A question: where would you find the biggest parish church in England, a carving that inspired Lewis Carroll, and a clutch of old pubs with bars that seem to have been unchanged for centuries? And where do citizens still have an ancient right to graze their cattle on the common land outside the town? The answer is Beverley, in East Yorkshire, almost untouched by tourism but with plenty for visitors to see and do.
Beverley is a small but attractive market town that was once the capital of East Yorkshire. In the middle ages it was an important pilgrimage site, being the burial place of John of Beverley, a Bishop of York who died in 721 and was later canonised. It was also extremely wealthy as a result of the wool trade. Beverley has long since been overtaken in size and importance by Hull, its nearby rival, but it retains many historic buildings and a few quirks, making it a worthwhile detour on any trip to Yorkshire.
Walking the Streets of Beverley
Much of the pleasure of a visit to Beverley comes from just walking around, looking out for the interesting and the unusual. The town centre is a delight for anyone who enjoys old buildings, a higgledy-piggledy mixture of shops and houses from the medieval period to Georgian and Victorian times. The 15th century North Bar is the only one remaining of five original gateways into the town. A nearby plaque gives a tally of expenditure on the building of the Bar – a total cost of £96-0-11½!
As you stroll about the streets, you may spot reproductions of paintings by the local artist Fred Elwell (1870-1958), or pavement plaques behind the Minster with verses from the traditional song John Barleycorn. A more recent addition is the Beverley Town Trail, a series of sculptures associated with the town’s medieval guilds.
Sanctuary and Churches
John of Beverley lived his later years in a monastery in the town, and the monastic tradition continued until the Reformation. Another important part of Beverley’s religious history is that it was a sanctuary town. In the middle ages fugitives could seek refuge within church grounds, but in Beverley the whole town served as a sanctuary. (If you are really determined you can still see the sanctuary stones that marked the town boundaries.)
Beverley has two churches of interest to visitors: the Minster and St Mary’s.
Beverley Minster: The Largest Parish Church in England?
Although the title of “biggest parish church in England” is disputed, there is no doubt that Beverley Minster is bigger than most, and larger than many cathedrals as well. But it is visited more for its architecture than its size, with an interior to rival the greatest Gothic cathedrals.
Walk along the high-vaulted nave then stop to admire the fine carvings on the 16th century misericords. And don’t miss the carvings of musicians along the walls – over seventy wood and stone depictions of minstrels, pipers and even a hurdy-gurdy player, a reminder of the importance of the Musicians’ Guild in medieval Beverley. If you are lucky you may be able to time your visit to catch one of the early music concerts that are regularly staged in the Minster.
St Mary’s Church and the White Rabbit
Although not as grand as the Minster, the 12th century St Mary’s Church is full of architectural interest. The “Ceiling of Kings” depicts all the kings of England prior to its painting in 1445. And its carvings include the Messenger Rabbit, said to have been the inspiration for the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland.
Markets, Shops and Pubs in Beverley
Beverley has two market places: Wednesday Market and Saturday Market. Look out for the 18th century cross in Saturday Market, close to the North Bar. Shoppers will also be pleased to find several independent retailers, including an antiques arcade, a secondhand bookshop and the smart shops of the Georgian Quarter.
Then there are the pubs. Try the 17th century White Horse (known to one and all as “Nellies” after a former proprietor) with its maze of tiny bars, or the Monks Walk, parts of which date back to the 13th century, and which offers atmospheric bars, accommodation and fine dining.
Events and Festivals
Beverley’s racecourse has been hosting events since 1767. It is part of a vast area of common land known as the Westwood, where the locals can, and do, graze their cattle in the summer months!
The Fringe Festival runs every year in June, and there is a major literature festival in October.