatever smoke was issuing forth.

Oh happy days – well, actually they weren’t, but that’s a different story. However, that flashback reminded me how important smells are in creating a mood. Most of us already know this: a whiff of coffee is welcoming, burnt caramel is supposed to help you sell your house, toast is homely. Other smells are the opposite and achieve an instant reaction – certain cleaning solutions remind me of unpleasant visits to hospitals, one particular floor product produces a vivid flashback from 40 years ago of a highly polished floor in a room that I spent many hours cleaning one busy Christmas.

Mind you, other people may love that same smell – so obviously memories can be pretty subjective.

One of the ones I absolutely loathe is that of damp – and, sadly, it’s one that you find in an increasing number of our less-used parish churches. There’s sadness in the smell. It’s a symbol of success by enemy elements over human attempts to control the environment.  Too often these days it signifies that those who have been defending the fabric of the building have surrendered or been eliminated – and all their works will soon follow.

It’s the early warning system heralding the first step from waterproof and usable structure to open-topped ruin, and it makes my heart sink whenever I sense it.

Which is why I was so alarmed the other day when I detected its insidious stench permeating the virgers’ kitchen. This was something that needed to be addressed, and quickly.

It’s odd, we’ve had wetter weather in years gone by, we’ve had water pouring through the door during storms when the guttering has backed up and yet the building retained its aroma of dryness. The only damp stink was the kind you got from wet coats hanging together in a warm room – a smell that vanished when the final one was claimed by its owner. So why was I now picking up the heavy-duty, nasty, worrying variant of the smell?

I knew it was nothing to do with the roof because handymen extraordinaire Steve and Paul had been up there clearing it in the last few weeks. I started to pray it wasn’t there as the result of some action, or laziness, on my part. I started to panic.

Luckily Steve was able to pat me on the shoulder and assure me that all was well. The boys had cleared out the gutters as mentioned, but then some of the gullies had taken less than a fortnight to block again with a combination of tree debris and birds nesting. Although they’d gone aloft again as soon as safely practical it had been too late to stop one particularly obstinate new blockage from overflowing next to the virgers’ kitchen and leaving the residual honk I’d detected. It’s alright, I was assured – it was drying out even as we spoke.

Hugely relieved, I quickly brewed some coffee and made a slice of toast.

And on the subject of maintenance: some of you may have noticed the hour chimes from Great John have been silent over the last few weeks. Unfortunately, the task of bashing our massive 7.75 ton big bonger 156 times each and every day has proved too much for a large metal rod construction that replaced an earlier wire-based contraption. We have sent the seven-foot invalid away to be repaired but, at time of writing, I don’t know if the offending part can be repaired locally or whether we need to wait for someone in China to operate a lathe.

Until then I fear we’ll have to survive using the age-old technique of telling time by the position of the sun – if you can see it through the heavy rain that is.


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