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Lockdown reflections one year on – staff stories - Fran Hollinrake, St Magnus Cathedral Custodian

Lockdown reflections one year on – staff stories - Fran Hollinrake, St Magnus Cathedral Custodian
23 March 2021

Name: Fran HollinrakeFran Hollinrake, Visitor Services Officer

Department: Education, Leisure and Housing

Job title: Visitor Services Officer (Custodian) at St Magnus Cathedral

Years of OIC employment: almost 11 years

Duties: My regular job encompasses the day-to-day running of the cathedral, including all the visitor services, cleaning, training, interpretation, floor polishing, chair moving, concert organizing, and anything else required. I’ve been there for nearly 11 years now, and in that time the number of visitors has doubled, to over 200,000 in a normal year.

How has life changed work wise since lockdown? When the lockdown was announced in March 2020 I was told, along with everyone else, to stay at home. But almost immediately I was contacted and asked if I would like to provide admin support for the newly set up Coronavirus Support Centre (or ‘the hub’ as it was known) at the Pickaquoy Centre. So, a week later I was back working full-time again, in a different location, with people I’d never worked with before, doing a completely different job.

It was full-on at the Picky – the team of call handlers did an amazing job of dealing with people’s requests and helping those who needed support. We had super managers and worked really well as a team, sorting food boxes, arranging volunteers to pick up prescriptions, number-crunching statistics for the Scottish Government. It was a steep learning curve for me as it had been many moons since I’d set up and maintained a spreadsheet – I was going home every night and watching teach-yourself-Excel videos on YouTube!

There was quite an emotional strain as well, as the people who often needed the help were vulnerable for a variety of reasons, and it was just natural to worry about how people were coping. But it was also very rewarding to be right at the heart of the support efforts; we really felt like we were providing a vital service.

Once the restrictions started to ease a bit in July, I was asked to go back to the cathedral and get it set up for opening. This took a lot of planning and thinking, just trying to get my head around cleaning regimes and setting up Covid-safe areas for staff and visitors. I spent quite a while looking at the systems at other cathedrals – did they have restricted hours and how did their one-way systems work? I consulted regularly with the cathedral conservator Meredith, to see how we could protect the cathedral furniture, as repeated cleaning would damage the surface of the wood, and so on.

With the support of the cathedral minister and congregation, we opened for private prayer in late July, and then for visitors in September. Of course, it’s been much quieter than it would normally be, so we have adjusted our working patterns accordingly. Since the autumn we have been able to host a few weddings and funerals, although in a very different form to how we normally experience them.

How has life changed on a personal level? On a personal level 2020 was an ‘interesting’ year! In January, with no knowledge of what was to come, we knocked down most of our house, with plans to rebuild in spring. Of course, the minute lockdown hit, the builders went home and left us with a very small and barely functioning house (no bathroom or kitchen). My long-suffering husband stayed there to look after the cat, and I hopped around a variety of self-catering cottages, Airbnbs, and the houses of generous friends when they were away. All-in-all I stayed in nine different residences in 2020 until I was finally able to move back home in late November.

Work has now started on the interior restoration at the west end of the cathedral, and that will continue until August. Until we know what is happening with travel restrictions, it is just impossible to predict what this summer will be like. I’m not anticipating large crowds in the cathedral – I think it is more likely that any visitors we do get will be independent travellers. As time goes on, we might be able to hold events and concerts, and at some point, we can start offering our upper level tours again, although that seems a long way off at the moment. The cathedral team has been very flexible, and we have all pulled together to make a safe working environment.

As life in the cathedral is considerably quieter, I have been able to undertake some historical research, which makes me very happy! I did a short Oxford University online course in cathedral history at the end of 2020, and it gave me a renewed appetite for studying; so much so that I have now been accepted to do a part-time PGDip in Church History at the University of York. That has been one of the few benefits of the last year – normally I would be so busy with day-to-day issues that I would barely find time to sit down and read anything that wasn’t a new policy document or a memo about Data Protection!

The Picky Hub now seems like a hundred years ago – but the team members keep in touch with each other and we have promised ourselves a big night out when ‘this’ is all over. I think we all felt we had bonded quite a bit during our 4-5 months together, and I feel lucky to have had such fantastic and supportive work colleagues there.

But I am very thankful to be back at the cathedral – I missed it enormously when I wasn’t there. Of course, in the cathedral’s long nine-century history, this has just been a tiny blip, and I am sure it has seen much more traumatic times. I can’t predict the next 900 years but hopefully the next twelve months will be relatively peaceful……!

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