Photo: Harriet Buckthorp
One of the highlights of the Humber Heritage (September 17th-20th 2010) tour will be a roof-tour of Beverley Minster, one of the most beautiful churches in England. The Minster came into being as a shrine of St John of Beverley, who was canonised in 1037, and rose from two disasters within a generation, the Great Fire of Beverley in 1188 and the collapse of the central tower around 1213.
You can stand outside the church and see exactly how it grew over the centuries: the east end and transepts are mid-thirteenth century; most of the nave is mid-fourteenth century but construction was interrupted by the Black Death in 1349 and the west front and towers date mainly from the fifteenth century.
It’s called a minster because, though never a monastery or a cathedral, it was run by a college of clergymen up to the time of the Reformation. In Henry VIII’s reign it became simply a huge parish church, partly maintained by funds provided by Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.
By the early eighteenth century maintenance had fallen back so much that the gable of the north transept leaned four feet outwards from the perpendicular. That the church is still standing is to the credit of the architect William Thornton (c1670-1721) who, in 1719, built a huge timber scaffold against the leaning wall and screwed it back into the fabric of the building.
To appreciate the scale of the building, and to recognise the strength of Thornton’s work, it’s worth taking the roof tour, which involves a steep stair-climb but isn’t vertiginous, to look through the great rose window, to see how each wing of the building has distinctive roof-architecture, and to see close up the largest architectural treadwheel in England.
Thornton was understandably nervous about the stability of the central crossing, which had been a cause for concern for centuries, and which Nicholas Hawksmoor surmounted with a dome, now demolished. From inside it’s clear that the stubby central tower is built of eighteenth-century brick, and incorporates a giant treadwheel that acted as a crane to bring materials to roof level.
It still works, and lifts the central boss from the crossing vault, providing a vertiginous and securely fenced view down on to the floor below.
It’s one of the most memorable experiences for miles around: http://beverleyminster.org.uk/visit-us/tours.
The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2016 ‘Humber Heritage’ tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.