A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Archive for the month “September, 2012”

Everybody needs good neighbours

Neil Pickford tries to be friendly

Tribalism is a good/bad thing: discuss.

It’s a moot point actually, because tribalism gives a sense of belonging and identity to a group of people or a community – a feeling of being part of a protective family – but it also breeds dislike for outsiders.

In a simple way you can see it in the rivalries between counties: Yorkshire versus Lancashire; Gloucestershire versus Somerset.  At that level it’s fairly harmless; perhaps a heightened feeling of disappointment if a derby sporting clash goes against ‘our’ team.

It can lead to some fairly pointed jokes: for example, as a Gloucestershireman I am very proud of the Severn Bridge, despite the fact that it makes it easy for people from Cardiff to get to Bristol. Welsh patriots boast that the toll booths are on the Welsh side so it proves Wales is more valuable: “You don’t have to pay to get into England,” they say proudly.

“You don’t pay to leave a zoo,” I retort, equally tribally, and various spirited exchanges normally follow.

Matters become a little more fraught the closer these rivalries come to your doorstep: it’s one thing to think vaguely provocative thoughts about anonymous people living the other side of a river or range of hills, but when the rivals are real people living next door the chance for serious disagreements grows.

We had our own share of that in Beverley in the 16th century. In fact one of the most popular (and apparently light-hearted) carvings in the Minster is actually a bitter attack on our neighbours.

A beautifully executed 3D cartoon on one of our misericords (tip-up seats) in the quire shows a fox in a pulpit preaching to a lot of geese. Behind him is a monkey and behind that is another fox running away with a goose in its mouth. It’s fairly easy to see the message – the fox is trying to con its simple-minded audience or congregation so that it can steal away with them, but the real clue to the message is in the cowl that the fox is wearing.

This cowl is the identifying mark of the monks, who lived in the Friary just across the road from us in Eastgate – and the mediaeval Minster hated them.

Many people think that, because the Friary was a Christian institution right next door to our own then we must have been related, but not so. While both were supposedly worshipping the same God we had opposing views about the best way to get to heaven.  The monks believed in poverty and getting closer to God by dedicating every moment of their waking lives to living a ‘Good Life’.

However the 16th century Minster staff of nearly 100 priests and clerics believed that the only way to heaven was through prayer (in Latin) asking a kind God to forgive the fact that every human errs. Pay some money to the priests and they’d do the religion and pleading for you, freeing you to go on doing whatever it was you needed those prayers for in the first place (I’m simplifying enormously here).

Now I’m not going to enter into the theological correctness of either stance here: millions of people have died over the centuries as a result of savage debates on the matter but we virgers just tidy up afterwards.

Luckily we didn’t have to clean up a bloody mess after this particular disagreement because, thanks to Henry VIII’s religious reformers, and to the joy of the Minster staff, the Franciscans were expelled from Britain by 1538. However, our victory was short-lived as the old form of Minster was itself abolished in 1548 and almost all clerical staff thrown out. But the misericord survives, a reminder of ancient hatreds and battles long-lost.

You’ll be glad to know we actually get on rather well with the various Franciscans and Dominicans these days, and even the Catholics – which is nice.


A new mode of motoring

Neil Pickford changes gear.

I was amused and then bemused a few years ago when, courtesy of Top Gear (a televisual programme dedicated to fans of automotive acceleration – a.k.a. ‘petrolheads’) I was introduced to the concept of ‘Christian Driving’.

This was a not-entirely serious attempt to describe the driving habits of James May, apparently the most serious minded of three presenters, who is known to the other two as ‘Captain Slow’. Never fully explained, it gave me an image of someone who was courteous at road junctions and inclined to let other traffic pull out in front of him.

I’m ashamed to admit that this was not my natural behaviour on the roads.

I was of the: “Oh no – another second delayed at a junction is another second of my life wasted” school. This did mean that there was rarely anyone faster off the mark then me when traffic lights changed, which was a source of great satisfaction to me until the next delay, about five yards up the road, when I caught up with slower vehicles from the previous release. Then I would fret and curse until I finally got home, where I could slump down and complain about how awful my journey had been.

I freely admit that it’s not good behaviour and over the last few months my attitude has changed, Not, I must admit, due to an increasing maturity in my old age but thanks to the type of car I’m driving.

For most of my adult life, except when an employer has provided me with a Mini or similar ‘cramp-mobile’ I’ve been happy inside a four-door saloon. Most of them haven’t been particularly flash or sporty but average vehicles with an average engine that travelled comfortably around town or down long stretches of motorway.

However, due to a rather bizarre set of circumstances I seem to have ended up with a shiny little thing that has a paper-thin clutch plate and roars like a farting sewing machine on steroids.

Inside it I feel about as comfortable as a live sardine in a vibrating tin and, after an initial sprint from nought to 20 miles per hour, it accelerates about as quickly as an arthritic octogenarian. It breaks into a sweat when pitched against a disabled scooter and has been known to go backwards when heading into a strong wind.

It’s even more embarrassing than my father’s old Reliant Supervan; plus it rudely beeps at me if I don’t fasten the seatbelt.

Why? It’s not as if I’ll ever go fast enough to be thrown out when I’m turning – there’s a greater chance of me being drowned if I’m strapped in and trying to outrun the tide on the beach at Scarborough.

However, it does allow me to pretend to be following the Christian Driver approach – in fact it makes it imperative that I should because my current performance on the road is an abject disaster. Because I can’t gun the motor and snap the clutch into place as I wait at junctions I now kindly wave people past me, covering my lack of power with courtesy and a smile. And, do you know what? It’s making a difference!

Suddenly people are smiling back at me, thanking me for my consideration. They then feel in a more generous mood and smile at other people, making my single enforced act of charity spread out in ripples through everyone they encounter. It’s a very nice feeling, to be honest.

Of course, behind me there is probably a queue of highly- stressed individuals all cursing and swearing at me but my advice to them is to take up Christian Driving. It makes the journey longer but it doesn’t seem longer and, en route, you’re spreading a little happiness as you go.

Mind you, I still want a better car.

Back to earth, with a bump

Neil Pickford returns to reality

It was a good day t’other Sunday because I carried my virge in an unusual location (for me).

I’m sorry, that  sentence probably sounded rather cryptic, which wasn’t the intention (he lied).

What I meant to say was that I was formally dressed and carrying my rod of authority, my badge of office if you like, in a different church. I had been invited to help out at Leeds Parish Church because, on that very day, it was becoming a Minster (yes, another one).

There’s been a positive blooming (or rash, depending on your viewpoint) of churches becoming minsters recently , (eight in the last four years alone). Grimsby, Doncaster and Sunderland, to name but a few, have all been renamed; there are murmurings about Holy Trinity in Hull applying and now Leeds has joined their ranks.

“You’ll have to remind me how to become a Minster,” I said to the head verger (modern spelling) as we walked and talked our way through the ceremony beforehand. “It’s been so long since we did it (about 1100 years) that we’ve quite forgotten.”

“Ha ha,” was the response, which was probably better than my comment deserved, but not very informative.

So why is there this great rush to redesignate a few churches in the same style as our own magnificent structure? Aha, I think the answer to this is in the question.

Certainly all the parish churches that have been so renamed are large ones – even the one down in Great Yarmouth (which claims to be the biggest parish church in England but is, in fact, much smaller than Beverley and Holy Trinity). In fact each of them is, separately, a member of the Greater Churches Group, which is for big buildings in the Church of England and recognises that they are, dare we say, a little bit ‘special’ compared to more normal sized parish churches.

Certainly they can be distinguished from the ‘ordinary’ parish churches by the costs of heating and maintenance – there’s precious little change from £500,000 a year from Beverley Minster, for example, just to keep the fabric warm and in one piece. But obviously the ‘greater’ recognition is not enough – they want the status that comes with the word ‘minster’.

And that, I suppose, is partly our fault. Because Beverley Minster is so magnificent others want a share of our glory (I gather that York has got a Minster as well, but I think we can safely discount that from this argument – it’s not as nice as ours). And, in many ways, it’s a very nice tribute to have.

But what happens if, one day, every single big church becomes a minster. What will then differentiate between new minsters like Leeds and ‘proper’ ones like Beverley, Southwell or Ripon? It’s probably too late to call the ones that have been elevated recently ‘Minster Lite’ or ‘Minster Express’ but I feel there should be some recognition of the fact that our title dates back twice as many centuries as theirs does in years.

Some people might suggest using the word ‘cathedral’, but there are reasons why that’s not such a good idea – we virgers having to polish an overly-ornate bishop’s seat in addition to our existing duties is one of them.

Perhaps we need a new nomenclature for our sort of ‘Super Minster’ or ‘Minster Plus’ – and I’ve got the perfect answer.

In Beverley’s case there is one title which is certainly full of ancient meaning and prestige and, spelled the way we do, makes us equal to Winchester and St Paul’s Cathedrals as well as Westminster Abbey.

So I propose that we immediately drop the rapidly-devaluing title of ‘Minster’ and rename ourselves ‘Virgers’ Vestry’.

Further flights of fancy

Neil Pickford’s mind roams freely.

Liberated as I was by last week’s epistle in which I allowed speculation to enter the hallowed columns of the Beverley Advertiser, I appear to have unleashed a flood of fantasy. Borne on this tide I can only float where folly takes me.

I’ve always been drawn to the space behind the high altar – some call it the retro-quire or Lady Chapel but it’s had a variety of names and functions over the centuries. It was originally the area where very, very special (i.e. rich and powerful) people could get up close and personal to the remains of St John.

The box containing his relics was on the platform above and, underneath, were three little chapels where the favoured individuals could spend quality time pleading almost directly into God’s ear (as they believed) for the miracle of their choice. The carvings in this area are incredibly fine and wonderful, as befits the rank of society who were coming here. But that’s not my focus.

Virtually all our mediaeval glass is in the giant east window overlooking this site: the blue bits are surviving fragments from 13th century coloured glasses in the nave that were blown in during incredible storms in 1606 and 1607, then patched into the damaged 14th century window. The colours are still rich and vibrant; putting to shame much of the relatively recent Victorian glass in the rest of the church. But that’s not my focus either.

It’s at ground level where my little fancy is taking shape. In the floor are many inset metal squares with single letters impressed therein. When asked, we inform visitors that these mark the spots where the remains of various members of the Warton and Pennyman family were interred during the 18th and 19th centuries.

There’s a lot of supporting evidence for this claim: around the adjacent walls are various elaborate memorials to members of the extended Warton family, from the first Sir Michael (“of Beverley Parks”) – died 1725 – to Jane Elizabeth Warton who died in 1918.

It became virtually the private chapel or mausoleum of the Wartons in this period because, in the 1700s, it was the wealth of Sir Michael that saved the Minster from total collapse. In effect he underwrote the costs of restoring the walls, roof and structural integrity of the whole building after it came within months of catastrophic failure.

It was, as modern jargon has it, ‘A Big Give’ and, not surprisingly, the church responded by giving special privileges to the family over subsequent generations – i.e. first dibs under the floor in the Lady Chapel.

They’re no longer there, by the way. Back in the dying days of Victoriana all the bodies in the Minster were exhumed and reburied where there wouldn’t be a risk of spreading diseases into the public water supply, but their little identifying metal tags were left behind.


You know ‘They’. The mysterious and secret ‘They’ that rule the world on behalf of whatever conspiracy theory your mind accepts. I personally believe that these seemingly random letters are, in fact, a secret message; an essential link for a worldwide conspiracy that is even bigger than the Da Vinci Code, and twice as lucrative. And ‘They’ keep trying to stop me deciphering it. ‘They’ send mind waves to stop me even thinking about it, which I have to fight to bring it back into focus

You don’t believe me? Well, just consider this. Every single time when I’ve finally fought their mental powers and remembered to bring a pen and notepad with me, ready to record the letters, the telephone rings or someone interrupts me with a query. EVERY SINGLE TIME!

Now, is that spooky, or what?

You decide.

By the way: If I should mysteriously disappear you will find my archive of previous piffle here at Study it well – I have scattered various clues throughout that reveal the truths ‘They’ don’t want you to know. But be careful, alright?

Post Navigation