On 9 July 1212, the City of York was granted its freedom by King John, on condition that the city worthies paid £160 plus three horses each year to the Exchequer for the privilege. So the people of York celebrate eight hundred years of independence in 2012, and they have decided to do it in style.York is famous for its festivals, and this year there are more than thirty of them, all aiming to make 2012 a little bit more special because of the anniversary. The Big City read is one of them, and the City of York Council Libraries and Archives have elected to give it a medieval theme this year.
The Big City Read’s part in the York 800 festivities has been a long time in the making. As early as June 2010, my friend Gill Cooper, the council’s Head of Arts and Culture, told me that if I set a Bartholomew novel in York, it might be considered to play a role in the York 800 Big City Read. It was a tremendous honour, and my editor Hilary Hale was enthusiastic about the possibility. ‘Team Bartholomew’ immediately swung into action. Deadlines were shifted, copyeditors and proofreaders agreed to quick turnarounds, and the printers were alerted. Everyone was brilliant, with the result that the hardback of Mystery in the Minster was ready in record time, so that the paperback could come out ready for the Big City Read in summer 2012.
Meanwhile, as I turned to other projects, Gill and her colleagues were busy organising the Big City Read’s programme of events, and this week is the culmination of all their hard and painstaking work. It launched on Wednesday 25th July, and I was invited to say a few words at a reception attended by, among many others, the Lord Mayor, the Sheriff of York and the Cabinet Minister for Leisure, Culture and Tourism. It was followed by an ‘In Conversation’, at which I talked about the Bartholomew books in general – and Mystery in the Minster in particular – while Gill kept me on track with comments, questions and observations. There were two hundred people in the audience, but such is the friendliness and informality of a Yorkshire crowd that it felt like a relaxing chat in my living room.
The following day, there was a ‘literary luncheon’ in the lovely Reading Café in Rowntree Park. It sits on the banks of the River Ouse, and has recently been refurbished. You can borrow library books there, then sit on the veranda and read them while you enjoy a generous slab of cake and a cup of tea from the café. Very civilised! While there, I had the opportunity not only to eat rather more excellent homemade macaroons than was really polite, but to meet some readers. Sarah Garbacz, who oversees the Big City Read, had arranged a sort of musical chairs, to make sure I chatted to every guest on a one-to-one basis. And what a fascinating group! One was a sprightly 93 year old; another was an engineer at York’s chocolate factory – a place that produces a mind-boggling 800 tonnes of the stuff every day; and a chat with Beth from Liverpool revealed mutual friends in Cambridge. In all, a highly enjoyable occasion.
Another treat that Sarah and Gill had organised was a foray to York Minster, where they had arranged for me to ring Great Peter. I have been a bellringer for forty years, so this was an unbelievable coup. Great Peter is the Bourden Bell, which means it’s the big one that is tolled for services and special occasions. It weighs in at 216 cwt, or 10.8 tons, and took several minutes of serious hauling before it was finally swinging enough to ‘speak’.
The Big City Read has a summer full of brilliant events planned, including exhibitions about York’s history, audiences with authors, the Yorkshire Medieval Festival, medieval war games, walking tours, and talks on archaeology, stained glass and medieval medicine. The full programme can be found by visiting www.york800.com
I hope anyone in the York area over the summer will drop in and take advantage of what is on offer. It will be fun, well organised and well worthwhile.
I’m due back in York on 20 September for an evening event with the Medieval Murderers (Michael Jecks and Ian Morson), and I’m already looking forward to it. So all that remains is for me to say a great big thank you to everyone at the City of York Council Libraries and Archives, especially Gill, Sarah and Fiona Williams, and to wish them the best of luck for the rest of the Big City read.
Susanna Gregory is the author of the popular Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew series of mediaevel mysteries, featuring the physician-cum-sleuth, Matthew Bartholomew and the Thomas Chaloner series featuring Restoration London era spy, Thomas Chaloner. Running until the end of September, and packed with fantastic Matthew Bartholomew inspired events, you can find out more about the Big City Read here.
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