A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Fat man on a bicycle

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford thinks about taking a rest.
It is often said, (he lied) that when a columnist runs out of ideas they often go back in time and recycle some history. Well, I want you to know that’s complete rubbish.
Anyway, back in 1813…
No, it’s not what it seems. My muse this week has been prompted by a very tangible and pressing concern, namely my legs. My poor little lower limbs are very tired now and I’ve taken a few days off after the Bank Holiday clock tower climbs to recover. 
It went quite well really, thanks for asking: not the numbers we got last year but we weren’t really expecting that. Still, £500 towards general funds and 50 very satisfied visitors, so that was worth the effort. I was also able to wave my arms around and guide a few people about so that was something I enjoyed as well.
But once the day was over my weary legs dragged me slowly towards a huge wooden seat that is currently positioned close to our altar – the Coltman chair – which was built for the fattest vicar in England. It’s very comfortable actually – which it had to be because the Rev. Coltman was a very demanding man during his 24 years as Perpetual Curate of Beverley Minster.
Weighing a mighty 35 stone at his death (down from a peak of 42 stone – that’s 222kg and 266kg respectively for the information of all my metric readers), the Reverend liked his food. It was lucky that his family wealth (earned by developing the area of land now known as Coltman Street in Hull) enabled him to indulge himself, and boy, did he!
By the age of 21, apparently, he was too heavy for his legs to carry him and so he went everywhere on an early type of bicycle, a velocipede (same as a modern bike but without pedals) that supported his enormous bulk. According to the history books, however, he didn’t just use the family fortune on food. A eulogy in a local newspaper in 1837 commented that, as: “ a considerable portion of his private fortune, being, it is well known, regularly expended in acts of charity”  he was regarded as: “in truth, a father to the fatherless, and, in the best sense of the word, a husband to the widow.
“Never was a man more generally beloved or more deeply and sincerely lamented. Sorrow for his loss is depicted in every countenance, and his death has spread a gloom throughout the town and neighbourhood.”
While surviving church records do hint that he wasn’t universally loved – at least by some of his churchwardens – it has to be said that his chair is a grand thing to have inside the Minster. Not only is it a source of comfort and support to weary virgers, it also acts as an ice-breaker for children.
You see a few of them, miserably trailing behind parents or grandparents who are, from their point of view, wasting time and not concentrating on the important things in life such as ice creams. They’ve probably also been told to keep quiet and not touch anything so they are bored.
Well, they can touch the Coltman chair because it certainly won’t fall down if they sit on it and, when they find this out, suddenly the church stops being a boring old museum and becomes something with a bit of fun that we hope they will remember in the future.
“The fattest vicar in England” is another fact they can grab hold of, especially when they look at my ample girth and realise that Coltman achieved nearly two and a half times what I’ve been able to pile on so far. I like being able to provide this information to visitors and watch their reactions.
There’s another reason I like the fat old Reverend: we share the same birthday and, well, would you believe it? By strange coincidence, this significant date just happens to have fallen this week (September 8th, as you’re asking).
Well, (blush) I’m 55 actually. Yes, I know it’s hard to believe but it’s true.
I attribute my youthful appearance and long hair to a good life well lived. Now please excuse me as I find somewhere nice and quiet to lie down in again. 
First published September 2010


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