FEATURE: Behind the scenes at the cathedral ... visitors invited in
Their role at St Edmundsbury cathedral is often a solemn and dignified one.
Leading the clergy in processions, resplendent in maroon robes and carrying silver-topped staffs ... this is the side of a verger’s job the congregation usually sees.
But if an unforseen crisis occurs things can get a lot more, shall we say, down to earth.
It once happened as the Archbishop of Canterbury was about to launch the cathedral’s centenary celebrations in 2014.
That time it was verger Ted Simmons who had to act fast to prevent a major inconvenience.
“The procession was forming up before the service when someone came in and said there was a blockage in the gents,” he says.
“I went and cleared it in all my finery, and then quietly rejoined the procession.”
Ted is one of a team of six employed and three volunteer vergers led by Rachel Clover, who has been head verger for 18 months.
“I’m sure most people don’t really know what we do,” says Rachel who is also the cathedral’s estate manager.
But that will be remedied next month with two heritage open days.
Visitors will be able to tour behind the scenes with a verger and discover exactly what their job entails.
“We are the custodians of the cathedral. Every day we are first in, and last out,” says Rachel.
Their duties are wide-ranging. They are the doorkeepers, in charge of the keys that unlock the massive doors.
At services they make sure everything, and everyone, is in the right place.
Three or more services take place every day. Usually at least two vergers, working shifts, are on duty, with up to six or seven for big occasions.
Before the congregation arrives they set out everything needed, including the precious silverware used for communion.
They lay out the vestments, and make sure young servers are smartly turned out and have matches to light the candles.
The clergy too, once robed up, are checked for wardrobe malfunctions.
Vergers are also first aiders, and fire wardens. If a fire broke out, they would take control.
Ted says they are like an iceberg. “The vast majority of our work is under the surface and not seen.”
The cathedral opens at 7am and closes about 12 hours later, although if there is an event on it could stay open till midnight.
“As long as there is anyone in the building, there will also be a verger,” says Ted’s colleague Robin Turner.
“We have to make sure no-one is left inside when we lock up.”
Having said that a homeless man did once manage to get himself shut in and was found asleep in the morning.
The name verger, Robin explains, comes from verge, the name given to the maces they carry.
Historically, verging meant clearing a path through the congregation for the priests.
“In those days there were no seats, people just stood in the church, so it was a kind of crowd control.”
Keeping the building and its treasures pristine is another of their responsibilities, including polishing processional crosses and shining the silver.
Their team also includes cathedral cleaner Julie Duffield, who has worked there for 35 years.
“Vergers do the heavy cleaning work like scrubbing and polishing the floor,” says Rachel.
Her estate manager role includes health and safety, and liaising with contractors currently working on high level windows.
She can sometimes be found up on the scaffolding as well as at ground level.
Before coming to Bury she spent a long time at Ely Cathedral, both as a verger and a voluntary helper, and has also worked for a building society.
Now she lives two doors along from the cathedral.
“I would say being a verger is more a vocation than a job,” she says.
“We’re a happy team, People often say they can hear us laughing through the vestry door.”
It is clear they also feel working in the awe-inspiring surroundings of the cathedral makes their job something of a privilege.
“We see it all the time, the things the visitors rarely see, like the setting sun through the windows, “ Rachel says.
“We might be on the roof clearing the gutters, or going up the Norman Tower – where the bells are housed – to put the flag up.
“We get to parts of the cathedral no-one else does.”
At night the Millennium Tower, completed in 2005, is floodlit. Robin, who was a parish church verger for 30 years before joining the cathedral three years ago, says seeing the floodlighting through the windows is also a wonderful sight.
Ted was a full time cathedral verger for five years before going part time this year aged 70.
“We’re ordinary people doing a job that’s a little bit out of the ordinary,” he says, adding that a sense of humour is essential.
The cathedral has around 80,000 visitors a year, but that figure does not include people attending services.
Vergers learn a lot about its history, but not in such detail as volunteers who act as guides.
“The most common question we’re asked is ‘where is St Edmund buried’, to which the answer is of course, no-one knows,” Ted says.
New vergers train on the job. “We’d look for an all-rounder, someone who is willing to do anything including moving furniture, cleaning, and maintenance,” says Rachel.
They must also remember to ring the Sanctus Bell before every service.
Once they would have had to rely on checking their watches. Now an alarm sounds on their shared mobile phone.
Their role may be historic. But they have moved with the times.
nBehind the Scenes with a Verger tours take place on Friday and Saturday September 8 and 9. Booking essential through Tourist Information on 01284 764667, or www.whatsonwestsuffolk.co.uk