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A look behind the scenes at St Mary's Church Beverley
Denis Price
By Denis Price
Local writer and historian

The church sits next to the town's North Bar. It is often missed by visitors who head for Beverley Minster.

The church was founded in 1120 and has been developed over the years.

St Mary's Church, Beverley
The church has Norman origins.

It is most famous for a carving of a rabbit, which is said to have been the inspiration for the March Hare in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

Denis Price took advantage of a rare open day to take a look around the building.

"I'm not one for heights", said Sarah a visitor, gazing into the distance, "but this is absolutely wonderful".

Standing on the roof of Beverley's St. Mary's Church bell tower under a cloudless sky with a hot summer sun beating down on our group we looked down in awe on Beverley town and its surrounding area seeing it as never before.

This rare treat was courtesy of the St Mary's Church Grand Day Out team led by the Vicar, Canon David Hoskin, who said: "This glorious building belongs to the town, and we want to share it with everyone."

Bell ringers
Visitors try their hand at bell ringing.

From the tower's commanding position in the town's centre we looked down on the birds wheeling and swooping over the rooftops of the Beverley Arms Hotel and then the North Bar and York Road leading to the Westwood and Racecourse.

Our view extended as far as the Humber Bridge and looking northward, the giant windmills of the new technology at former RAF Lissett were clearly visible. In the clear crisp air the view seemed endless as the buzzing and clicking of cameras was accompanied by requests to "Just one more of me over here," all for posterity.

The number of steps to the roof of the tower was confirmed by churchwarden Chris Hairsine as 145, with a pause for a breather at the belfry, home of St. Mary's famous bells, where the technical detail relating to the installation and breathtaking cost of the bells was provided by Chris Munday. The biggest weighs in at a ton and three quarters.

Our guide to bell ringing was Neil Donovan who introduced us to the intricate skills and history of the bell ringer's art. At the same time launching some of our enthusiastic younger members roof ward as they clutched bell ropes in time with the bell's ring.

Back down to earth a group of young visitors were being entertained by the creative skills of Margaret Roberts of St. Mary's Family Team. The team's mascot is a rabbit, known to St. Mary's as the pilgrim rabbit from which the Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll is believed to have taken his inspiration.

Rabbit carving
The pilgrim rabbit carving. Inspiration for the Mad March Hare?

The carving of the pilgrim rabbit, which dates back to around 1330, can be seen on the right of the door to the sacristy and is said to be similar to Tenniel's drawing of Lewis Carroll's March Hare.

These literary connections were lost on young Harvey and even younger Kyle, two of Margaret's visitors, their interests were more keenly centred on her magically produced free rabbits, with literature left for later.

Most people and places have secrets and St. Mary's secret is known as the Priest's Room. Here it stores away from public gaze bygone instruments of punishment and the sad trappings of medieval death. All sit side by side with unused stone and wooden carvings from the church's early beginnings.

Amanda Cammies was the knowledgeable guide to this mini museum and I watched as she described to the younger visitors and their parents the use of the scold's bridle, and Beverley Town's worn and well used stocks and pillory. "Relics of a less enlightened age." said one parent almost wistfully.

Beverley's former stocks.
Beverley's former stocks.

Important and treasured as St Mary's is to its parishioners and the town, I was amazed when Amanda described the church's little known intervention in the recording of England's royal history. She showed me a medieval chart which replicated the 40 English Kings painted on the 40 panels now on the church's chancel ceiling.

St Mary's intervention came about in 1445 when the 40 panels were being prepared it was realised that only 36 kings had been identified. Magically four more were invented, complete with names, allowing the full set of 40 completed panels to finally grace the chancel's ceiling, and so history was made.

With the St Mary's Church Choir concert due to begin at 1:00pm, there was just enough time to view the famous carved misericords; seats to you and me. Judging by the chortling and grinning of those already there, the quote I had read describing the carvings as "grotesque, humorous and positively insulting" had some substance, but then it's all in the eye of the beholder isn't it?

Following the uplifting and professional performance of the choir I realised that the day had flown by along with the ladies with the coffee and cakes.

Church tower
Taking in the breathtaking views from the tower.

I needn't have worried for as if by magic they re-appeared on the green outside the church where I sat chatting in the sun and enjoying a cream tea to the well rehearsed and polished accompaniment of the Church Lads and Church Girls Brigade Band recital.

With the day reaching its close it was time to reflect. A dedicated team of guides and helpers had made the day, with their help I'd seen aspects of St Mary's I never knew existed.

Glorious views from its bell tower, the cheeky grotesque and insulting humour within its carvings, literary links with the magic of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, the pilgrim rabbit, and finally the curious collection of the macabre and the historical secreted away in the priest's room where some might say royal history was made.

My visit to St. Mary's Church, Beverley had indeed been "A Grand Day Out".

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