A view backstage at Beverley Minster

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?


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.

What’s the difference?

Neil Pickford returns to an old chestnut

It’s the most common question asked by visitors who have a thirst for knowledge: “What’s the difference between a minster and a cathedral?” There is an answer we can trot out: “A cathedral is where a diocesan bishop has his (or, maybe – one day – even her) cathedra – or ornate seat. You don’t have to be a minster to be a cathedral, although York and Lincoln both are.”

We can then explain that a minster was a sort of team-ministry place with several parish altars under one roof and normally our interlocutors go away satisfied, if somewhat baffled. But then I started to wonder for myself exactly why it had been so important to do this – especially in the north of England where the majority of minsters are found (there’s only about 16 of them in the UK that we know of- although that’s not a definitive list – and seven of them are within easy driving distance from Beverley).

Why so?

Well, one of the main reasons is that, back in Saxon times when the parish boundaries were being put in place (most of which still apply to this day), this part of the world was somewhat under-populated. Religion was an essential part of everyday life – frequent prayer was regarded as the mechanical means by which you could plead with and coax God to kick-start each new year, create successful harvests and give you good health in an uncertain world.

Of course, in those days God only understood Latin so, as the common folk spoke their own languages, you needed a professional to translate their prayers into God-speak – and also to maintain communication in the first place through regular ritual.

The formalities of this religion demanded that every parish had to have its own altar as the focal point for the daily rituals that had to be gone through as well as prayers for the recently departed and so forth.

However, then as now, it was regarded as uneconomic to have a separate institution and staff for a hamlet of (say) six souls and 300 sheep, so it made sense to combine the duties for each of the smallest parishes under one roof and, by using job-share, combined services and clever scheduling, fulfil all the all religious responsibilities required.

Beverley Minster was home to the altars for various sparsely-populated parishes nearby: Molescroft, Tickton, Routh, Woodmansey and so forth. Parts of the church would have been divided into carefully walled-off areas dedicated to each parish altar; in addition there would have been extra altars for specific saints and worthy causes.

Today you can get a rough idea of what it might have been like from our south transept where we have three bays separated by a wooden screen. At one time each chapel would have been a clearly-defined space like this with its own sequence and timetable of services.

That all got swept away in the time of Henry VIII when the focus of religion changed in England. Instead of paying professionals to do the praying thing for you the Protestant religion taught that you could (and should) have a one-to-one relationship with God – a parish priest was there merely to help you with this, not do it all for you. In consequence the new ideal was for a priest to be available locally for every single parish – which meant the parish altars had to be located locally as well and so centralised Minsters were redundant. And that’s why Beverley Minster was nearly demolished in 1550.

And there we conclude for this week. Possibly not the most amusing article you’ve ever read, but at the very least it was educational. Next time somebody asks what the difference is between a minster and a cathedral you’ll be able to answer them for us.

We’d be very grateful.

We’ll keep a welcome in the Minster

Neil Pickford nearly loses his temper

There is a group of volunteers in the Minster who do a wonderful job, day-in, day-out which I would find almost impossible. They are the welcomers, who stand by the door to greet strangers, offer them a leaflet in the language of their choice and are ready to chat to anyone who asks. They are our first line of defence – they are the ones who normally deal with the two constant questions (“what is the difference between a minster and a cathedral?” and “where are the toilets?”) and keep smiling every time they do so.

I’m afraid that, although I do try hard, I sometimes find myself less able to keep a friendly face when dealing with these hardy perennials, especially when doing something else. This means I can appear dismissive of individuals at any given moment, which is rude.

My mother is the complete opposite to me in that respect so it’s obviously not a genetic thing – my wife also defaults on the side of the angels and so I can only conclude that it’s Life that has driven me into being an unsociable so-and-so.

I do keep striving to improve but find it all too easy to default into being the type of character who, as the phrase has it: “doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” And when you’re the person defining what constitutes a ‘fool’ then it’s easy to condemn other people on the flimsiest grounds.

I keep reminding myself that I’m in the Minster for two reasons (well, actually, thousands of reasons, but two primary ones): to prepare the building for whatever purpose and activity has been permitted and scheduled and to act as a proper representative of the Minster to members of the public when I’m on duty (and also, these days, when I’m not).

I think I’m getting better at it – the building, the staff and volunteers around me and the general Christian ethos of the place are starting to have an effect, but there’s 50 years of bad reflexes to overcome, and I felt them welling to the surface t’other day.

I’d occupied my morning by turning pews to face the west of the church, ready for a concert. I’d already built part of the staging and realised I now had to vacuum the nave as moving the chairs exposed some rather bedded-in dirt that had been previously hidden.

I’d been Henry-ing away for about 15 minutes and was halfway up the south side (and feeling somewhat hot and bothered in the humid conditions of that particular morning) when one of the welcomers told me a visitor had commented on how the Minster was full of the noise of vacuuming.

This sounded like an idiotic complaint and, feeling generally overworked and underappreciated I reacted badly. I swelled up with indignation and mentally prepared my angry response: “What do you expect? St Paul’s Cathedral and a staff of thousands?

“There’s no one else to clean this church so I’ve got to do it when other duties permit, and that’s now. You’ve just entered a huge and beautiful building which is paid for and maintained exclusively by the gifts of our members and supporters FOR FREE so I don’t think you’ve got any reason to complain about the noise.”

As I considered sarcastically offering a full refund of their non-existent admission fee the quiet voice of the welcomer cut through my nonsense: “She said she was glad to see a man doing the Hoovering for once and it had made her day watching you.” And she laughed.

Ooops – collapse of stout party (me). How potentially embarrassing. I really must learn not to leap to conclusions. And hats off to all our welcomers who, day-in, day-out, get it right.

And, speaking of “getting it right” – I should just like to clarify the status of Steve and Paul whom I have previously described as “handymen extraordinaire.” I probably didn’t make it sufficiently clear that they are both time-served: “ecclesiastical craftsmen” (in lead work, glazing and joinery) who also have to do everything else around here as well.

I am more than happy to acknowledge their considerable skills and expertise properly.

What do I know?

Neil Pickford sets the record straight

I was informed, t’other day, that some of my readers may believe this column has a sort of official status within the Church of England – a thought that made me wince.

To set the record straight – if you want expert comment, opinion or advice about how to move chairs safely and frequently; where replacement toilet rolls may be found in Beverley Minster and how to raise/dismantle tubular staging quickly, then I’m your man. I’m also pretty reliable on Rock and Pop Music from the 1960s and 1970s, various printing technologies from Caxton to 2001, the inner workings of the Ford Cortina, and the real processes that underlie pricing mechanisms in the modern world (well, I seem to understand it better than any of the clowns who have occupied the highest offices of state over the last 15 years, anyway).

For anything of a more liturgical note I would recommend you go ‘upstairs’ to a vicar, curate or priest. I’ll stay here in the cupboard alongside the virgers’ mighty floor-washing Nautilus, thank you.

Mind you – that doesn’t mean I’m not influential in my own way.  Some of my longer-suffering readers may remember my campaign to make ‘Hey Jude’ our new national anthem in time for the Olympic Games. I probably launched it a bit too late for the various committees to rubber-stamp in time for 2012 but, as the papers recently reported, it will be the song that actually opens the games in just a few weeks time, so it’s the next-best thing really.

And, all around the stadium, people will be holding up cards with the immortal words: “nah, nah, nah, na-na-na-nah” so the whole world will be able to sing along (as I suggested). I reckon that’s one to me.

Another area where a virgers’ campaign is having some results is in the churchyard where things are afoot! Yes, our oft-stated hope that the grounds could be opened up during the day for visitors to enjoy was picked up by various interested bodies – most-importantly the vicar, whose name is on the deeds of ownership. The council has conducted a survey into what needs to be done to make the area safe for anyone visiting and now we are going through the formal process of applying for Diocesan approval (a ‘faculty’) to make the necessary alterations (levelling specific gravestones, tidying up ledges, filling in holes in the ground, that sort of thing).  Going through the forms with this piece of bureaucracy does, however, mean that it will be 2013 before the gates can be thrown open to all, which is disappointing.

We virgers tend to grumble about this time-consuming process for every proposed change to the building and stock that cannot be described as ‘temporary’ because it can include something as minor as moving power points – which seems unnecessarily fussy.

However, this slow-moving request for approval is, overall, a good thing because it is how the Church of England can stop mad vicars doing daft things with their buildings, like painting them pink or converting the graveyard into a caravan park for travellers. It also prevents we virgers from just picking up a hammer and moving the existing choir stalls in the nave when the mood takes us – which is probably just as well, now I come to think about it.

After all, on matters of great importance, would you really trust the judgement of any person whose primary role consists of moving chairs around the building? Of course not – which is another reason why my little scribbles have no official significance whatsoever.

And yet, ironically, this week’s blog seems to have taken the form of a public information broadcast. Oops, sorry.

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.

Carrying a torch for Beverley

Neil Pickford presents his regrets.

Sometimes it’s hard being a humble scribe, especially when one has been elevated to the heights of celebrity, merely for providing a few hundred words every week to the world-famous Beverley Advertiser. Despite my best efforts at sinking into the background and being inconspicuous I am sometimes dragged forward by my betters and asked – nay, begged – to include something within my tiny divertissements.

Such indeed happened only the other week when I was present, in the background and being generally inconspicuous, while the Olympic torch relay took place in Beverley.

The Minster was hosting a civic reception to mark the event, we had more be-chained officials than you could shake a stick at, if such was your wont; we had the local man who had designed the splendid torches which are carrying the flame around Britain; we had Look North recording the occasion; we had a very popular member of our congregation carrying the torch through town and the former mayor of Beverley had worked hard to erect patriotic decorations around the building.

The Minster catering team had done another excellent job of preparing and presenting food for guests, the mood was happy and, dare I make this sweeping generalisation – yes, I dare – everyone was quite excited. I was photographed holding one of the official relay torches and felt curiously thrilled. People were grinning in all directions.

In fact it was wonderful to be involved with the whole afternoon but then someone suggested it should make the subject of my next column. I had to break their heart: “Sorry,” I said. “Next week has already been written and, of course, the week after will be too late.”

And I felt awful because it had been such a fabulous afternoon, the sun had beamed and the world would have been a much nicer place if I’d been able to record this fact. But I can’t, because, by the time this column gets published, it will be yesterday’s news.

I felt the dilemma acutely: as a human being I wanted to spread happiness regardless of deadline: as a former journalist I was trained to follow the news agenda. So, this, I’m afraid, forces me to discuss the currently unpredictable nature of British weather.

When I’ve actually stuck my head outside my office I see that we have been experiencing pretty much the full collection of extremes, from lipstick-melting heat to goosebump-generating chill, sometimes on the same day. At least this year the wind has yet to repeat a previous triumph, of whisking a bride’s mother’s hat completely over the top of the Minster before depositing it safely in the eastern churchyard – but that could happen any time.

And so…..actually, I don’t know about you but, for the first time in my life as a true-born Brit, I don’t want to talk about the weather. It was all right in the good old days when it didn’t change much – you remember, we had warmish, wettish summers and coldish, dryish winters with a sort of fluctuating bit between each of them. Then: “turned out nice again” was just a bit of idle chatter designed to aid social interaction. Now, when we’ve just been facing a fair recreation of monsoons with attendant flooding, following Sahara-like aridity with the associated hosepipe bans, the topic is just too darned serious to mention casually – and it’s taxing my limited social skills to the utmost.

How I wish I could have written about the Olympic relay and avoided the topic altogether but, sometimes a humble columnist has no control over the words they write. Sorry.


Work, work, work

Neil Pickford is pooped

It was a tiring old week last week – we had our annual REaction event where several hundred pre-teens are given a day of dancing, loud music, quizzes, a bit of learning and a special virgers’ tour as part of their religious education.

This year it ran from Monday to Wednesday which meant I swapped my normal two midweek days off to shout loudly at groups of excited children and wave my arms around in the roof all day for the duration.

John, bless his cotton socks (and aching legs) opted to lead many of the parties up and down the stairs so I thought I’d got the easier part of the day: John thought he’d got the better deal so we were both happy, but my poor ‘ickle throat was vewy, vewy tired at the end of each day and demanded a soothing glass of red wine – for medicinal purposes you understand.

In between these we walked around, gauging the mood of children and visitors and comparing notes. My goodness, you don’t half get some cobblers thrown at you: one year I was indignantly told that a visitor, who had just walked through the main entrance, had been planning this trip for years and it was utterly ruined for her.

I pointed out that the event was due to finish very soon and normal peace and calm would prevail once more – but apparently her trip of a lifetime was only scheduled to last for a total of ten minutes so she couldn’t stay for that.

Another year I was loudly informed that children should be seen and not heard and it was blasphemous to have them running around and having fun. I asked how long it was since they’d last been in a church to worship rather than as a tourist and they told me, with some pride, that they weren’t Christians – which rather undermined their right to lecture us on how to behave in our own building, I thought.

Of course, not everyone was so negative. In fact the vast majority (while wincing at the noise levels) thought it was marvellous to see so many youngsters having a good time in the Minster: “It certainly won’t do them any harm” was a common reaction, “And a few of them might come again.” And we agree.

Anyway, we virgers and everyone else involved with the event – the 11th we’ve hosted – agreed it had probably been the best-run yet and was all very satisfying. We then stripped everything down, packed all the staging away and I was walking out of the door when the ‘phone rang. Stupidly I answered it.

Apparently a concert scheduled for the next lunchtime was not, as we thought, 50 ladies singing from the floor but 150 ladies who required raised staging and seating for all. This was rather unexpected and a huge amount of extra work – and all the more irritating because we had packed the staging away.

As I was flying solo next day John and I decided to tear into the task right then and there. We worked like maniacs and, from first ‘bless’ uttered through clenched teeth to final set-up was a mere two virger-hours (equivalent to six normal man-hours).  I thanked John and he thanked me because he figured those would be the only ones we’d get for our efforts.

And that’s how it turned out because, next morning, I got another phone call telling me ‘sorry, but I’ve got the concerts mixed up. It IS only 50 ladies after all and they didn’t want staging. Sorry’.

Oh, how we laughed.

Over a 20 minute period, I personally set the world record for speedy dismantling of a large stage while not swearing. And then, for some strange reason, I felt rather tired.

I’m told it was a nice concert.

The shape of things to come

Neil Pickford looks back from the future

The Book of the Resurrection

Chapter 1: Verse 1

This chronicle is written by a humble scribe, so humble that he wasn’t even listed on the staff contacts page of the Beverley Minster web site back in the days when evil stalked the land

1)         No one would have believed in the middle years of the 21st century that human affairs were being watched, with annoyance, by intelligences greater than humans. In the days before Black Out (B.O. 20 to B.O. 1) we did wilfully fill our world with radio waves, micro waves and wi-fi communications – yeah unto the nth degree.

2)         And our digital transmissions did also reach out, yeah unto the very distant corners of our solar system, and our neighbours wearied at the 500th repeat of Top Gear on Channel Dave. And verily they were angry and full of wrath and did scheme to make Earth silent again.

3)         The cold eyes of ‘the Googles’ did see all and did harvest this knowledge to create dark despair among us.

4)         Tempted by servants of the evil Googles we did cast aside our ancient knowledge and, verily, we did embrace the world of the false god Digital. Yeah, we did foolishly convert all our hard-won wisdom and Harry Potter stories into digital format which we did then verily migrate unto the ‘cloud-based’ model until we did not use paper or common sense any more, wherein did lay our error.

5)         And then did the Googles send their servant, the Electro Magnetic Pulse, which did verily fry all our satellites and did also verily black out all electronic gismos and Xbox Live machines and electronic control systems in automobiles and televisual images and electronic mail communications and satnav systems and electronic books, yeah even unto the DCC chips in expensive Hornby model locomotives. OHornbhOH

6)         And there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the land and people of blameless character rent their clothes, while men and ladies of blameful character stopped rending their clothes because there was no one to take pictures of them. And civilisation did collapse and everyone was sore afraid.

7)         But there were in those times servants of the old true God, the God who gave trees that they might be tended and harvested and turned into paper and used to record and spread knowledge plus amusing little weekly vignettes under the title: “View from the Vestry” And these loyal servants they did call ‘Virgers’ after the powerful metal rod that each did carry to persuade all men and women- yeah, and even children – to get out of their way.

8)         And there were among these virgers two of who were granted the power to save the people of the earth and they were called Car Park Johnny and his acolyte and humble scribe Yours Truly.

9)         For verily they did look upon the despair of the world around them as people starved because they could not order online and have things delivered or because they did not know how to find the nearest convenience store without SatNav.

10)    And, thusly, they sent out a cry. “Come all ye stricken, ye starving, ye frightened, ye lost, and we can help you. And, verily, once ye know the way, ye shall be able to help those around you.”

11)    And so the people did come for what hope they did hold out. They could find the Minster easily enough because it stuck up over the countryside for miles and they didn’t need SatNav to find it – which was just as well as they couldn’t walk very far. And when they arrived at the Minster they were astounded at the wonders inside for, verily, there was light without beamed electric power, and the virgers did verily describe how to use candles.

12)    And, having seen such wonders, the people wanted to come back for more knowledge and, verily, the virgers did provide a miracle and showeth the peoples an kind of exercise machine that moved along the ground and carried people if they were great in faith and did not fall off and it made it easy to travel around once more, and they called it a bicycle and it was good.

Here endeth Chapter 1.

Incidentally, and coincidentally, due to the irritating policies of Google’s Blogger facility the archive of my writings has been moved to a new web address: Nearly 200 rib-tickling or anger-inducing articles all in one easy-to-find digital area – ironically.

A plague on their houses

Neil Pickford deplores modern management.

Sorry, but I’m a bit angry this week, so if you want a relaxing read I recommend you turn to the gardening article on another page.

I believe there are two curses in modern life. Actually, I believe there are many curses in modern life but one that is well up in my top ten is the fallacy that individuals can run organisations without the slightest practical knowledge of the industry that they are ‘managing’.

Years ago managers were either born into the role or were gradually elevated from the shop floor, having shown exceptional knowledge, intelligence, flexibility or years of boot-licking servility. For all their faults these systems at least engendered a basic knowledge of the product being dispensed by the process – and the people doing it.

Nowadays we have a professional class of parasites, educated in jargon and buzzwords, whose life-experience revolves around meetings and computer terminals. This leads to a total disconnection between the managers and those people, products and services they are managing – and we all suffer because of it.

Another curse, as I have argued in the past, is the modern spreadsheet whereby various facts are collected which then seem to have equal value with every other fact on the screen. In such a world the death of 10,000 people has the same impact as the death of 10,000 ants.

Bring these two mindsets together and you have ‘the perfect storm’ – decision-making without experience and without the ability to discriminate. The workforce ceases to be an asset but becomes a commodity – as does the customer and everything else connected with the service.

This management madness currently infests the health and social services, as I shall demonstrate with a tale of undersized incontinence pads.

Did you know that a decision has been taken by an anonymous oaf at high level that all people who have been receiving home-deliveries of such essential NHS equipment up till now will henceforth get pads that are one size smaller than previously supplied.  It’s an economy measure, apparently.  

Now I’m quite prepared to say that, as a nation, we’ve got to make savings: the last Government was spending public money as if their pockets were on fire and it all had to be reined back. But does it really reduce the level of international indebtedness to provide everyone, and I mean everyone, with pads that don’t soak up everything they should? No, of course not – in fact it increases costs because bedclothes have to be washed more often.

Full-time carers are less productive the next day as a result of being woken up in the middle of the night because a bed is wet and someone is crying for help.  Oh, and you use twice as many pads anyway. But, on the spreadsheet, a cost–saving has been made and so the manager is well on the way to promotion and a bigger pension. The hours of time lost by everyone else as they deal with the unhappiness that flows from this is unquantified and, therefore, does not exist.

Would people with common sense try to save money by buying themselves smaller sized shoes that crush their feet, or shirts with collars that are much too tight? Of course not, yet these parasitic professionals in their polished palaces of puerile pomposity can make similarly stupid decisions for other people with impunity.

One thing that might prevent such mindless management from taking root, to reduce heartlessness and inhumane results, is ensuring that people in such roles have a degree of commonsense and empathy – which, after all, is how the main faiths teach us to behave to fellow humans.

Now I’m willing to bet that the individual who took the decision to reduce the size of night-time incontinence pads is a non-believer – and I believe it’s time to take a stand on behalf of people with faith against those who have none.

I currently have two boxes of unwanted incontinence pads which I would be quite happy to deliver to …….well, I won’t say where, but I’ll bet many of you would like to watch.

A study in human behaviour – part 197

Neil Pickford reflects ruefully on humanity
Over the years I’ve evolved slightly. Once upon a long time ago I wasn’t really interested in other people en bloc but tended to deal with them one-to-one. Crowds were things I chose to avoid and, consequently, group behaviour was something of a foreign land to me.
Over the last few years of working in the Minster, however, I’ve had a chance to broaden my knowledge; presented with a constantly changing mix of groups and individuals who, overall, share only one common characteristic: they are inside Beverley Minster. And yet certain patterns of behaviour do emerge from this random mix.
As we virgers have such a huge amount of spare time available to us when we’re on duty I decided to fill some of it by observing my fellow humans within this environment and, to my surprise, it was jolly interesting.
Hopefully you’ll find it interesting as well or this week’s article will be a dead waste of time for both of us, won’t it?
Anyway – let’s jump in and start discussing the subject of coffee – aha! I can see I’ve got your attention already, haven’t I?
For the last few months, following a brilliant brainwave by Head Virger John Dell (he who must be obeyed) we have been offering pour-your-own coffee (Freetrade, classic Columbian) and make-your-own tea in the transept to help people who expect us to provide drinks and meals on site.
Don’t think we haven’t looked into the possibility of providing a full café service by the way, because we have. Currently we just don’t get enough people through the doors to justify an outside caterer providing the service, but it’s too much work for our own pool of volunteers to do properly. Consequently we virgers have attempted to fill the gap with a partial solution.
Naturally we’re much too busy people-watching to actually serve the drinks ourselves or operate a till (and you also wouldn’t want to see me in a white pinny, I can assure you), so we have an honesty box – and this is where the interesting stuff begins.
We started off just putting out a simple bowl under a sign that suggested a donation of £1 per cup and, lo and behold, people normally put in a £1 coin or two 50ps, something like that. We sometimes had a mismatch between the amount of coffee taken and the total in the pot but that was fine because, well, sometimes people just don’t have the right change, or they may be volunteers who have thoroughly earned a free cup. I’ve even poured myself one without putting money down.
But then we noticed that sometimes there wasn’t as much money in the bowl in the afternoon as there had been before lunch so we wondered if someone was absent-mindedly removing change rather than donating some. So, to avoid any such embarrassing confusion, we put out a piggy-bank to hold the money and – (and this is the interesting bit, I promise) – our takings went down!
Oh, there were still coins inside the box but, instead of £1 and 50p pieces there were 10 pences and copper coins in profusion. Whereas, with an open bowl we might expect to receive between £3 and £8 on a typically quiet day we were now getting 42p – and the coffee sachets cost us £1 each.
So we retired the box, dug out the open bowl again and, voila! a minimum of £4 a day once more, usually in decent-denomination coins. Provided we remember to empty the bowl at lunchtime then there is usually another batch of £1 coins that mysteriously appear in the afternoon session.
Interesting, isn’t it? To me this provided a dazzling insight into humanity and its different forms of behaviour when seen and not seen. But you probably already knew it, didn’t you?
Anyway, next week, I shall continue to discuss what a funny old world we live in, using the supply of incontinence pads as my theme. I expect you’ll hardly be able to contain yourselves, waiting for that one.
‘Til then, fellow students of the human condition…..

An awful accident – and its aftermath

Neil Pickford is provoked by terrible reality.
I’ve got to be honest: we’re normally darned lucky in the Minster. We’re big enough to have a decent-sized team of professionals to keep things ticking over plus a large pool of volunteers to undertake the million little tasks that keep the show on the road. We’re justly proud of the high standards we maintain, the range of things that we do and the way in which we try to nurture future generations through our youth programme.
We set out to do good stuff, we often succeed and things are, in many respects and for many reasons, a lot easier for us than most churches around Britain.
And then sometimes, despite all our good work, life sometimes comes along, scowls at our complacency, smacks us in the mouth – and then kicks us in the stomach as a bonus.
A shockwave ran through the Minster recently when we heard some terrible news. One of the members of our youth family, Alex Lenton, had been seriously injured in a car crash. I won’t go over the details or speculate about his chances of recovery, but I’ll say that it brought a lot of us face-to-face with terrible, brutal and unfair reality, slap in the middle of our smoothly-running lives.
I don’t care how the accident happened and, as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing to debate about why God ‘makes terrible things occur’ because I don’t think he does – I’m confident in my own mind that ‘We Have Free Will’ and ‘Bad Things Just Happen’. It’s what happens afterwards that helps define Christianity for me.
Immediately we heard the news a prayer station was set up to allow people who cared about Alex to come into the Minster and focus their thoughts and hopes for his eventual recovery. We also remembered everyone else involved in, and affected by, the crash.
Many people now find lighting a candle to be a good way of expressing a prayer and so one of our votive candle stands was set up in St Katherine’s Chapel, along with a large card for well-wishers to sign and a prayer book for people to write down their thoughts. Our various youth leaders were available to talk to anyone who was upset and needed guidance or just company. 
Since the accident there has been a stream of people, some who have not been in the Minster before, coming to keep an irregular vigil for Alex: the burned-out candles are being kept to show him how many people have been coming in to pray for him and the writings of well-wishers are being collated for him and his family to read when he’s able.
Now I happen to believe in the power of prayer (and I’m not going to trivialise this by quoting the survival of Bristol City in the Championship this season as an example of this – although them staying up was a bit of a miracle) but even if you don’t share my belief then there’s another clear benefit from the prayer vigil – it’s been good for those who were there.
Instead of the random and uncontrolled ‘grief’ we’ve seen everywhere since the death of The People’s Princess back in 1997 the friends, family and others have had a chance to sit down in a quiet and calm place. They can reflect on Alex and their own reactions without having to explain to people around them why they may – or may not – be crying and, if they want, leave a solid token or memento of their feelings which doesn’t droop overnight.
It’s a mature way, it’s a way that can have great therapeutic benefits for those who take part and, I believe, it will also provide a real benefit to Alex himself.
And that’s one of the reasons the church continues to survive after all these years.

What’s that bulge in my pockets?

Neil Pickford delves deeply
I was alone on a silent morning in a deserted Minster when I felt something long, cold and sharp press into my thigh and bite cruelly into my flesh.
My mind flashed – I knew that feeling. Drat, I thought, my keys have worn a hole in my pocket – again – and I glumly contemplated getting out a needle and cotton to stitch it up -again. And then a rather momentous thought struck me: why didn’t I do something to stop the problem happening in the future?
I suspect this liberating brainwave follows on from my little polemic t’other week when I was banging on about how things constantly evolve and nothing lasts forever. After composing what might have been read as a diatribe against people who cannot change I suspect my subconscious must have been nagging me and saying: “OK, Big Mouth. How large is the plank in your eye?”
(This quotation references one of Jesus’ morality tales that recommends people should look at their own faults before criticising others – a good idea that many of us, especially me, might follow. If you’re interested you can find it in Matthew 7:3-5. But I digress.)
As always in life, once I’d launched on a particular line of thinking it didn’t take me too long to veer off at a tangent but this had a positive outcome. Irritated by the awkward feeling as my keys started another slow and cringe-making slither down my left leg I decided to look with fresh eyes at the keys themselves, and see if changes could be introduced.
I pulled two huge collections of angular lumps out of my trousers and studied them carefully.  Hmmmm.
A few of them were, obviously, very necessary. There was the key that unlocks the small wicket gate in our Highgate door. As this is the main entrance for most of our visitors you’d be disappointed if I told you it was a simple Yale lock – so don’t be. It’s a venerable monster, some seven inches long, which turns a lock that has maintained our security for several hundred years or so.
Another giant is used to open the door at the start of the roof tours and newcomers are always impressed when I wave it around (stop sniggering at the back, please). Normally, however, we keep that in a box.
There is a cluster of four keys that are used in the vicar’s vestry: here is another group of four that I need for the parish hall complex and two more are required to get in to the Parish Office.
But what were the rest of them for? There was a little clutch that I can easily dump because they open doors in the shop – and I never open doors in the shop. No point in lugging them around each and every day, is there?  There are also seven for the money-boxes – but we’ve only got five of those and three of them share one key. Then there are another 11 that I can’t remember ever using since I started working at the Minster.
It’s ridiculous: I’ve been carrying these blinking things around, pointlessly, for more than five years now. So I’ve unclipped them and put them in a box until I can find if they belong to anything useful, or if the locks even exist anymore.
Then I weighed the box and I discovered that I had discarded exactly 14 pounds, which is a significant Imperial weight, if you remember those things.
And this would, if this was a major news story, possibly lead to the following otherwise incomprehensible headline: “Keys – Stone Cropped” (Try reading it quickly.)
Hahahahahahahaha – sorry

The virgers’ way to complete health

Neil Pickford talks up his keep-fit regime
I’m not going to labour the point this week, dear readers, so if I just say: “Chairs, staging, unstaging, stacking, chairs” then I’m sure that you can fill in the extra descriptive passages yourself.
However, that’s not the only physical thing I’ve been doing. We’re getting busier with roof tours and, as I pull my bloated body up the 113 steps, I hear the jocular phrase: “This must keep you fit,” many times.
And, in fact, I now have medical proof that it does indeed keep me fit.
Because I have a heart that only works at just over three-quarters efficiency (biology students may be able to work out what I’m saying here) I am occasionally summoned to a big building on a hill (Castle Hill, to be precise). There I have to perform faintly fatuous feats of physicality while various bits of me are monitored via numerous wires stuck on my wobbly torso.
These days the medical weapon of choice is a cycling machine and I’m glad to say that I quite enjoyed my latest experience: the monitor was showing interesting things such as my respiration rate rather than rubbish music videos on MTV. My heartbeat did leap at one point when a rather statuesque medic leaned over and inadvertently rested a bit of their anatomy on my hand but otherwise everything went according to plan. 
Then I waited many long, lonely weeks to find out if I was going to die. As I continued to be alive on a regular basis then I went back to work in the Minster, where I shifted chairs around, climbed lots of stairs and waited.
And, dear readers, it appears that this regime is actually a magnificent way of keeping fit because my blood pressure was ‘perfect’, my stamina was excellent (I equalled the efforts of a young medic who’d calibrated the machine earlier, without becoming breathless) and my lungs were working fine.
Granted I’m still fat, overweight by a factor of 33 per cent and ugly but that’s not really important – it’s the inner man (or person) that counts, or so we’re always being told. And, as what we virgers do in the Minster seems to be so good for the inner person, I started wondering about making a keep-fit video, in the same style as Jane Fonda or various modern bit-part actresses from Coronation Street. Obviously I’d be no good as the star – during this thinking process I had a sudden flashback to the 1960s and a nasty image of Ena Sharples doing a workout video that made me shudder – but I digress.
Anyway, I wonder if we could get someone who looks the right shape and is willing to be filmed while stacking our chairs (“Feel those biceps BURN”) and unstacking them (“and LIFT and stretch, and LIFT and stretch”).
Then they can demonstrate how to climb our stairs (“Every Step is One Step Closer to Healthy-Heart Heaven”) and, for advanced followers of the Virger Way, how to create and dismantle a complete concert venue overnight. I think it could be a huge commercial success.
For a reasonable fee I’m sure John and I would be happy to personally teach and share our unique knowledge, honed through many years of intense meditation and hard, disciplined study, to true searchers. Just turn up before the next big concert and we’ll show you how.
Meanwhile, couch potatoes could spend their time productively by reading from my archive of 180+ rib-tickling, provocative or annoying articles – just go to for hours of innocent amusement.
Thank you.

Fiona Bruce isn’t helping any more

Neil Pickford studies some spreadsheets
I’m afraid the column is going to be a bit boring this week although insomniacs may be very grateful to me by the end of it. I shall be addressing figures.
Actually I shall be addressing statistics – and not vital ones at that – so the previous, tantalising little sentence is about as interesting as it’s likely to get. Sorry.
Right, having lowered expectations sufficiently, let us begin:
It’s fair to say for most of us that, regardless of what statisticians or analysts may claim, it is virtually impossible to compare ‘like for like’. Perhaps a giant company such as Tesco can influence so much of its environment that it can genuinely identify how changes in, say, levels of profitability can be traced back to individual management decisions, but we lesser mortals cannot.
Everything we do is affected by events around us over which we have no control. Sometimes they are immediate issues such as whether or not it is raining (which is, apparently, completely unpredictable if you follow Met Office weather forecasts). At other times we may also see changes due to more slow-moving trends such as the shift away from public transport to car, or the ageing profile of the population.
Certainly it is difficult to put my hand on my heart and swear on the Bible that some statistics I have been compiling over the last five years are, of themselves, an accurate reflection of changing trends but as they’re pretty much all we virgers have to go on then I will start this week’s in-depth analysis by concluding that the ‘Antiques Roadshow Effect’ is wearing off at Beverley Minster.
It is almost two years ago to the day that large BBC vans rolled up in Minster Yard North to begin a week of frantic activity for the virgers – and many others. Then, in September 2010, the results of these efforts saw the light of day – for the first time ever the consecutively-broadcast programmes of Songs of Praise and Antiques Roadshow had been recorded at the same venue and there was a certain amount of overlap as presenters Aled Jones and Fiona Bruce made crossover appearances in each other’s shows – all on prime time Sunday BBC1.
It was a great advertisement for Beverley Minster and we certainly benefitted from it. Visitor numbers were up and many of these newcomers quoted the BBC programmes as being the reasons for their visit – informing us that we were “an undiscovered gem” and suchlike high praise. Our roof tour numbers were up and everyone was happy.
This year, however, the numbers are down by nearly one quarter – at least as far as the tours are concerned.  In January we were down 21%;  February down 42%; March up 25%; and, so far in April, just about holding level. We’ve tried coming up with explanations: the weather, the different date of Easter this year and so on, but there’s no escaping the overall trend – it’s down. John and I are still doing the work (91 tours compared to 93 at the same time last year) but with smaller numbers each time.
It’s depressing really – everyone who comes up is (almost without exception) really delighted with the tour and promises to tell all their friends, but so far their friends haven’t shown up.  Feedback from visitor reports also shows that the Antiques Roadshow has virtually dropped off the radar in the ‘reasons for visit’ box, so we need another blockbuster, quickly.
I shall write to Doctor Who and invite them away from Cardiff for a few days of filming – after all, at the moment we could easily be the setting for an abandoned planet.
Anyway, time to wake up now. When I say ‘Hello’ you will feel refreshed and mysteriously eager to climb 113 steps into the roof of Beverley Minster. Let no one dissuade you.

Don’t talk to me about the weather

Neil Pickford tests the temperature
I write this dispatch surrounded by the sounds of gunfire, explosions and the screams of dying men.
I’m at home and my son is playing ‘Call of Duty’ on Xbox LIVE next to me.
I was taking a few days off work and had been thinking about rain. It’s not surprising– my wife had democratically decided we should use this time to lay a new path in the garden and it was quite important to timetable parts of the process around the weather or the whole project would be a disaster.
Regular consultations of the Met Office website were therefore in order – and we were delighted to see that it’s been rejigged to give even better, far more localised information. Now we can choose to receive weather forecasts that focus on either Beverley Racecourse or The Friary – far better than a generalised Hull-centred picture. I registered from the 5-day forecast that a given day was going to be perfect for concrete-laying – then was somewhat surprised to find it raining on the morning in question.
As I kept going back to the site I started to notice that things weren’t quite as fixed as I might expect. It seemed to me that all these tables, so confidently predicting what was going to happen within a few hundred yards of me during any given period over the next 100 hours were somewhat – how can I say it politely? – flexible. Data seemed to be changing constantly.
I thought I owed it to myself, and my readers, to conduct a scientific exercise and find out how reliable these Met Office Five Day forecasts really are.
I selected mid-afternoon on my first day back at work as my focus. I then downloaded the prediction for that day on each of the five leading up to it, noting the changes. Here are the results:
Four days in advance – Met Office prediction: Light shower day
Three days –  Prediction: Light shower day
Two days –  Prediction: Thunder shower day
One day –  Prediction: Thunder
The day itself – Prediction (on-line at 8am): Heavy rain
The reality was different. At 8am (when I was cycling to work) it was raining fairly heavily but soon the rain had ended and, apart from a few spots at lunch time and late afternoon the day was mainly overcast with occasional flashes of sunshine. In other words, pretty much a total fail (excuse me – that’s one of those modern phrases I’ve recently picked up from my gun-toting son).
Remember that these results come from the same computers used to tell us how climate is going to change over the next few hundred years. Hmmmmm.
Mind you, there were flash floods in Pocklington at lunch time, so that might be where the water all went but, hey, it’s not me who’s claiming to predict where each individual rain drop is going to land.
Many years ago The Two Ronnies joked that the man who stuck his finger out of the window to test the weather for the Met Office had gone to work for British Railways, where he got twice as much job satisfaction. On current form I reckon they need to tempt him back.
And that gives me an idea – a Minster-orientated service that’s far more accurate than the Met Office and doesn’t need millions of pounds spent on stupid computers.
I’ll send my son up the north tower and he’ll be able to tell you whether the weather is going to waver – it’ll do us both good to get him away from the Xbox.

Post Navigation