The York Minster Revealed project threw new light on the cathedral’s hidden treasures. Now a TV series has gone behind the scenes to look at some other less familiar aspects. MATT CLARK reports.
BEV Wilkinson is on patrol in the Quire at York Minster. She says most of her friends have no idea what she does and many visitors have no idea why she does it.
Bev is a constable with the Minster police, one of the least known institutions at the cathedral. But that looks set to change.
On Sunday, BBC1 will screen the first of a three-part documentary that goes behind the scenes to reveal how the police and other unsung heroes, keep our most famous landmark ticking.
For Bev one of her favourite times at the Minster is the wee small hours.
“It’s a different place then,” she says.
“The building is empty and you hear all the noises of it settling down for the night; noises you don’t hear during the day, especially when it’s windy.”
To the Very Reverend Vivienne Faull, Dean of York, the Minster feels like a village, albeit one with a very big church at its heart.
“There are various communities here, with such a range of expertise and personalities,”
she says. “I find that a most inspiring way of spending my life.”
It comes as a surprise to learn that around 750 people work at the Minster, the vast majority of them volunteers, who do everything from guiding and stewarding to cleaning and flower arranging.
And while the Lonely Planet Guide may list the cathedral as one of the world’s top ten sights to make you feel small, Dean Faull says people don’t feel dwarfed or oppressed by it.
“I think this is a very human institution,”
she says. “The Minster is full of people with stories to tell and there is huge affection for the place. I think that comes out in the programme.”
The Dean has already seen a couple of episodes and says the film crew produced some wonderful shots, which will make you realise just how amazing the building really is.
Especially at Christmas, which provides the most photogenic scenes; at the atmospheric candle-lit Advent Procession, the famous Carol Concerts and Christmas Day service.
But there’s humour too.
“The second episode has some close ups of rather comic and, in one or two instances, slightly rude carvings hidden away on the East Front,” says Dean Faull.
“There are naughty figures and some really naughty figures. They weren’t going to miss those were they?”
One of the real characters we meet is head verger Alex Carberry who could hardly be called a behind the scenes character.
Some will already know him as the cathedral’s omnipresent and gregarious front man.
“Vergers are very much the public face of the Minster,” he says. “We are the first people visitors or worshippers engage with.”
But that is only part of Alex’s job. He also oversees the day-to-day running of the cathedral, assists the clergy and sees that everything is ready for the services.
Alex and his team of vergers also lead choir and clergy to their places for the services, using a rod with a silver top called a verge.
“In layman’s terms, our job is to stage manage what goes on here,” says Alex.
“Generally that is worship, but we are involved in liaising with, for example, film companies, over what can or cannot be done.”
During filming for the BBC documentary Alex’s duties overlapped somewhat.
He co-ordinated the crews’ requirements, but many at the Minster reckon he will also turn out to be the star of the show.
“I suppose it was a bit of a double whammy,” says Alex. “They concentrated on the back end of the year and that’s when I had the great delight of being on telly as Father Christmas.”
Talking to Alex, you get the impression that he lives and breathes the Minster.
“It’s got under my skin and has almost become part of me, as my wife would probably bear out. I feel totally at home here,” he says.
Alex is also phlegmatic about the Minster’s dual role as a house of God and an international tourist destination. But he is at pains to point out that regular worship goes on around visitors and is not in the least bit interrupted by them.
All Alex asks is they accept prayer as what goes on here every day. This is a living place, after all, not a museum piece.
Dean Faull says York might not have many household names, but in virtually every field it has world class specialists, from director of music Robert Sharpe to assistant master mason, Martin Coward, whose three metre carving of St Peter has just been installed above the Great East Window.
In the programme we follow Martin’s progress from design stage to his amazing sculpture of the head.
But from day one he had his work cut out. The original statue had weathered so badly there was precious little to identify who it was.
Which meant there was a blank sheet of canvas to work with and proposals mooted for the new work ranged from archbishops to Christ in Majesty.
However, St Peter was an obvious choice for the Minster, whose formal title is The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York.
“What the figure would have looked like is educated guesswork really, from a lot of research and looking at statues from a similar period,” says Martin.
“The style we chose for the face is more renaissance to give it a bit more life.”
A brief from the Dean made things a bit easier, but there was still the little matter of carving the statue – and making no mistakes, not even a tiny one.
The result is one of the largest figures to adorn the exterior of York Minster and, perhaps more importantly, the first statue to be commissioned in-house, which is quite an accolade for Martin.
“It’s not bad, is it and this is certainly the highlight of my career,” he says.
“I wasn’t happy until the statue was finished, but I am now. It’s the best I could possibly do.”
That said Martin insists what counts in the stone yard is teamwork and he is at pains to point out that St Peter was carved not just by him, but by David Willett and Matthew Hodgkinson who made the two lower sections.
Such selflessness is a common theme and it comes up time and again at the Minster; from the down-to-earth Dean to the self deprecating head verger.
Indeed you could say this cathedral is made up of one big happy family.
“I sometimes have to nip myself and remind myself how fortunate I am to work here,” says Alex. “It is such a privilege; they even pay me to come and do my job.”
• The first episode of The Minster will be screened at 16.45 on Sunday on BBC1