Neil Pickford confronts a classic conundrum
After many fallow months I recently found myself having to deal with an old chestnut. By this I mean that a life-long Beverlonian who had popped into the building for the first time in many years (and very, very welcome they were too) tried to confirm a half-remembered piece of information with me.
“This was all built with ramps, wasn’t it?” he asked rhetorically as he waved his arm around to indicate the entire structure. “They carried earth here from the Westwood and piled it up into ramps, then dragged the stones up them, didn’t they? That’s why there’s all those holes on the Westwood, isn’t it?”
Well, I had to break it to him that this wasn’t true. What we’ve got here is probably a mixture of two different (and in their own way, quite interesting) stories that reveal a lot about the society our ancestors used to live in.
It’s so interesting in fact that I feel myself drifting into educational mode so, if you’re not in the mood for that and would prefer a few quick laughs then you’d be advised to switch to ‘Yesterday in Parliament’ or the weather forecast, (author listens to sound effects of screams and numerous feet exiting stage right).
Here goes: firstly, never make the mistake of thinking that our ancestors were stupid, just because they didn’t have our modern technology. In fact, because they didn’t have modern technology it meant they had to be inventive to solve major problems like how to build a massive Minster using hand tools, simple physics and incredibly good organisation. Their results show they were at least as intelligent as us (you can see that quite clearly in the brilliant structure and design of the nave roof they built 650 years ago). They were also fantastically strong compared to we modern wimps but I’ll come to that in a moment.
Firstly, let’s deal with the mental side. Our ancestors didn’t need to build ramps because they’d already invented the crane to do heavy lifting work for them. Proof of this is found in innumerable drawings from the 13th and 14th centuries depicting various cathedrals and castles under construction. They clearly show cranes involved in the process of lifting stones so by 1721, when they came to assemble the magnificent monster tread wheel crane in our roof, it was already very, very ancient technology. Lifting heavy stones was exactly what these machines were designed to do.
Our ancestors were also brilliant at constructing wooden frameworks that supported these cranes, while simultaneously acting as braces for unbuilt arches that would eventually carry the ceilings.
They were versatile too – if you could work with wood you would be expected to build fantastic scaffolding and then switch to carving items of exquisite detail and durability, such as our West End doors and font cover.
But although we didn’t need ramps to build Beverley Minster I’m not saying that Beverlonians didn’t do an awful lot of earth-shifting during the process, because they did. But it wasn’t for structural reasons, but the comfort of the Archbishop of York.
You see, our Minster is located right on the edge of what would have been marsh or swamp, as is obvious when you come on one of our roof tours. When you look out to the north you see the town of Beverley rising gently to St Mary’s, packed full of buildings.
To the south, however, there is virtually nothing (or at least there wasn’t until developers started building around Long Lane a few decades ago). That’s because the land is soft and on the spring line: the soil is saturated and if you dig a deep trench it will become waterlogged quite quickly.
(And that, I’m sorry to say, also busts the myth about secret tunnels into the Minster, because you’d drown if you tried to use one. Pity, because I’d love it to be true, but them’s the facts, ma’am.)
Anyway, just to the south is a large field that preserves a wonderful open view of the Minster from Long Lane, protected from development because we own it.
It’s here where the Archbishop of York’s Manor House or Hall used to stand back in the 14th and 15th centuries – but only after he’d got the plumbing right.
You see, the archbishop was the lord of the manor of Beverley and wanted to have his country residence as close as possible to the Minster, if only out of laziness. However, he had standards and one of these was that foul water should flow away from his house rather than into it. When the Minster was first built, thanks to marshiness, let’s just say it wasn’t cream that rose to the top.
For this reason his original country retreat was built on the higher ground near where St Mary’s is today but that was too far for a dignified walk to church in full regalia, so he had his workforce remodel the landscape for his comfort. Hundreds, probably thousands, of tons of soil was dragged to his favoured location from miles around (almost certainly including some from the Westwood) and the whole site was raised by about two to three metres so that it would drain properly. Dozens of men spent many sweaty months dragging sledges loaded with mud from A to B to make sure the archbishop could have a sweet seat, so to speak.
And that, I think, is how the inaccurate story of the Minster ramps started. Fascinating, wasn’t it?
Or not, as the case may be.