A year in the life of York Minster

The Very Rev Vivienne Faull. Picture: BBC
The Very Rev Vivienne Faull. Picture: BBC
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A new documentary charting a year in the life of York Minster is about to be screened, Sarah Freeman finds out why those who run the historic building were so keen for the cameras to roll.

From every fly on the wall documentary a star emerges. In The Minster, which captures a year in the life of York’s gothic cathedral, it looks like it’s head verger Alex Carberry who will be signing a few autographs when the first episode goes out tomorrow tea-time.

Carver Martin Stone

Carver Martin Stone

Alex is one of those relentless cheery souls. He’s also made for television. Halfway into the first half-hour instalment – and despite having lost his head for heights some years ago – he’s busy bolting down a crane so he can reach the top of a large cross suspended in the central tower. In his arms is a large white cloth which will be draped over it for the Easter vigil. What he lacks in dexterity, he makes up for in charm and as he descends to terra firma there’s a look in the eyes of his fellow vergers which suggest they know that’s a moment destined to make the final cut.

Allowing cameras into York Minster was a big decision. Everyone knows that a little canny editing can skew a story. However, as the Minster team had previously worked with the film crew they were confident the three-part series would be an affectionate portrayal. It also felt like too good an opportunity to miss.

The Very Reverend Vivienne Faull had just joined the Minster as Dean of York when the television offer was put on the table. Forward-looking, she was in favour of raising the profile of the team which keeps the cathedral running, but she needed everyone on side and in the end it was a collective decision to let the cameras roll.

“The Minster is both a tourist attraction and a place of worship and quite understandably there are people who struggle to see how those two bits fit together,” she says, sat in her office near to the main Minster building. “This was our chance to show it as working church.”

The film crew didn’t waste any time. Beginning in February 2013, by the time 12 months had elapsed they had 140 hours of footage to distil into three half-hour episodes. It’s perhaps not surprising. York Minster always has a busy calendar of events from Archbishop of York John Sentamu’s now iconic open air baptisms to the advent parade and the ever popular Christmas carol concerts.

However, the aim of the documentary was also to glimpse behind the scenes of some of those high profile events and the cathedral people think they know. They wanted to show that there’s a man responsible for ensuring the baptismal water is the right temperature and that every Christmas someone has to place a tiny toy cow at the back of the crib. “It was left over from a Sunday school group. We like to think it gives a sense of distance,” adds the twinkly-eyed Alex.

“It’s obviously a fantastic building, but it’s huge and that means you need a big team to keep it running,” says Dean Faull, who became the first women to lead a Church of England cathedral when she was appointed Provost of Leicester in 2002. “I remember one lady from a parish in Blackburn visiting the Minster and at one point she turned to me and said, ‘So how many deans are there here?’ I wasn’t sure what she meant at first and I told her there was only one. She couldn’t believe it. The cathedral at Blackburn has one dean and she thought that you must need far more to run a place as vast as this. You only need one Dean, but without an awful lot of other staff and volunteers it would be hopeless.”

After 15 months in the post, Dean Faull has got used to the size of the place, but she will never forget the first time she visited York Minster. For a few years in the early 1980s she was Deaconness at Mossley Hill in the Diocese of Liverpool. In the summer of 1984 she brought a group of youngsters who she diplomatically describes as high spirited across to the city. “The next week the Minster burnt down. For a moment I did wonder whether it was anything they might have done, but of course it wasn’t.”

While the blaze, which was most likely caused by a lightning strike, destroyed the roof of the 13th-century South Transept and sparked a major rebuilding and restoration programme, a church the size and age of the Minster is always in need of constant repairs. Part of the focus of the documentary is the expert team of glaziers and stonemasons who will hopefully ensure the building survives another 800 years. It’s often painstaking work. When it came to replacing a statue of St Peter, which will sit so high on the exterior no member of the public will ever likely get close to it, there were endless discussions to ensure his hat wasn’t too high or his beard too curly. It might seem like nit-picking but it’s details that count when you’re a custodian of a slice of history as rich as York Minster.

“Someone asked me recently whether they would ever see the building without scaffolding in their lifetime,” says Dean Faull. “The honest answer is probably not, but that’s a good thing. If the scaffolding is there it means we still have money to spend on the restoration, it’s only if you don’t see it that you need to worry.”

Since she arrived, the Undercroft has been transformed into a new exhibition space which uses some of York Minster’s most treasured objects to show the cathedral’s place within the history of the last 2,000 years. It is part of the York Minster Revealed project, but when you’re trying to turn an ancient building into a modern, world class visitor attraction, nothing is ever easy.

“It was a race against time because when we first went down the water was much higher than we had ever imagined. There had been serious floods in York the year before, the water table was high and three of the four pumps weren’t working. Add to that over the years the sheer weight of masonry has caused the building to sink by 18ins and it was a perfect storm. Before we could do anything we had to fix the flooding and that slowed the rest of the plans down.”

Since Dean Faull’s arrival the “grotty road” outside the Minster has been transformed into a piazza and, while the odd cyclist has collided with a tourist standing back to admire the view, it’s created a much used outdoor space in the summer, while work on the East Front, which is due to be completed in 2016, is both on time and under budget. It’s a massive project, including restoring every single panel in the 600-year-old Great East Window.

“Techniques are changing all the time and in the last couple of months we have just ordered special glass which will shield the restored glass from UV rays,” says Dean Faull. “Previously sunlight would degrade the resin used to repair the glasswork and it would have to be replaced every generation. This will give the repairs a much greater lifespan.” The Minster is now a centre of expertise for glazing and stonemasonry, it’s in TripAdvisor’s top 10 York attractions and is a sometime concert venue. However, above everything it has to be a church.

“If we didn’t charge then at peak times we would have a major issue,” says Dean Faull. “The fact people have to pay to get in means we can control the numbers and the noise. It’s great when we use the building to stage concerts, because that attracts people to the cathedral who might never come here otherwise, but we are mindful of what the building is and I think we are getting better at programming events. I’m of the school that believes we should do less events well rather than more events less well.” It’s a delicate balancing act, but one of the Minster’s dedicated police force used to serve for the American military. It’s he who perhaps best sums up the spirit of the place.

“I served in Vietnam,” says Steven Reid. “I was there for 15 months. There’s been some dark times. You feel guilty sometimes that you survived and others didn’t. You feel a sense of unfairness about what happened. When I came to the Minster it was the first time since then that I felt a real inner peace. I’ll never be able to give York Minster anything close to what it has given me.”

• The Minster, Sundays, BBC1, 4.45pm.