Deepa Alexander walks the ancient walls of a city where William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace’s head was impaled on its battlements, medieval ginnels are now home to chic boutiques and a Gothic cathedral has evensong rising above its spires
It is as if the Northern Lights have wandered South. Shafts of coloured light from more than 300 stained glass panels in the 600-year-old East Window of York Minster stab its limestone interiors — filled with intricate statues of kings from William the Conqueror to Henry VI.
The size of a tennis court, the window is among the many marvels at Northern Europe’s largest cathedral. It draws inspiration from the books of Genesis to Revelation, from the biblical beginning to the end. York has been Christian since 4 AD and built this cathedral for nearly 200 years, completing it in 1472. Enter through the West door that stands under the ‘Heart of Yorkshire’, another stained glass window, and wander through this wonderland that has a regimental chapel with battle insignia and names of soldiers who died in the World Wars, and a great pipe organ built in 1832. Outside, a statue of Constantine who was hailed Roman emperor here in 306 AD looks imperiously upon the busker who sings Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, as if in tribute to this glorious monument.
Cogs and wheels
It’s a ride through an Enid Blyton memory — the Pennines are dusted in snow and peppered with stoic ewes and frisky lambs. The train from Manchester trundles for over an hour through rolling countryside with weathered stonewall fences. York station with its 11 platforms was the largest in the world when it opened on June 25, 1877. Designed by Thomas Prosser, it was considered one of the great buildings of Victorian England. A Grade II-listed building, its roof spans overhead like a huge rib cage that is held up by fluted bottle green columns emblazoned by the white rose of York, the symbol of a family that fought a 30-year war for the crown of England, and has sheltered trains that connected the genteel South with the industrial North. A York Zero Post plaque on a wall announces that the centre of the station was the zero point for the measurement of 10 of the North Eastern Railway’s lines. A water bowl for dogs invites a ‘fur-sty Rover’ to ‘paws for a refresh’ and the WH Smith under a grand gold-and-blue clock stocks classics.
York’s ribbon of embattled city walls has lasted since Roman times, making it the only English city with intact walls that ancient. The first contact with them is a little away from the station and it’s delightful that you can walk on them, flanked by green grass and ramparts that overlook the river Ouse. Past Barker Tower that once controlled river traffic are the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, once the richest in northern England and part of Robin Hood legend. Now an extension of the Museum Gardens where little boys shimmy up trees, its abbot’s house was converted into the King’s Manor when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. The Manor with its impressive façade and red brick exteriors is home to the University’s Department of Archaeology. Thanks to York’s Norse tradition, the ‘bars’ are gates (Bootham Bar), the ‘gates’ are streets (Stonegate) and the pubs are bars (The Last Drop Inn). And, tradition has it that you can still apparently shoot a Scotsman with a bow and arrow if you spot one within the city walls after dark.
What a Shambles
Mathew Greenwood, our six-foot-plus guide, is in danger of having his head bumped on the low-hanging upper storeys of houses that stand in the cobbled Shambles, a cluster of well-preserved medieval lanes. The streets were kept narrow to prevent sunlight from falling on the meat laid out on the exterior wooden shelves. The half-timbered buildings, some dating back to the 14th Century, stand on snickelways with fascinating names such as Mad Alice Lane — named after a woman who went insane after murdering her abusive husband — and Whip-ma-whop-ma-gate, York’s smallest street. Stonegate is where Guy Fawkes of the famed Gunpowder Plot was born, and a red devil, symbolising the printer’s devil, sits outside a house that belonged to a printer. A chapel that offers sanctuary from the noisy shoppers outside is dedicated to St Margaret Clitherow, a 16th Century martyr of the Roman Catholic church. Considered an inspiration for Diagon Alley, Shambles has stores such as The Shop That Must Not Be Named that sell Potter merchandise.
The return of the Vikings
Paul Whiting, marketing manager, Jorvik Viking Centre, leads me underground for a ride through what is perhaps Britain’s smelliest museum. More than the mannequins and tableaux that reimagine York’s Viking past, it is the stink of offal that brings alive a time when these Norse warriors ruled Jorvik, as the city was then known. The museum was raised on an original settlement in Coppergate. With its glass floors laid over a Viking hearth, remains of handmade shoes and interactive touchscreens that tell the story of the excavations, the museum makes for an interesting yet startling experience when you realise that some of the strapping men in helmets and braids are not mannequins. The place is filled with families rediscovering York’s Nordic past both at the museum and at the Jorvik Viking festival, a city-wide celebration of this heritage. There are live military encampments where more strapping men in blonde braids wander past an iron smithy telling you that the Vikings, being sticklers for personal hygiene, bathed at least once a week.
The good life
York is dotted with town and country houses that may well serve as inspiration to write a classic. While Fairfax House and Mansion House sum up Georgian York, Goddards, the house of Terry the confectioners, is built in the Arts and Crafts style, and Barley Hall and Treasurer’s House hark back to medieval times. Barley Hall, located deep inside the Shambles, was built by the monks of Nostell Priory in the 14th Century. By the 20th Century, it was boarded up and in ruins with only grass growing from its sturdy wooden floors. A project has restored the house to its former ruddy glory, and this summer it exhibits costumes from the Tudor drama, Wolf Hall. The best place to discover York’s civic history is Mansion House. Residence of the Mayor since the 17th Century, its dark green doors open to an era of understated opulence. It plays host to wine tasting in the evenings and talks on Georgian society. Home to one of England’s largest civic silver collection, here’s your chance to gawk at a Charles II chamber pot.
Time for tea
There’s a queue that snakes around Bettys at St Helen’s Square. A lady in a crisp white pinafore hands out advice on the menu and the seating. Founded in 1919 by Swiss Frederick Belmont, Bettys is the place for dainty watercress sandwiches and a pot of Earl Grey tea. Not to forget the rows of pretty tarts, macaroons that borrow colour from a child’s nursery, fine handcrafted chocolate, crumbly biscuits and scented tea that jostle for space in trays in glass cabinets. The potted plants, the leather banquette, the silverware and Doulton china are all inspired by the opulence of the ocean liner, Queen Mary. As a nod to its Swiss origins, Bettys also serves cheese rolls and alpine-inspired savouries. Don’t pass up the fat rascal, a bun-biscuit-scone creation that stares at you with its glaced cherry eyes. The staff refuse to divulge who Bettys is named after and urge you to drink another cup of tea instead. But, there’s a book by the till, Hearts, Tarts & Rascals — the Story of Bettys that might just let you in on who inspired this doily dotted world.
Full steam ahead
For nearly four decades now, the National Railway Museum has insisted to every visitor that steam dreams are made of this. Inaugurated in 1975, it marked the 150th anniversary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Considered Europe’s largest railway museum, the displays include a collection of nearly 100 locomotives representing every machinery that ran the railways of the UK. Children clamber through the Shinkansen Bullet train, the only one to be displayed outside Japan, crowd around the case with a lock of hair that belonged to Robert Stephenson, father of the railways, and gasp at the Flying Scotsman. The museum has impressive archives of photographs featuring ghostly outlines of carriages swathed in fog, thousands of books and posters. There are old-world signboards, mail trains aboard which letters were sorted all night as they journeyed into the Scottish highlands, royal carriages and old-world saloons. The locomotives span out like the rays of the sun, and each one is burnished bright as a tribute to the glory that was grease.
Gin and tonic
It’s difficult to keep your purse strings drawn as you walk through the shops at the Shambles. There’s Kathe Wohlfahrt, a German Christmas store in a Tudor building, that sells handcrafted decorations that cost a fortune; the Evil Eye Lounge that stocks more than 900 varieties of gin and holds the Guinness World Record; and Cuffs & Co with its range of men’s accessories offered from a shop that still has its meat-shelf intact in front. If you can bear the crowds, wait outside The York Roast Co. that sells freshly carved pork sandwiches. But, all pale in comparison to its Yorky pud wrap, a flattened Yorkshire pudding that holds in its innards meat, stuffing, vegetables and gravy. Unwrap it sitting on the low wall that runs around the memorial to soldiers who fell in the Boer War. Savour it gazing at the beauty of the Minster, mulling over the mystery of life and the glory of York.