On a baking hot day last summer, under the shadow of Beverley Minster, I stopped a likely looking local coming out of the pork butchers, pie in hand, and asked the way to Nellies. He eyed me cannily, once up, once down, pointed along the road, and said, 'Hengate'. Off I went.

A quarter of a century ago, Nellies was the in place among hip youth in the East Riding of Yorkshire. It was a big, ramshackle inn of chaotic character, a labyrinth of scruffy rooms, popular with farm workers in town for the cattle market, curmudgeonly old pensioners, and young braves from Hull and Bridlington in search of atmosphere and a pint of liquid ambrosia.

In those days, the beer used to come foaming, carried by Nelly herself or one of her sisters, robust women who weren't above heaving customers out on to the street if they got 'a mite too gobby'.

Upstairs, some evenings, you could walk into a room stripped of everything except battered wooden chairs, and watch a group of veteran musicians playing brilliant, dusty old jazz on battered tin horns. Just like New Orleans, we thought.

But 25 years had passed, I reminded myself bleakly as I walked through the door of the White Horse public house (still known to all as Nellies). Since then we have homogenised our town centres and seen good local boozers destroyed in the name of progress. One by one, those little touches of essential Englishness have given way to canned music and microwave food, to ersatz olde worlde atmosphere, overpriced beer and the four-quid ploughman's lunch.

At Nellies last summer there were men serving behind the bar (Nelly herself died several years ago). The prices had risen, of course - though they are still a fraction of those charged elsewhere. And yet, miraculously, in many ways, the place had hardly changed at all. The floors were still uncarpeted and empty grates sat in dusty fireplaces.

I ordered a half and sat down next to an old chap in a flat cap, who said to me over his pint of Sam Smith's: 'You know the trouble with life, lad? Human beings. Life would be bloody marvellous without them.' Ah, bliss]

In a lesser place than Beverley, Nellies would have been no more than a distant memory. But this little town, just north of the Humber Bridge, and only half an hour from the A1, is remarkable and underrated. I doubt if you will find another in the North that has been so little touched by the ravages of the past three decades or has survived with such good grace. Imagine Chichester without the ugly bits, add Salisbury without the precincts and the squaddies, throw in some Chester untainted by twee, and you begin to get the picture.

You cannot, of course, spend all your time in Beverley drinking at Nellies. It does close from time to time after all. Besides, there is much else to see and do. You can explore medieval history, or go further back in time; shop in pleasant, individual streets; eat better than just about anywhere outside the big cities, and enjoy a town centre made for walking.

Quite why Beverley should have survived in this way, no one seems to know. But the fact that it has borne up so well must be thanks in some measure to strong civic common sense, manifest today in such simple things as the attitude to the car. Beverley is a fairly busy crossroads, handling continual through traffic. Its centre is a magnet for visitors and locals alike. But there are no huge, expensive multi-storey car parks and no fume-filled ring road. Rather, the centre is given over to pedestrians, while traffic must wind slowly and steadily along the existing perimeter roads. If you want to park, you find somewhere without restrictions and leave the car there. The town has no charges or time limits on parking spaces, and as a result it is easy to stop within reasonable distance of the sights.

The Minster towers over all, its great twin towers visible for miles. Technically, this is only the town parish church, but it has all the clout and the presence of a cathedral, thanks to the tomb of the 8th-century Saint John of Beverley. His was a middle-to-top-ranking star in the Middle Ages: King Athelstan made a pilgrimage to Beverley to worship at the shrine, and Henry V came in the belief that he owed his victory at Agincourt to the intercession of St John.

Even if big churches bore you, Beverley Minster will still offer something. Pick up the guide leaflet as you go in, or you may miss many of the intricate details in which the place abounds. The ornate 15th-century choir stalls, for instance, carved at Ripon, are rich in obscure symbolism, as well as more down-to-earth representations of medieval everyday life.

The Minster stands at the edge of the medieval town centre. There is nothing beyond it but the attractive 13th-century Friary of the Dominicans, now a youth hostel, just around the corner, and the Museum of Army Transport, which is strictly for the dedicated.

All the other main attractions are within walking distance, including an 18th-century Guildhall and the 19th-century Picture Playhouse, reputed to be the oldest working cinema in the country.

Beverley is still very much a market town. The photogenic cattle market on Tuesdays and Wednesdays has been running for more than 400 years. These days, though, it deals principally in pigs, and 4,000 may be sold at the bigger Wednesday market. On Saturdays and Wednesdays there is a general market, more lively and more interesting than most.

At the top of town, close to North Bar, the one remaining medieval gatehouse, is Beverley's other big church, St Mary's. Like the Minster, which tends to eclipse it, St Mary's is full of interest. Outside is a memorial tablet to two Danish soldiers who picked a fight in the town in 1689. One died, the other was executed for the murder. You can find their names in the parish register.

Inside the church - built between 1120 and 1530 in motley styles - are more fascinating choir stalls and a set of intriguing stone carvings of musicians dating from the 16th century, as odd an item as you'll find in any English church. On the right of the door to the sacristy is a stone figure of a rabbit with a pilgrim's script, a dead ringer for Sir John Tenniel's drawing of the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. The figure dates from around 1330, so presumably either Tenniel or Lewis Carroll took inspiration from it - the similarities are too close to be coincidence.

And then? Luckily enough, St Mary's is only just around the corner from Nellies and by this time you will have earned a pint. If you want to live it up, choose your dates well - jazz night at Nellies is still every Wednesday, and on Mondays the pub is home to the town folk club. Understated pleasures both, just like Beverley itself.


ccommodation in Beverley:

Beverley Arms Hotel, from pounds 75 for two B&B. Posh town centre hotel (0482 869241).

Kings Head Hotel, in the busy central market place, from pounds 49.50 for two B&B (0482 868103).

The Manor House, Walkington, seven- room country house hotel, from pounds 80 for two sharing, B&B (0482 881645).

A wide range of cheaper hotels can be booked through the Tourist Information Office (0482 867430, fax 883913).

(Photograph omitted)