I retraced a historic ride today. It involved arson, miracle wells, religious wars, Britain’s tallest man, a nineteenth-century LGBT film-star, another £2 flat bus fare, and a pint of bitter with 0.012 food miles.
The historic ride in question was that of Coifi, a torch-happy pagan high priest whose sudden conversion in 627 to the ways of that guy from Nazareth established the Yorkshire Wolds village of Goodmanham as one of Britain’s earliest centres of Christianity.
He did it on a horse, but thanks to another two-quid trundle – on the X46 from York to Market Weighton, which conveniently takes walk-on, full-size bikes – I could do it with my trekker.
I’ve ridden to and through the South-Wolds-gateway town of Market Weighton many times. So I was familiar with its most famous son William Bradley (1787–1820), Britain’s tallest ever man at 7ft 9in (2.36m).
There’s a wooden statue of him looking handsomer than the contemporary prints of the big man, which show his head and limbs distorted and misshapen by a runaway pituitary.
Behind is his old house, specially built with high ceilings and big doors, now a gift shop. A bit further away is the boulder that Bill is said to have humped all the way from Goodmanham for a bet. Perhaps it’s been there since he plonked it down, demanded his five bob, and said he would have arrived faster but for the traffic.
Bill had an appetite, and could polish off a leg of mutton for breakfast, apparently. I channelled his spirit and wolfed an excellent breakfast bap from one of the market town’s many cafes.
As I did so I was pleased to see a plaque marking a connection I hadn’t known about before: LGBT icon Anne Lister, aka Gentleman Jack, the ‘first modern lesbian’, who apparently spent many early years in the town.
If they discover and decipher her Market Weighton-era diaries, as they have with her mature ones from Halifax, there could be another raunchy TV series in the making, though it may have to be post-watershed.
But I had work to do. A ride to re-enact. I cycled a few miles up lanes through the mist to Londesborough, a pleasant East Riding estate village. In 627, Coifi was here on a stallion, carrying a spear, and about to kick-start the overthrow of paganism and the establishment of Christianity, the religion of peace, kindness and compassion. And what better way to do it than with a bit of arson and rabble-rousing?
He was the pagan high priest at Goodmanham, two miles away, the site of paganism’s main shrine in the kingdom of Northumbria. But paganism had become unpopular, having failed to deliver the cheaper food, immigration control, and trade deals promised by its charlatan cheerleaders.
Coifi had just followed Edwin, king of Northumbria, in taking up Christianity, and wanted to make some sort of public statement.
So, with the zeal of a convert, and the fury of a disillusioned voter, he grabbed a spear, a horse, and perhaps a can or two of petrol and box of matches, and set off for Goodmanham with some rapid demolition work in mind.
He presumably would have taken the old Roman Road, which runs through what is now the calm and pleasant grounds of the Londesborough Estate. I followed in his path, bumping gently over the farm-tracks and bridleways.
Coifi was on a stallion, itself a statement form of transport, as pagan priests were only allowed mares. I was also on a statement form of transport: my bike, as British males are only supposed to get around by car.
Coifi’s possession of a spear was pretty provocative too, as priests weren’t allowed those either. And when he got to Goodmanham – having presumably passed under the bridge of the now Beeching-axed York to Beverley railway line – he hurled his spear into the pagan shrine, and incited the crowds to burn the whole thing down.
At least, so Bede, our source for all this stuff, reckoned a century later in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People – Uncensored!
The act got results. Paganism was replaced by Christianity, the shrine was replaced by a church, and there’s been one on the site ever since. The current building, All Hallows, dates from 1130, so about the same era as my bike.
I wondered how I could pay tribute to Coifi’s incendiary adventures without getting arrested, not that police have the resources to investigate anything these days. So I repaired to the Goodmanham Arms to have a pint and seek inspiration.
What a fabulous pub! Woody, friendly, traditional, and packed full of sociable walkers, day-trippers and locals this cold winter afternoon. Excellent food, served sizzling on plates. Cask ale of several excellent brands, including from their own microbrewery in the garage, All Hallows. And a couple of real fires.
I got a pint of All Hallows Ragged Robyn ruby ale (4.7%, molasses, toffee, caramel, hint of acid bite, and only £3.20) and sat by the fire.
Ah. Fire. I could celebrate Coifi right here. Tearing a page out of my notebook, I drew a painstakingly accurate representation of how the pagan shrine would have looked, added an authentic spear, and put it on the burning logs. It went up, satisfyingly, rapidly, in flames.
I felt the satisfaction Coifi must have felt, knowing the old ways of ignorance were confined to the ashes of history, and that this was a new age of peace, calm and prosperity, everyone would live happy ever after, and there’d be no wars or anything.
Some relics of paganism remain, though. Before my bus back from Market Weighton, I had a quick look at two of the several magic wells around Goodmanham. Lady Well near the pub was first, a rather scrubby couple of twisted trees with a spring dribbling out down a slope.
More impressive is St Helen’s Well, a mile or so east of Market Weighton right on that old railway line, now the Hudson Way walking and bike track. It’s been spruced up a bit, has an information board, and has been lavishly and unecologically decorated by locals and visitors with magic-charm ribbons tied on a luckless tree.
Those hoping for miracle cures might be disappointed, however. As one holy wells and healing website frankly reports, ‘The well has no known healing properties or traditions’.
The Helen of the well is the mother of Constantine, York’s own Roman Emperor. She was quite a collector of religious knick-knacks, such as bits of the Cross, Jesus’s tunic, and the ropes from the Crucifixion. (Warning: If you see such items advertised for sale on eBay, they are likely fake.) However, the well is way older, no doubt with pagan origins.
I got back to my bus stop slightly dizzied by all this time-travel. As was my bus, by the fog, though it was thankfully only ten minutes late.