A glimpse into what might have been
Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford wanders in the grounds
I don’t often get outside the Minster during my normal working day. Oh, obviously I pop across the road to do virgerly things in the Parish Hall and occasionally, and as a special treat, I’m allowed to go into town and acquire some essential ingredients such as Domestos. But actually wandering around, with time to just stop and look at things is a rarity.
So, when I found myself in the south churchyard this week with a perfectly good excuse to waste a few minutes I thought I’d have a closer look at the old place. And suddenly I was very, very surprised.
I know what the Minster looks like from the north – after all, I go past it at least four times a day and I’m not unobservant – I’ve seen the multiple statues, the flying buttresses, the windows, the proportions, the trees – heck I know it as well as the back of my hand, wherever that may be. So the south side of the Minster is just the same, isn’t it?
You’ve probably worked out that the correct answer is ‘no’. It’s substantially different and, once I started looking closely, it felt like I was slipping into a parallel world. The familiar became unfamiliar and I started seeing things as they might have been, rather than as they are. Gosh!!!
A glimpse of what might have been – end of part 1
+++++ Commercial break –
I have been asked to remind all traders in Beverley that the closing date for sponsors for the Christmas Tree Festival in the Minster this year is the 31st July 2011. If you have lost your forms or want further details please telephone (01482) 868540. Thank you.
– End of Commercial Break +++++
A glimpse of what might have been – part 2
It’s all to do with the south wall of the south tower. There, tucked away behind some 18th century buttressing, are arches and carvings, plus evidence of a much lower floor level for a now-lost building. And, in a parallel world so beloved of science fiction series such as Star Trek, where an evil version of me would now be sporting a beard (no, hang on, I’ve already got one – that’s confusing – sorry); in this mythical parallel world the former building would now be complete and serving as the Parish Church of St John and St Martin. Simultaneously, the present site of Beverley Minster itself would be an open field with a few stumps of stone dotted around.
For, in truth, 16th century religious reformers had no need for our very Catholic, relic-worshipping Minster in the new, improved Church of England. No, in their drive to democratise Christianity the aim was to create a network of local churches where anyone could drop in, sit down and listen to a preacher discussing a religious matter – then debate it afterwards. You didn’t need a huge, beautiful and distracting building for that – a small, simple one would be quite sufficient.
And so it was that the old charnel house, (where the bones of the dear-departed were stored) with its upstairs chapel was designated as the new parish church for southern Beverley, The Minster was put up for sale by the King’s agent to act as a cheap source of lead and high-quality limestone – ideal for the burgeoning Tudor mansion-builder market.
You can be sure that, if this had gone ahead, the Minster would have been stripped of most of its materials within a very few decades and all we’d have left would be a picturesque open field with isolated wind-breaks and an artist’s impression on an English Heritage notice board.
In this case, however, we can thank the 16th century Beverley Town Council for a far-sighted act of investment (and that’s not something that’s been said often over the centuries, but thoroughly deserved in this case). They bought it and preserved it for us to enjoy, demolishing the old charnel house and chapel to help pay for it.
I think we got the better of the deal.
Meanwhile, in my parallel universe, the town of Beverley without the Minster is a poor shadow of ours: the county’s administrative headquarters is based in centrally-placed Driffield and this swampy part of East Yorkshire is noted primarily as the rather damp northern fringe of the sprawling city of Hull. The ancient man-made Beverley Beck fuelled the Industrial Revolution locally and attracted many heavy industries over the centuries but all that is left now are some rotted ruins and heavily-contaminated land.
Vain efforts have been made to create a tourist industry but, with no natural features of note, no landmark buildings to attract visitors and a general air of cut-price decay, the effort was a miserable failure. A long-running campaign to persuade managers of the busy railway line to Driffield to build a small halt at Beverley seems to have died – its argument that it would help attract commuters to live in new low-cost estates on the site of the former industrial area not attracting any would-be developers either.
It seems frankly unbelievable now that, once upon a time, people travelled hundreds of miles just to visit an old church in Beverley.
A glimpse of what might have been – Epilogue:
Meanwhile, back in this universe, I had a profound thought.
Question: What do you call the anxious wait before a musician starts to perform?
Answer: Pre-Minstrel Tension.
Thank you and good night – you’ve been a lovely audience.