Beverley: How 'the town that time forgot' escaped modern development

Historic homes and pubs near Beverley Minster
Historic homes and pubs near Beverley Minster
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Visitors to the East Yorkshire market town of Beverley often observe how well-preserved it is.

Much of the town centre is 'naturally' pedestrianised thanks to a lack of mid-20th century modernisation, there's no choking ring road or multi-storey car parks, and its cobbled market square and narrow streets remain peaceful and traffic-free.

Beverley is one of the best-preserved historic market towns in the country

Beverley is one of the best-preserved historic market towns in the country

Unlike other towns which have had to force cars to go elsewhere as a price to pay for their previous planning failures, Beverley has never had large traffic flows through its centre and banned vehicles completely from the main shopping streets as early as 1980.

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Back in the 1990s, Independent journalist David Hewson - in Beverley to review the legendary pub Nellie's - remarked :-

"I doubt if you will find another town in the north that has been so little touched by the ravages of the past three decades or has survived with such good grace. Imagine Chichester without the ugly bits, add Salisbury without the precincts, throw in some Chester untainted by twee, and you begin to get the picture."

Other fans include the poet Sir John Betjeman - who called it ‘the best town in England’ - and writer Simon Jenkins, who considers it his favourite market town.

Beverley's pedestrianised streets

Beverley's pedestrianised streets

Much of its preservation for posterity owes itself to the commitment of several individuals who foresaw how cars were coming to dominate cities in the post-war years and were determined to spare Beverley the same fate.

Two of them, former MP George Odey and town councillor Margaret Powell, made a particularly significant contribution.

Odey, the managing director of a local tannery, used his wealth to buy up medieval buildings at risk of demolition, while Powell, who died in 2014, was a one-woman crusade against detrimental development schemes.

They were supported in 1961 by the formation of the the Beverley Civic Society, with a mandate of protecting Beverley from urban road development.

Quaint Beverley is steeped in tradition

Quaint Beverley is steeped in tradition

The decade saw so many rapacious proposals that Beverley's very existence seemed in jeopardy.

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These included the demolition of the medieval gateway North Bar, a planned new road which would have flattened historic buildings from York Road to Lairgate, and the widening of Hengate, which would have seen gas-lit pub Nellie's, where beer was still served from a barrel, lost to history.

Dick Lidwell, a Civic Society member, arrived in Beverley in 1978, shortly before pedestrianisation was imposed on the town centre.

“In the early 1960s cars were the theme - it was the age of the motorway and cars were meant to save the world. Market towns felt threatened. In Beverley, there was a proposal to turn the North Bar into a roundabout. That was the catalyst for the Civic Society’s formation. People round here have a strong sense of identity.

The North Bar gateway has survived several demolition attempts

The North Bar gateway has survived several demolition attempts

“Some buildings were lost, of course, but the core of Beverley remains intact.”

The lost gems include the Globe Inn, Hall Garth and the old Yorkshire Bank, while the fight to prevent the building of Sow Hill Road into the markets area was lost.

Yet the 250 members of the group have fought and won many other battles.

There are now five Conservation Areas, including the town centre, that are statutorily protected from adverse development. They were designated in the late 1990s and the guidelines were reinforced by planning appraisal reviews in the early 2000s.

East Riding Council retains two conservation officers - a city the size of Bristol has just one - and there are 450 listed buildings.

Then there is the ‘unique’ Westwood - an area of pasture land first given to the town by the Archbishop of York in 1380. While many towns have lost their commons, cattle grazing rights on the Westwood are enshrined in bylaws and it cannot be built on. There are even 12 'pasture masters' charged with looking after this vast area of open space, where the racecourse and golf club peacefully co-exist alongside livestock.

The old industry is gone - Beverley was a centre of shipbuilding and tanning, and developed as a port long before nearby Hull - and has been replaced by market gardening, council employment and the hospitality trade, as well as commuter flows to Hull, Leeds and York.

“The markets have been there since medieval times and they are still very popular, although the old cattle market site is now a Tesco.

“The high street is changing - it’s not longer purely retail, there’s been a growth in the number of cafes, bars, restaurants and salons. The supermarkets are on the edge of town and there are still several ancient pubs with medieval half-timbering.”

The old Flemingate tanning site was in 2015 transformed into an out-of-town retail park with cinema, Premier Inn and college campus, as well as a multi-storey car park - but Dick feels this development has been complementary rather than detrimental.

Although Beverley has successfully encouraged tourism and tapped into the events market, its festival programme focuses on classic and folk music, literature and Christmas - themes which have prevented over-commercialisation and attracted niche visitors.

The Heritage Open Days see 6,000 visitors arrive to tour gardens, houses and churches, while several old buildings have been sympathetically converted - the 14th-century Dominican Friary became a youth hostel in 1984 and an old Methodist chapel has recently opened as a theatre. The Westwood Hospital, a former workhouse, is now housing.

Cycle tourism has taken off, and Beverley has hosted the Tour de Yorkshire, but they have been careful to avoid the pitfalls suffered by Harrogate, and the race’s impact on the environment is limited.

However, Beverley’s civic guardians have concerns about the planned 3,000 new houses expected to be built by 2030.

“The growth will be south of the town, and they will be large, anonymous estates. It’s a bit of a backwards step, although it does bring people into Beverley which maintains the vitality.

“The local plan needs to be respected, but there is pressure from developers and the profit margins from being here are substanstial. It also tends to be executive housing rather than smaller properties for first-time buyers.”

Unlike in many towns, there are few derelict buildings considered to be at risk if they are not brought back into use.

“There was the Red House on North Bar, which was a HMO in council ownership, but is now being restored. There are a few council-owned buildings which may be sold off, such as the registry office, which is a Georgian building.

“There are no major ‘save’ campaigns going on.

"As Sir John Betjeman said, Beverley is a town for walking through, not driving lorries through!"

How Beverley saved its heritage

- In the 1930s plans to demolish North Bar - the last survivor of Beverley's five medieval gates - were well advanced and pursued because buses could not fit under the archway. Eventually the structure was reprieved because the local bus company designed special vehicles that could pass through. It was built in 1409 and was once used as a tollhouse. The other gates were razed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

- The Westwood pasture is a popular recreational area and the main green space in Beverley - and it cannot be built on. Its protection comes from the fact that it is primarily still agricultural land, with cattle grazing rights in force from April to November. It can't be landscaped in the way that Harrogate's Stray is, but its original function has been preserved to the benefit of residents as well as farmers.

- Many civic buildings have been converted after their original uses came to an end. The Guildhall was a Georgian courthouse and a council meeting chamber in the 19th century - it is now a museum. The newer Victorian courts building, Sessions House, was in operation until 1999 and is now a spa. The old prison in the same complex is a private home. Westwood Hospital, which was once the union workhouse, closed in 2011 and was converted into apartments.

- The Old Friary dates back to the 13th century, and the remains of the medieval guesthouse form the foundation of the present buildings. The site was abandoned during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, with only the gatehouse surviving intact. In the 1960s, ownership passed to the Armstrong's shock absorber factory, who applied for permission to demolish the buildings. Consent was refused and a preservation order imposed instead. The council now own the site and it is leased to the Youth Hostels Association.

- The role of Margaret Powell cannot be underestimated. The great-grandchild of the esteemed architect George Gilbert Scott moved to the town in 1964, and retired to Cornwall, where she died in 2014. Her contribution was summed up by Barbara English from Beverley Civic Society:-

"She came upon unsuspecting Beverley with the suddenness of a storm cloud. She campaigned tirelessly and with passion to ensure that Beverley is the architectural gem it is today.

“Margaret Powell succeeded in turning back the tide."