Leaving York


York Minster

After breakfast I headed to Blossom Street to look at a tremendous art deco cinema:


Designed by Harry Weedon and Robert Bullivant. The tower is more of a fin than it looks from the front.

It’s got everything: wraparound, strong horizontals, a big vertical, expressionist brickwork, Crittal windows . . . it’s a listed building, so hopefully the scaffolding heralds a rebirth rather than anything more sinister.

York has a very compact centre and is very busy: it’s trying to alleviate traffic jams with busses and cycle lanes, but in contrast to Utrecht it’s barely touching the surface.

One other observation: I’ve stayed in two old buildings while I’ve been away. Both were very impressive and I liked both . . . but neither had double glazing. In fact, in the case of Ripon, there was a gap between the window frames. Why aren’t these things remedied? (Rhetorical question, obvs.)

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For Love or Money

A Northern Broadsides production at the Theatre Royal, York. “Broadside” is an apt description for this play: it side-swiped me with its wit, pace, colour and nimble footwork so that, during the performance, I had no time or inclination to be critical. It conformed to Mr Sleary’s first maxim, which suits me fine.

It was a 1920s-set cynical farce of greed and infatuation: a war widow takes advantage of an infatuated banker, but she in turn is being milked by a young man who exploits everyone around him – including his sly servant. Everyone makes use of everyone else, with the banker the greatest villain of all (of course), and the servant coming out on top. His wit and desperation to escape to make a life with his lover made this the least unsympathetic outcome . . . but should he ever reach the banker status, he would no doubt be just as venal. Not surprisingly, the original play was eighteenth-century French (Alain-René Lesage’s “Turcaret”) rewritten by Blake Morrison; the French did total cynicism very well, but the play didn’t entirely translate to Yorkshire, despite the emphasis on “brass” in all its forms.

As a farce, it was funny; as a satire on greed, it misfired.

  • Rose – Sarah-Jane Potts
  • Fuller – Barrie Rutter
  • Jack – Jordan Metcalfe
  • Arthur – Jos Vantyler
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Five sisters window, north transept. Early English. Abstract patterns and grisaille glass.

A guided tour of the minster, which made me realise how much there is to learn about one building. An hour and a half only scratched the surface.

Work started on the transepts of York minster in 1220 and continued for  two and a half centuries (interrupted by the Black Death, of course). Now that I have seen several Yorkshire churches, I am beginning to see the similarities: Tadcaster limestone again, with dark polished stone for collars and columns as you get closer to the nave; the same design for blind arcades; and the fine stone carving of secular heads and beasts. The aim was to outdo Canterbury Cathedral, so the minster is longer and wider – so wide that it was deemed inadvisable to try to build a stone roof, so that all the roofs are wooden. There have been fires over the centuries, so no misericords here, unlike the wonderful ones in Ripon and Beverley.


West window – Decorated

The guide emphasised that the nave – pre-Reformation sharply divided from the choir and chancel – was a less sacred space, so some of the original stained glass is quite blatant in its self-aggrandisement.

Then a quick visit in the cold rain to the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, once the richest monastery in the north of a England. It was from here that the grumbling monks went to found Fountains Abbey.

By this point my interest in Yorkshire churches had been sated; it involved getting too wet and cold. Besides, I had already discovered the Paul Nash exhibition at the a York Art Gallery, so I headed off to look again at evocative English landscapes, exquisite pen and ink sketches, and some de Chirico-type surreal paintings. Nash’s work was accompanied by a couple of old friends: Algernon Newton and Tristram Hillier. (British art of the first half of the twentieth century seems to be big at present.) I also found this in the permanent collection:


Bicyclists against a blue background by Robert Medley, 1951, oil on canvas

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More Yorkshire churches


St Mary’s Church, Beverley. Begun 1120. Painted wooden ceilings and octagonal towers at the west front.


 Collapsed east end of Howden Minster.


Selby Abbey – eclectic pattern book of styles in the nave

Selby Abbey has the most misshapen arch so far – the two piers next to the central crossing were not up to bearing the weight of a new tower, which collapsed and destroyed the south transept:


It was begun soon after the Norman conquest and has a fine Romanesque west doorway. The church was destroyed by fire in 1906 (you can see how the heat left some of the limestone reddened) and rebuilt by one of the Scott family of architects. The glass of the east window somehow survived.

Primed by all this, I am ready for York Minster tomorrow. Not sure I’ll be ready for the crowds of tourists, though.

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Beverley Minster

The current building was started in the mid-1200s and took 200 years to complete. I’m definitely getting my eye in:


Southern side of the nave aisle – Decorated


Remodelled west front (from the rear) – Perpendicular


South transept – Early English

Yesterday I was dutifully learning the terms and naming the parts, but today, stepping into Beverley Minster, I was struck by the height of the nave, the harmonious proportions, and the way that the light from the clerestory windows fell on the creamy Tadcaster limestone . . . struck, in short, by beauty.

The upper half of the east window still contains stained glass from the early 14th century; the building of it required extra buttressing outside. The central tower collapsed and was not replaced, and by the gift shop there was one leaning pier that had twisted under the weight.


East window seen through the choir screen

4CDA193F-C42A-43CA-8594-EC49F566E81EThe carving of capitals and bosses is wonderful – whether of musicians or foliage. The Percy tomb next to the altar was particularly fine – although overdone for my taste. Ogee arches joined three-dimensionally to create a forward-leaning canopy.


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Ripon Cathedral


A very pleasing Early English Gothic west front, notable for its absence of elaborate tracery (just plain lancet windows arranged symmetrically) and its thick massing (1220).

Inside, it is exceptionally wide. It’s surprising to learn how often bits of cathedrals are rebuilt – sometimes to expand, sometimes to deal with subsidence or collapse – and in Ripon you can see the obvious joins between the old and new:


Romanesque arch with decidedly mismatched piers, and gothic arches beyond in the choir and chancel.

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Fountains Abbey

From the visitor centre, there’s not much to see – just the top of what appears to be a squat tower – but as you approach the edge of the cliff the view, half-hidden behind trees, gets bigger . . . until eventually the remains of Fountains Abbey are revealed. It’s a beautiful spot, between the cliff edge (what remained of it after the stone for the buildings was quarried out) and the river Skell over which some of the monastic complex was built.


Founded in 1132 by dissatisfied monks from York, Fountains became part of the reforming Cistercian order. It was an enormous, workaday monastery complex – 2772D926-2499-4089-A78E-84B3846BED0Cno real libraries or education here, but plenty of sheep-rearing. It lasted until the Dissolution in 1539.

The buildings are big but not elaborate: a transition from Romanesque to Gothic architecture for a working community of monks and lay brothers. The Romanesque arches of the narthex (sheltering the west front) are gothicised by their columns and capitals.


East window

The original buildings were added to (in the latest styles) over the centuries, so the east window has remnants of stone tracery. The particularly northern feature is the chapel of nine altars behind the chancel – a kind of hammerhead device that provided altars for all the ordained monastic priests to take their obligatory masses.


The perpendicular Gothic tower (offset because the central crossing could not bear such weight) was commissioned by Abbot Huby shortly before the dissolution.

My favourite part was the cellarium – a giant storeroom whose usefulness and dryness ensured its survival as the rest of the abbey decayed and was broken up.


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