A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Archive for the month “August, 2012”

Flights of fancy

Neil Pickford trips into whimsy.

This epic column marks a significant anniversary for it is, in truth, the 200th one written for the Beverley Advertiser and, previously, the ‘thisishull’ website. It was this pioneering internet thingy which first encouraged my timid steps towards world-acclaimed columnism (if there be such a word) and, in gratitude to the far-sighted individuals who pushed me into these uncharted waters (none of whom are still employed by the Hull Daily Mail, but I’m sure that’s just coincidence) I am about to indulge myself.

I have several fancies actually but, due to space restrictions, I shall share only one. This concerns the big stone chair near our high altar and involves a few ‘what-ifs’ and speculation but, if you’ve nothing better to do for the next few minutes, let’s hold hands and wander together through the Land of Maybe.

Firstly, the chair, which must weigh about a billion tons, is described as a ‘frithstool’ or sanctuary chair. We tell visitors that this was the very seat where, from about 930AD onwards, priests would sit and grant temporary or life-long protection to pleaders who had come to Beverley Minster in fear of their lives.

It’s the oldest object in the church (with the exception of the Saxon well on the other side of the altar) but I’ve started to wonder if it is not, in fact, a good 200 years older than we already know.

Let’s start with the known facts: in Hexham there is a very similar chair, and also another near Winchester, both of which belonged to the 7th century Bishop Wilfred. Now Wilfred was a controversial character who converted whole swathes of Saxon Britain to Christianity and then seems to have argued with every single convert shortly afterwards.

In those days he was roughly the equivalent to the Archbishop of York but with a lot more power and patronage – which was resented by many. There seemed to be a constant process of him being evicted from various positions in the north and then appealing to the Pope for reinstatement.

After one of his enforced trips abroad the Pope agreed that the irritating Wilfred should get at least some of his positions back, but in the meantime our own John of Beverley had been installed in the ‘cathedra’ or bishop’s chair at Hexham. Now, if you remember back to the beginning of this little history lesson, Wilfred’s bishop’s chair was the flipping heavy stone thing that can still be found in Hexham Abbey.

One of the various versions of the events over the next few years claims that humble John of Beverley stood aside in obedience to the Pope’s wishes and allowed Wilfred back in his place. Certainly we know that Wilfred ended his life as bishop of Hexham while John moved to York before ending up in Beverley – and here’s where the imagination kicks in.

What if John of Beverley knew Wilfred might return? Would he have sat comfortably in Wilfred’s old chair or might someone have made a new, similar one for him? Then, when he went to York, might he have taken it with him?

Alternatively, when in York, might he have had a copy of Wilfred’s stone cathedra made? If so, what happened to it when John retired from public life and settled in Beverley? Might a team of grateful priests have gifted this chair to him in lieu of a clock for his mantelpiece (neither of which had been invented in 700AD)?

And once it was in Beverley, what would the monks and priests have done with it after John died in 721AD?

I’m sure you can see where these speculations lead. Is our Saxon antique just a sanctuary stool from around 930AD or is it Bishop John’s actual seat from 200 years before? That would be, in the parlance of modern youth, truly ‘awesome’.

Whichever is the correct answer I can at least tell you one thing: it is surprisingly comfortable.

No wonder John didn’t want to leave it behind.

By the way, if you’d like to sample any of the previous 199 articles then you can find them here at Good luck and thanks for reading.


What message am I sending out?

Neil Pickford worries about something else.

I have started to ponder on what message I may be sending out to strangers or people who don’t know me very well.

Oh, please don’t think that I’m in any way vain or worried about my appearance – I’m as capable as anyone of looking in the mirror and realising that the image staring back is not that of a gently-decaying Adonis, but instead of a decayed ape-like descendant to whom time has not been kind. No, it’s more to do with what I wear.

Specifically, it’s my wristwatch. Until a few months ago I used to wear a nice one that had been a birthday present some years ago. However I eventually got tired of having spend about £45 every time I needed to replace broken watch glass after inadvertently tapping it against a piece of Minster stone so I splashed out a fiver on a cheap one. There was a choice of white or vivid purple and, for some unexplainable reason, I chose purple.

“At least,” I thought, “it won’t be easy to lose – and who’s going to steal it?”

So, content with my dazzling but otherwise unremarkable wrist decoration I went back to work. Over the next few days several people commented on it – far more than have ever said anything about my shoes, clothing or even hair (a stylish pony tail, if you didn’t already know). Yes, this purple band was attracting a disproportionate amount of attention.

It wasn’t just the attention; it was the kind of comment that came with it. “That’s an interesting colour – did you choose it yourself?” in a very serious tone. Or: “Why are you wearing that colour?” in a challenging way.

I started to worry. Had the purple watch been adopted as a symbol of some controversial campaign or other? Was purple the colour of a particular street gang that was trying to take over southern HU17? Did it resemble one of those curfew tags that criminals and drunken MPs are supposed to wear in public?  I started to walk around with my left hand rammed in a pocket – which makes stacking chairs rather more difficult than it needs to be.

During the recent very hot weather I wore long-sleeved shirts to keep my guilty secret. I stayed away from the swimming pool (although I was going to do that anyway).  I avoided sun-bathing (ditto). I started to disguise myself in public.

I know that some of you will ask why I didn’t just go into the shop and slap down another fiver on a different coloured timepiece, but if you say that you fail to understand the regime of frugality that surrounded me as a child.

“What do you want another one for? You’ve already got one.”  This was one aunt’s typical response when my uncle wanted to buy today’s newspaper instead of rereading one from last week.

Having two watches would condemn me as: “no better than I ought to be” (whatever that meant) and so I can’t. In any case, what if the new colour was even more damning? Maybe a white wristband would plunge me innocently into a territorial turf war that could only end in tears.

Jargon and the secret language of the gang is designed to make gang-members feel part of a special group and, often, to keep others out, and sometimes I think we’re becoming inadvertent victims of that in the Church of England.

Not so many years ago the special phrases of Anglicanism were taught to every child in the country – it was part of our common educational heritage.

Now formal Christian religion has been banished from most primary schools and words like communion, Lent, Advent – even ‘minister’ – are no longer part of our shared vocabulary.  And that makes it just a little bit more difficult for people to understand what we’re talking about.

But, of course, I can always use this ignorance to claim that a purple wristwatch is actually a sign of great status in the Church of England Guild of Vergers. With any luck that will stop complete strangers making unpleasant assumptions about me (he said, ‘wristfully’).

Hahahahaha – sorry

Post Olympic progression

Neil Pickford plans ahead

As I make my way home from the Minster in a golden mood after Team GB’s medal successes I see that I am not alone. Wobbly cyclists weave awkwardly from kerb to crown and back again as they attempt to emulate Bradley Wiggins and prepare for Brazil 2016.

While at the Minster I’ll swear I’ve been able to hear huge waves splashing in the Leisure Centre as Olympic hopefuls try to emulate Beverley’s own backstroker Lizzie Simmonds – who only missed out on a medal by the width of a much-chewed fingernail (ours, not hers, I hasten to add).

On the pavements beside Champney Road I narrowly avoid Mo Farah wannabes, eagerly pushing themselves nearer and nearer to the 10,000 metres mark while future uneven bars competitors swing wildly from convenient branches and scaffolding above me.

Swiftly dodging an obviously misdirected javelin and resisting the temptation to head a passing shot that has been putt (joke) too close to me I finally reach safety. There I discover my younger son, fired by the news that rugby will be a team event in four years time, attempting to scrum down with anyone he can find. No wonder our cats are stressed.

I don’t want anyone to think that I’m not doing my bit towards overhauling the Chinese medal total in future either. No sirree, I’m as committed as the next person. After all, it’s not my fault that chair-stacking or steps-climbing aren’t already Olympic events in their own right because I’m sure I could win gold in those.

I suspect that transept floor-washing is more suitable for the Generation Game than international competition (although John and I would be very willing to host the qualifying heats, I’m sure), but I am convinced that, at the very least, we could make the Minster available as a training venue for future sporting heroes. After all, inside it’s 101.5 metres from east to west so that could be really useful for training sprinters. The churchyard would be great for hurdlers while the Great Transept, at 50 metres, could house shot, discus and javelin undercover, although I concede that we’d probably need to cover the floor with something a bit more bouncy than flagstones. Actually, that last suggestion is probably a bit daft, now I come to think about it.

However, with 19 metres from floor to vaulted ceiling we’d have plenty of room for the high jump, and they bring their own mats, don’t they?

Or perhaps not.

It’s been interesting how people have reacted to Team GB’s progress over the last few weeks. It almost seems a lifetime ago when we went for several days during the swimming finals without a medal. Do you remember how we got all excited about the first bronze one?

Fast forward one week and suddenly we’re picking up so many that we don’t know where to look. Flick your TV onto a completely different digital channel and there’s another – and another. Look, racing brothers have got one each! Yorkshire itself has won more golds than major league countries like France or Germany.

“Easy! Easy! Easy!”

Except, of course, it isn’t, as all those wriggling and wobbling wannabe Wiggins are finding out. There will be pain involved and, of course, most people will decide that the gain isn’t worth it. It’s easier to be a couch potato than a competitor.

Yes, over the last few weeks we’ve watched history being made. Hats off to that tiny minority who will be inspired by this and strive towards new achievements but there is also virtue in sitting back and commemorating the past.

We virgers opt for the latter approach: John and I are delighted to share the glory of our own gold-medal building, proudly showing it off to visitors who come to marvel at this world-class achievement in stone and glass, However, we don’t treat it like a sterile museum-piece – oh no. We’re constantly changing things, moving things around, accommodating new displays, shifting chairs about…. I guess you could describe us as “gold meddlers” (geddit?)


A Leader of Men (and Women)

Neil Pickford has a new job title.

Now then everyone, sit up straight because you’re not being addressed by just any old columnist this week. Oh no, you’re not even being addressed by any old virger either because, ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce you to the new Yorkshire Area Leader for the Church of England Guild of Vergers (silly spelling). Taraaaaaa!

Oh yes, it’s me, moi, myself and so forth, so I expect a little bit of respect now. It’s not just me, John and Kevin you’ll have to deal with in future, it’s the entire massed ranks of the signed-up members of the Guild as well. So look out.

Actually, in the cold light of day that’s not much of a threat. I suspect that one of the reasons I was nominated and chosen (apart from the lack of any other candidates) is that I was, by a reasonable margin, the youngest person in the room – and when you’re 56 that comes as a bit of a shock.

It’s a bit depressing really because, south of the river, there’s a few of the next generation to keep us going. I’ve just come back from the cathedral in Oxford (tiny place, much newer than Beverley Minster, a bit of an architectural mish-mash frankly) but their duty verger looked as if he’d just left college. I know of a youngish chap in Lincoln who sports a stylish ponytail like mine (or he did last time I saw him) and, of course, Westminster Abbey has one who will cartwheel down the aisle after a wedding if you want him to (and he spells ‘virger’ properly as well).

But here, in the York and Leeds branches of the guild? We have some sprightly 70-somethings; we have swinging Sixties and a few fit 50-ists, and that’s it. It’s as if we’re dying off – and that’s not right.

It’s not as though the skills we have learned over the years are redundant because whatever marvellous things modern technology can do it’s still somewhat lacking in the old shifting -stuff- around department.

The day that your telephone can programme vacuum cleaners to patrol the floors, semi-intelligent chairs walk to new positions in the nave and stack themselves, or visiting vicars learn how to operate the sound system is the day you can do without us. In fact the increase in the number of parishes having to share their priests with many others, combined with difficulties in finding new churchwardens who can also do a lot of the odd jobs, means the list of duties that may also fall on a rural virger (grass-cutting, brass-polishing, door-locking, heating expert, organist, parish administrator, first port of call for distressed parishioners or visitors, etc. etc.) keeps getting longer.  And, frankly, no matter how splendid the centenarian who’s been doing the job for the last 80 years may be, they can’t go on forever.

When they do finally ‘retire’ who is going to know where the lawn-mower is, let alone how to get the blessed thing going? Which pipes do you bang in the central heating to make that knocking noise go away? Where exactly was great grandma buried in the now-overgrown churchyard? Where are the keys to open the church and get the service going? Why hasn’t the electricity bill been paid? Does anyone know how to play an organ or at least hum in tune?

Why has the church been locked, empty and decaying for the last six months?

It’s not as if there aren’t younger people out there (younger people, ha! Anyone under 55 in our case) who would be willing to undertake these duties and keep old parish activities alive – but they’re not always living where the need is greatest.

So, as Area Leader (trumpets blow triumphant fanfare based on the Roy Wood song ‘Brontosaurus’, bio-degradable confetti pours from the sky, crowds cheer) I feel perhaps I have a vision – to create a cadre of young ‘flying virgers’ who can keep the old skills alive and rural churches in pristine operating condition. I shall lead us to glory!

And then I wake up and find that, in the Guild of Vergers, the word ‘leader’ means the same as the word ‘virger’ itself – i.e. ‘dogsbody’.  Still, if someone feels moved to offer their services somewhere then please feel free to contact the York branch chairman, Richard Babington, on 01964 630263 to see if there’s a convenient hole to fill.

I’ll command him to be ready for you.

Bring me the leg of St John of Beverley

Neil Pickford investigates foreigners

If I was going abroad for a holiday this year (which I’m not) then I’d be very tempted by the attractions of Brittany, our neighbour south of the English Channel.  “It’s got beaches, coastal walks, rocky shoreline and small fishing harbours; but beyond this the region has an impressive collection of sites that are worth a visit, for their historic or cultural value, or just because they are really worth seeing” (according to the tourist guides) – and it’s also got a bit of our beloved St John of Beverley.

That’s right; this would not be a simple holiday. No, it would be more of a quest, No, even more than that; it might be essential research to aid my job as a virger at Beverley Minster. Well, I’ll try and present it like that, anyway and perhaps someone will sponsor me because why else would I want to follow the trail of some bones from St John of Beverley, which were removed from the rest of him more than one thousand years ago?

Well, the reason is that I finally did some research the other day about a story that’s been teasing my interest for a while – and now I’m in a position to share my knowledge. I realise it may not be the most gripping subject in the world for some of you but please stick with me – you may find yourself unexpectedly entertained. And if not, well, what else were you planning to do over the next few minutes anyway?

Anyway, during my world-famous roof tours I have occasionally recounted the tale (passed on to me by a fellow scholar) that some of the remains of St John were no longer housed in a Saxon vault within the Minster but had been transported across the English Channel by devout French pilgrims.

“You what?” people would exclaim in disbelief and I could then explain in a lofty and learned way that the transfer of relics was big business in the good old days and that, St John of Beverley being the Premiership-level saint that he was, it wasn’t surprising that after 1066 our new Norman conquerors would send some bits of him back to the folks at home, to show how well they were doing in suppressing their new kingdom. “Hey, look mum, we’ve got the remains of a real Grade A saint – more than we know what to do with – so here’s a bit for you. Have good miracles with it, won’t you.”

But then I thought I’d better double-check to see if my glib chat was accurate and, I’m afraid, I may have been out by a hundred years or more – and have understated the importance of St John at the same time.

I owe my new understanding to a book published in 2006 by Susan E. Wilson entitled: “The Life and After-Life of St John of Beverley.” This introduced me to the fact that there is a commune in France (roughly equivalent to a British Parish) named ‘Saint-Jean-Brevelay” and it is here where they apparently have a few bits from the skeleton of the founder of our town.

No one is quite sure when the commune adopted its present name, or when the bits of bone arrived, but one plausible theory is that they were sent across by King Athelstan around 930AD, which would show how important St John of Beverley already was long before the Normans invaded us. Apparently, some of the bones can still be seen behind a glass panel in the chest cavity of a wooden statue of a bishop within the Catholic church there. Wow!

Strangely enough, I’ve not found these attractions listed in any tourist guides that I’ve read so far. Odd that.

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