Early 18th-century house in Beverley

Some years ago I was having dinner in a handsome brick townhouse built in the early 1700s when a small soft piece of leather with a ribbon in a bow was passed around – a tiny child’s shoe. It had just been found under centuries-old plaster, recently removed to investigate dampness in the wall.

‘It was the custom then,’ our host explained, ‘to put a child’s garment – usually a shoe – into the fabric of a building to protect it. An emblem of good luck, of fortune.’

The tiny shoe was placed carefully in the centre of the table while the discussion wandered around it. Should it be returned to where it was found and walled up again? Impossible. The leak had been sorted out and the wall replastered without the shoe. It was all superstition anyway. It was dusty with a pink ribbon. Pink for a little girl, blue for a boy only dates back to the 1930s, but it must have belonged to a little girl. I imagined her growing up in that spacious house surrounded by brothers and sisters. Playing in the garden, they would have heard the St. Mary’s bells and looked up at the tower. They must have visited the little rabbit carved there to one side of a door. It is said to have inspired the rabbit (‘I’m late, I’m late for a very important date, no time to say hello, goodbye, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late.’)in Alice in Wonderland, but did Lewis Carroll– or Charles Dodgson – ever visit Beverley? He had family in Hull and was ordained. Though he never practised as a priest, it was likely that he visited churches and Beverley is between Hull and Burton Agnes where his uncle was rector. He was also rector of Harpham, where Saint John of Beverley was born.

Blue is believed to be the colour that wards off misfortune or ‘the evil eye’ in some Mediterranean countries, as well as the horn, usually orange in colour, that is attached to lorries in Italy and often dangles by the driver from the inside mirror too. I recall the unexpected arrival of the local priest at our house in Italy. We had incorporated into the veranda wall an inexpensive reproduction of a Luca della Robbia late 15th-century coloured terracotta Madonna and Child, in blue and white with yellow halos. So he came one day with cross, censor and altar boy. We quickly brewed coffee, found some biscuits and a decent amount of change.

‘Chance’ in French translates ‘luck’, but also carried the sense of opportunity. I hope the shoe in the wall brought good fortune to the house and to the child who may have toddled down the road to St. Mary’s to visit the 150-year-old rabbit in the early 1700s, just as Lewis Caroll did well over a century later and as I have done today.

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