Beverley – The ancient market town prepares for its Festival of Christmas

PUBLISHED: 09:16 24 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:13 20 February 2013

Tom Barrett, a youth gap-year worker and Lee Kirkby, Beverley Minster’s youth minister lights a candle

Tom Barrett, a youth gap-year worker and Lee Kirkby, Beverley Minster’s youth minister lights a candle

Beverley's own Festival of Christmas has grown – a bit like Santa's waistline – into something that stops traffic, reports Chris Titley

It is no exaggeration to say that the ancient market town of Beverley loves Christmas. And Christmas loves Beverley right back. Handsome houses, cobbled passageways, magnificent churches, hale-and-hearty inns all the market town needs is a layer of snow and it becomes a fully-functioning Christmas card.

But there is more to Beverleys relationship with everything Yuletide than looks alone. This is a place that cant get enough of Christmas. This is the place that celebrates twice.

Like the rest of us, the townsfolk will be sitting down to an ample lunch and the Queens speech, come December 25th. But two weeks before the big day it hosts well, another big day. The Beverley Festival of Christmas is a celebration of this most wonderful time of the year, unique to this ancient and beautiful town.

It all began 16 years ago. Retailer and local councillor John Bird, who runs Carol Bird Interiors on North Bar Within, explains. I thought it would be nice to put something back in the town. To celebrate Christmas in all its aspects it wouldnt be just a commercial venture, but it would embrace the religious experience, the atmosphere, the whole spirit of Christmas.

The opening of Meadowhall shopping mall in Sheffield a few years earlier was another factor. Im not decrying it in any way, said John, but its rather artificial whereas weve got the real thing. Weve got art in the open air, the medieval buildings, the whole shooting-match. And it encourages shoppers to come to the town for a fantastic day.

The first festival, in 1994, involved a handful of Victorian-style market stalls and a street entertainer or two. Since then it has grown like Santas waistline into something that stops traffic. Last year the one-day event attracted a record 50,000 people to the town. Economists worked out that this poured 1 million into local coffers. This years Beverley Festival of Christmas falls on Sunday, December 12th. As a prelude, the evening before will see the 13th century Beverley Minster filled to its lofty rafters with Handels Messiah, performed by the Beverley Chamber Choir.

The Victorian market is still at the heart of the festival. These days it boasts 100 stalls, selected by the organising committee for the high standard of merchandise on offer. The food producers bring the taste and smells of Christmas, with stalls selling fruit cake and mince pies, pheasant and other game, cheese and beer. Many hand-made gifts are to be had, created lovingly by wood-turners and other craftspeople.

The popularity of the festival is such that there is a 50-strong waiting list to take a pitch in the market. As it is, stallholders travel from across the North: one, a fishmonger, makes the journey from Morecambe Bay.

Visitors come from greater distances still, with Newcastle, Nottingham and Lincoln residents among those who travelled to the festival last year. No doubt many will be back this year. This years programme is the most packed and varied yet. All the central churches are actively involved, with services at the Minster, St Marys and Toll Gavel.

A wee pinch of Scotland will be added by a pipe band marching through the town, with military, brass and Church Lads and Girls Brigade bands also taking part. The Guildhall will be open for first time with the mayors parlour decorated in Victorian trimmings. A classical guitarist is to perform in Treasure House.

For John Bird, though, the undoubted highlight is Father Christmas himself. Pulled through the town on his sleigh by Cairngorm reindeer, Santa brings Beverley to a standstill. There are several members of the committee whove been helping organise the festival since 1994,

John said. For us one of the highlights is watching the expression on the childrens faces when they see the reindeer coming through the streets with Santa on the sleigh. Its quite magical, he said.

My town at Christmas

Michael Guest was a former manager of a jewellers shop in Beverley and when it closed he decided to open his own. That was in 1966. Since then Guest & Philips, as it became, has quadrupled in size. Its a true family business of a type disappearing from many high streets but still thriving in this market town. Michaels wife Anne, son Philip and daughter Karen are all actively involved.

Now theyre geared up for the busiest time of the year. As a trading town its good all year round, but its particularly good at Christmas, said Michael. And the Festival of Christmas has made that Sunday very special.

Now 75, hes been a jeweller for 60 years. As this marked the 40th year that Christine Kirkup has worked in the shop a century of experience between just two people.

After the hectic build up, Michael and his loved ones enjoy a much-needed two days off. Its nice, all being together as a family. You say goodbye to them on Christmas Eve, Christmas lunchtime youre back with them, which is lovely.

Getting there: Beverley in East Yorkshire is on the A1035, approached from Hull by the A165 and from York by the A1079. The Yorkshire Coast railway line has regular services to Beverley from Hull, Bridlington and Driffield. The bus station is in the town centre with services to Hull, York, Leeds as well as other surrounding areas.

Where to park: Pay and display parking as well as permit parking

What to do: There is plenty to see in the town but recent additions include the Elwell Trail across town which includes paintings by artists Fred and Mary Elwell and the Guilds Trail with sculptures highlighting 39 medieval guilds and trades.

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