24 September 2016

#Heritage Weekend - The Great and the Not So Good

Uncovered late medieval timbers at the Guildhall, Beverley
Earlier this month Heritage Weekend marked the opening of mostly hidden historical gems. This was the first year I was either in the country or I was fit enough to take advantage – and boy, did I take advantage.

Beverley is an ancient market town 20 miles from where I now live, and my first stop was its Guildhall. Although a rather daunting columned facade had been added to the original building in 1832, it was the 14th/15th century uncovered timbers I wanted to see, and the 18th century courtroom, now much used by movie and television companies for historical productions.

18th century courtroom
"Elizabeth" in Workhouse apparel shredding hemp fibres

It was there I came across a woman called “Elizabeth” from 1881. She had sought shelter in the local Workhouse (the old Beverley hospital) when she became unable to do heavy duties in service due to chronic lower back pain and was turned out onto the street. In the Workhouse she had been set to heavy work in the laundry and was refusing to comply. Instead, she had been set the mind-numbing and finger-splitting task of separating hemp strands from old rope for as long as there was light to see by.

One of the ways of funding the Workhouse was to take in old rope from sailing ships and sell the separated hemp strands to rope-makers to be recycled into new rope, hence the British term “money for old rope”. She was very vocal, angry at the situation women like her – she was at pains to tell me she could read and write – could find themselves in due to infirmity. Though she added, rather wistfully, that at least her current batch of rope lengths had not been tarred. Re-enactors like “Elizabeth” make the details of history live, and as a novelist I’m always very grateful for their expertise.

Next it was down the cobbled High Street and into The Monk’s Walk pub. Passing this ale house occasionally on my way to the Minster I’d always accepted from its facade that it was a Georgian establishment. However, it turns out that it is older than the Minster’s current nave. I was eager to join one of the tours to view 13th century wall timbers housing not wattle & daub or even lathe & horsehair, but 14th century over-fired bricks. And no, I hadn’t known that Beverley had been a centre of early brick-making. The only reason the wall survives is because it is supported by a genuine Georgian house next door. It leans (in all directions!) due to it being built before angled side-strutting was introduced to aid stability – see the picture above of the 14/15th century timbers of the uncovered wall in the Guildhall.

C12th timbers and C14th bricks. Note the lean >>>

Back in the day, medieval of course, the front part had been a grain warehouse, probably working with the then monastery at the end of the street, hence its entrance is down a passage, not directly off the cobbles. It’s not the only pub in Beverley laid out this way. The narrow width of its rooms and very low ceiling are testament to the building’s age, and while its dining area has had the original upper flooring removed most of its ceiling beams remain in place, allowing a view to the gable-end and roofing timbers. A mean pint can be supped there, too.

The cleared nave of Beverley Minster
From there it was a very short hop down to Beverley Minster, dating from 721AD when it was set up, probably as a very small, wooden monastic house, by a man who later became known as Saint John of Beverley. The current building, from the 13th century, is one of the largest parish churches in the UK, larger than a third of all its cathedrals.

It is open every day, so why was it included in the Heritage Weekend?  Because its entire nave was to be cleared to give it the air, minus bright paintings, of a true medieval church. None of the Minster’s employees and volunteers I spoke with had ever seen it without either pews or chairs, and it truly was a breath-taking sight. I immediately tagged onto a talk being given about the Minster’s ‘green men’, of which there are lots among the heights, as well as a single "green woman", each pointed out with the aid of a laser-light pen.

So ended Day 1. Day 2, in Hornsea, proved equally eye-opening, though much further back, and further forwards, in history.

The September Heritage Weekend is an annual event up and down the country. See what’s available to view close to you and make a note on your calendar for 2017. You'll find it a fascinating experience.

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