Only two cathedrals in the world have a police force. MATT CLARK spends a morning with one of them – at York Minster.

KRISHNA Tamang is on patrol in the North transept of York Minster, where police have been on the beat since the reign of Edward I.

Spring sunlight streaming through the Rose Window is attracting tourists in their hordes. One asks Krishna for directions to the Book of Remembrance; her uncle was shot down during the Second World War and she thinks his name is one of the 18,000 aircrew who are listed.

But Krishna goes one better; he takes her to the book, unlocks the case which houses it and slowly turns the pages with dignity until he reaches the right one. It is an emotional moment so he steps back. Krishna is a new recruit having served as a Gurkha with the British Army and he knows the price of freedom only too well.

He says Minster police are often asked to find names in the book and the sought-after page is normally left open until someone else comes along. Not only airmen are recorded here. There are three Regimental tomes and the First World War infantry books contain about 9,000 names. People often come with little information but the policemen take time to go through the books, hoping to make the trip worthwhile.

But the job is about more than helping tourists. Krishna’s badge symbolises St Peter, heaven’s gate-keeper, and unlocks the intriguing history of the Minster Constabulary, as well as York’s other and lesser-known wall.

Because in 1285 the Minster was at the centre of its own city state – the only one outside the Vatican – which was known as The Liberty of St Peter, after whom the cathedral is dedicated. The area was protected by a 12ft stone wall and had four gates at Bedern, Chapter House Street, Duncombe Place and Minster Gates. The city within a city had its own court, prison; even gallows and a legal system administered by magistrates and Constables of the Liberty.

They held jurisdiction over a grass and cobbled precinct extending from the Archbishop’s Palace (now the Minster library), the Dean’s house and the Chapter – including Treasurer’s House and St William’s College – to Bedern Hall.

And here’s one for the pub quiz. Which well-known phrase was born during the 13th century when without permission a Lord Mayor kept entering the Liberty of St Peter to harass the residents? Well, eventually the Pope became involved in a bid to stop him “taking a liberty”.

After the Minster’s great fire of 1829, constables were given the new role of keeping watch “every night in and about the cathedral”. The Liberty was abolished a decade later, but the watchmen remained and the first reference to them as Minster policemen came in 1855 when one William Gladin was recorded as constable.

That was two years before Robert Peel established the national police force and he is said to have studied the Minster’s enforcement methodology while looking for ideas.

Today’s head police officer is Steve Wilkinson. He and his nine colleagues make up the smallest constabulary in the country, as well as the world’s only cathedral police force outside St Peter’s in Rome.

“We’re walking information desks really,” says Steve. “But we’re also custodians of the keys, about 380 sets of them; we look after cash takings and we log visitors’ comings and goings. Sometimes we get involved with close protection squads during a royal visit, but our main job is fire protection.”

The beat is almost that of the old Liberty boundaries and alarms in all the buildings are linked to the police office which contains sophisticated equipment that can pin-point the exact location of a fire.

The team provides round the clock cover from their station near the north choir aisle, which is marked by two old-fashioned truncheons hanging next to the door. It is full of artefacts, including wartime air raid helmets, sepia photos, silver-tipped Edwardian canes and a flail that once belonged to J Strutt, the Liberty constable in 1713.

Although the days of carrying weapons that could take your head off may have passed, officers still patrol the streets and the Minster day and night.

“You see a few sights,” says Steve. “Children have a habit of coming in with helium filled balloons and sometimes they let them go. Eventually they drop and seem to get stuck at about head height. Now if you’re on nights and you walk around the corner to find a helium balloon in your face, well it does tend to make you jump.

“But I like night shifts. It’s not at all spooky once you get used to the noises, like the heating pipes or the clocks resetting. The Minster is good when it’s busy but when you’ve got it to yourself it’s so peaceful. Obviously your mind goes sometimes when you catch your own shadow but it’s not a haunted place by any means.

“I especially like it on a wild night because you feel safe inside with the wind howling round. But St William’s College is a different kettle of fish. To me it feels a bit spooky because there’s a lot of timber in there and it creaks a lot. I’d far rather be in here when there’s a gale blowing.”

Steve may have been a Minster policeman for 13 years but he still makes new discoveries. The other day he found a statue. It’s always been there but with so much to take in, it’s hardly surprising that Steve missed it until now.

For him the job is not like going to work; not something to wake up dreading. It’s a privilege.

“This is a special place and you have to have a love of the building to work here.

“You look around at the craftsmanship that’s gone on over the centuries and those skills are still here. Just being part of the Minster is unbelievable. I don’t class it as work, this is mine, it’s what I look after, and it’s just a wonderful spot, absolutely wonderful. People come here saying they’ve been to Notre Dame or here, there and everywhere but they always say this is the best.”

He does get the occasional strange request, such as the time he was asked where the Minster was – despite being stood on the steps of the south door. People often enquire whether services are still conducted and someone even wanted directions to the Ministry… and yes, they were English.

But this is a job that requires patience, tact and humour, as Krishna demonstrates as he poses for yet another tourist photo. Looks like all that Army training is coming in handy with his new job.