Welcome to beautiful Beverley. Cobbled streets, a majestic minster, quaint boutiques and bustling market, the thrill of the races, the calm of a traditional pub. Dave Lee found all of this and more in a unique town that is a favourite amongst visitors.
Wherever you find yourself in God’s Own County you are never far away from a story. Surprisingly, perhaps, for such a taciturn tribe of people, Yorkshire is a taleteller’s paradise. But these are not the stories you find proclaimed on blue plaques or splashed around on glossy tourist brochures. In this part of the world, self-effacement is practised to almost Olympian levels.
This means the stories in Yorkshire are tucked away in the forgotten corners of public buildings and the fading memories of old men in pubs. Rumours, legends, shaggy dogs and ghosts are all alive and well and firmly ingrained in the local cultures of Yorkshire. And nowhere in our fine county will you find a greater wealth of charming and beguiling stories than in the market towns.
Allow me to nail my colours firmly to the mast; I am a massive fan of Yorkshire market towns. Despite the cosmopolitan air that permeates every Olde Worlde High Street in the Ridings these days, there is still a pleasing whiff of All Creatures Great And Small amongst the smoke houses and sushi bars. The newer boutiques and galleries may be powered by the brightest of our young and independent minds, but there is a lingering charm and character in these towns redolent of centuries past. And nowhere is this more evident than Beverley.
Beverley is founded on myths and legend. St John of Beverley, the founder of the first monastery and a performer of miracles who established the town as a pilgrim destination right up until the Reformation founded it. Such was his influence, King Henry V attributed his victory at Agincourt to the divine intervention of St John.
Other, more recent figures have cited Beverley as a fount of inspiration. In the church of St Mary, tucked above the doorway, there is a carving of a rabbit holding a bag. As a child, Lewis Carroll would visit his grandparents in East Yorkshire. Local wisdom has it that the childhood memory of the “messenger rabbit” inspired the character of the tardy White Rabbit in “Through The Looking Glass” for it is the very same design – or as near as damn it - adopted by John Tenniel for his original illustrations in the book.
I asked Christina Lewis, the organiser of the Beverley Literature Festival, how much truth there was in this story. Did one of the world’s most famous literary characters really start life in East Yorkshire? “Who can say for sure?” she laughs. “What I do know for certain is that every visiting author we have in Beverley leaves us inspired. And they always want to come back.”
Beverley Literature Festival is now in its thirteenth year, and has hosted heavyweight names such as Will Self, Sarah Waters, Jonathan Coe and Brian Blessed. Renowned for diversity and offering the very best in contemporary writing and debate, the festival takes place in several locations across the market town, including the new East Riding Theatre (which also doubled as the village hall in the new Dad’s Army film) and the iconic Beverley Minster. Along with Food and Folk, it’s quickly established itself as one of the most notable UK festival dates on the culture lover’s calendar.
Take a stroll around the town on a golden autumn Saturday, and it’s not hard to see why Beverley demands repeated visits. In 2007 it was voted the best place to live in the UK in an “Affordable Affluence” survey carried out by the Royal Bank Of Scotland. Affordable affluence is about right. The traditional market in the square is a foodie’s dream, with world coffee, spices and artisan cheese jostling for attention alongside the more traditional meat and veg coming fresh and direct from the local farms. And, true to the spirit of Yorkshire, it’s all at down to earth prices.
Bring a big shopping bag, because you’ll need one. As well as the generous array of comestibles, handmade jewellery and local crafts are also well represented, so you can walk away from the tightly packed stalls with a feast fit for Jay Rayner and an utterly original piece of artistry. Soap cake, anyone? Japanese wine bottle cover? I pause by the cheese stall to speak to Phil, a local trader of some years standing. What keeps him in Beverley?
“I’ve lived and worked here all my life”, he tells me, “and every week I meet people from all over the world.”
If the clatter of cosmopolitan life gets too much, rest and repose is only a short walk away. Wander through the 15th Century North Bar Within – where King Charles rested up after he was famously refused entry to Hull - and onto the Westwood, a sprawling stretch of public greenery roamed by cattle and fringed by a medieval forest on one side and a racetrack on the other. Within ten minutes you are pocketed in silence, away from the bustle of the shops and market vendors. Pause awhile beneath the Black Tower and pretend you’re in a fairy tale. (Everyone will tell you it’s merely an abandoned mill, but to my kids and me it’s been everything from a prison for a princess to a vampire’s castle). If your tastes veer towards the ghoulish, head for the local hostelries and scare yourself silly with good old-fashioned ghost story.
Over a foaming pint in Nellie’s, a labyrinthine 500 year-old pub of open fires and gaslight, an old timer called George regales me with the legend of Sir Josceline Percy, who drives a black carriage pulled through nocturnal streets by four headless horses. For those with more modern tastes, the town plays host to Chequers, Yorkshire’s first micro-pub.
There are jewels such as Beverley dotted all over Yorkshire, small market towns that snuggle up to the cities and enjoy all the modern conveniences but none of the uniform blandness that blights so many of our large post-industrial urban centres. And they all have their own individual quirks and characteristics. Dig a little deeper beneath the more obvious tourist spots, behind the castles and the mills, and talk to the people who are breathing new life into the old narratives.
From the rich literary tradition of Ted Hughes’ Hebden Bridge to the Aladdin’s Den antique shops that are studded around Yarm; from the traditional farming strongholds of Bedale and Helmsley to the stylish culinary delights of Malton, there are stories in each and every market town of Yorkshire. The real joy lies in their discovery.