A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Crisis? What crisis?

Neil Pickford hasn’t been consulted about boosting Beverley tourism, but he’s having his say now.
Woe, woe and thrice woe. Visitor numbers have been dropping at Beverley Minster and, with it, the prosperity of the whole town – or that was the story as it appeared in Beverley Local this Tuesday.
According to a report produced on behalf of Beverley Economy and Tourism Group the Minster had 42 per cent less visitors last year compared to ten years before – although it seems we recovered more than 10 per cent of that fall in 2009. This apparently has a colossal effect on the £615 million annual income generated by tourism in the county.
Well yeah, but no, but yeah, or maybe. Let’s just look at this story in more detail:
Firstly, it confirms my view about just how important Beverley Minster is in economic terms – and  ‘twas ever thus. 400 years ago Beverley was the 10th richest town in England – thanks entirely to the Minster and its tourists.
Don’t forget that the Minster came first – Beverley grew up around it, firstly to service the church and then, secondly, to take advantage of the money generated by pilgrims coming to worship at St John’s tomb.
Beverley has always enjoyed removing visitors’ money and, in fact, came to rely on it. Just look at how the town suffered when Henry VIIIth’s reforms abolished the cult of saints and confiscated the gold-plated reliquary of St John. Without those pilgrims and their lovely cash flooding in to the town the economy collapsed – half of Beverley was in ruins within ten years as people moved away to pursue their careers as itinerant musicians, cloth-makers or priests without portfolio.
So, over many centuries, visitor numbers to the Minster have been very important to the local economy and any decline is a matter for concern – but is the report an accurate picture? I’m not so sure.
One thing I do know is that we’re getting a lot more German familes: apparently their equivalent of the AA lists Beverley Minster as the top ‘Must Visit’ attraction in the north of England, and it’s certainly having a beneficial effect on the number of foreign visitors popping in. However, from the town’s point of view they are not much help as they then get into their BMWs or Mercs and head straight back to the ferry and the Fatherland without stopping for shopping.
Take them from the picture and, overall, I can’t state with any confidence that we’ve seen a significant rise or fall in Beverley visitor numbers this year. After all, we don’t count people as they come into the Minster – we don’t charge entry so we don’t have a precise figure. Instead, the best we can do is count other things and try to make appropriate estimates.
One of the indicators is the number of leaflets given out by welcomers over the month – but that’s a figure that can vary depending on how outgoing each of the welcomers is feeling – it’s not scientfic and it’s definitely not possible to precisely compare year-on-year.
I’d probably get an equally good result if I added up the total quantities of toilet rolls consumed in our not-very-confusing unisex loo suite, but sadly I’ve only just thought of that, so we haven’t got any figures for previous years. Maybe we’ll do that next year – or maybe not.
One figure we do monitor is that of revenue from roof tours, and I can proudly boast that, by yesterday, we virgers had earned  the Minster 43 per cent more money from climbing those 113 steps throughout the year as compared to 2008 – so our visitor figures must actually have risen, no? (or climbed, hahahahahahahaha – sorry.)
Well, not necessarily. Again, we are not comparing like-for-like as we’ve reduced the minimum number of visitors required to trigger a tour down to two, from four. It might only prove that we’ve turned away less would-be climbers than previously.
We also raised the price of the tours by 25 per cent, to £5 per adult, half way through 2008, so that obviously meant we had to work harder for our money last year compared to this.
The fantastically successful opening, for the first time in decades, of our North West clock tower on August Bank Holiday boosted figures as well, although, to be fair, the good effects were lessened by a rather poorly attended Book Fair a few weeks later.
So, although we’re giving out many more welcome leaflets to visitors, taking far more people up in the roof and, as far as I know, using a lot more toilet paper in the loos, I can’t really put my hand on my heart and claim we’ve actually boosted our visitor numbers by the figures quoted – although it’s not for want of trying.
At the Minster the virgers, volunteers and welcomers put in a lot of work to give a good impression and one consequence of this is that I am seeing ever-increasing numbers of people coming back for second or even third visits, bringing friends and family with them. That’s brilliant, a testimony to our efforts.
These numbers are dwarfed, however, by the plummeting volume of coach parties that have visited the Minster this year, both booked and those which arrive on spec. We first noticed this effect last year when the puerile but popular, ‘Da Vinci Code’ film came out. Coaches started visiting Lincoln, where a lot of it was filmed, rather than York (which had, apparently, not been able to agree a suitable timetable with the producers­), and they weren’t stopping at Beverley en route.
Their gain, south of the Humber, was our loss.
This blow to numbers was then magnified as the Powers That Be decided to make life more difficult for coach drivers. They obviously don’t think such vehicles should be allowed within a reasonable radius of the town centre – banning them from stopping at Sow Hill, Norwood, New Walkergate, the old Military Transport Museum car park or the Westwood.
Frankly I think that doesn’t give the impression of a warm welcome waiting in the (W)Riding – (sorry, I was overcome by alliteration just then). In fact it doesn’t take the resources of the CIA or KGB to discover that coach drivers are thoroughly hacked off by this attitude – and they soon tell their managers about their bad experiences .
Once Beverley has got a reputation for being so unwelcoming then I suspect it will take a very strong marketing campaign spread over several years before we can win these drivers and their loads back.
But even when we get people to drive into HU17 the town then does very little to promote its best asset, the Minster itself.
Some people might find that statement surprising, but once you open your eyes you notice something very strange – from most parts of Beverley you can’t actually see the Minster at all.
Oh, it’s there all right if you’re coming from the south or west – no problem. It floats like a massive ocean liner above the town from the Westwood and stands proud above the old (and so far only) southern bypass. It’s especially impressive coming up Long Lane, but that view is going to be lost if the new bypass is ever built.
From the east it’s not too bad, giving you plenty to look at while you’re stuck at the level crossing during one of the endless 25-minute interruptions caused by the hint of an imminent train movement  – but from the vast majority of the town itself, nothing.
Try it for yourself if you don’t believe me.
Imagine a walk from the bus station: You turn right and almost immediately you are aware of a big building with a tower.
“Gosh, isn’t the Minster magnificent?” a stranger might think, mistaking our former chapel-of-ease for the mother church. In fact we know that some people do visit St Mary’s and go away convinced they’ve been to the Minster – and there’s nothing nearby to tell them they’re wrong.
You walk on through Saturday Market, and Beverley’s most famous building is still invisible.
In fairness, right the way down to the Angel Public House you are still in the parish of St Mary’s, but that’s not the point. It’s only when you’re well into Wednesday Market, that you finally see one of the twin towers soaring above the roofline.
Then, if you’ve left enough time in your visit, you come down our uneven cobbled Highgate (which is, apparently, now too dangerous for the armed forces to walk down on Remembrance Sunday) and you’ve finally completed your voyage of discovery, more by accident than design. 
In some religions true adherents are expected to crawl huge distances on their hands and knees as they approach particularly holy places – and I get the impression we’re trying to copy them.
It’s not a surprise that visitor numbers at the Minster have been falling over the years – it’s more surprising that anybody comes at all.
First published November 2009

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