As King George VI once said, “The history of York is the history of England.” It’s certainly easy to agree with him as you stroll atop the city’s 4.5-kilometres of 13th-century walls and gaze down from treetop height on the story of England.
Through the centuries, this ancient city has witnessed the weaving of history’s colourful tapestry: Anglo Saxon invaders building a settlement on the ruins of the Roman fort; Vikings sailing their longships up the river Ouse in 867 to conquer northern England and making York the capital of England.
York, which the Vikings named ‘Jorvik’ lies midway between London and Edinburgh. Because of its prime location on the river Ouse, it developed throughout the 11th – 14th centuries into an important trading port attracting wealthy merchants and craftsmen. Countless streets and buildings reflect mediaeval York’s wealth and importance.
On a visit to York, allow plenty of time to experience and savour the centuries revealed. One memorable way to begin is to walk all or part of the city’s encircling walls; originally built as earth ramparts erected by York’s Viking kings to repel invaders. The present structure has been lovingly restored throughout the years since the 13th century.
You can access the wall by climbing worn steps at a number of ‘bars’; the Viking word for a fortified gate in the wall. In the turrets of Monk Bar, ferocious stone men stand frozen in the motion of hurling boulders down onto enemy heads. A short walk from Bootham Bar is York Minster, England’s largest gothic cathedral.
Begun in 1220 and completed more than 250 years later, the minster contains the world’s largest single area of mediaeval stained glass. With its soaring columns and spires and its magnificent ornamentation, the minister has been described as England’s greatest ancient monument. If you have a head for heights, don’t miss the climb up the 275 winding steps of the great central tower for a panorama of the city and the surrounding Yorkshire Moors.
Within the city walls is a dense web of narrow twisting streets, with grand names like Whip-ma-Whop-ma-Gate, Stonegate and the Shambles. These lanes were once walked by legendary men who helped shape the land: Hadrian, Guy Fawkes, William the Conqueror, Oliver Cromwell and Eric Bloodaxe the Viking.
Stonegate is a charming street of Tudor and 18th-century shopfronts and courtyards. By taking a small passage just off Stonegate you can witness an example of a 12th century Norman stone house, one of the few left in England today.
The Shambles is a perfectly preserved mediaeval street, where story-book houses and half-timbered stores lean towards each other on drunken angles. In one particular spot, it is possible for two people to shake hands across the street from one second floor window to another. The cobblestoned Shambles was originally a street of butchers, and the hooks they used for displaying meat outside their shops can still be seen today.
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At the Castle Museum, once an 18th-century prison you can visit the cell of highwayman Dick Turpin who was hanged in 1739 for horse stealing. The museum also contains a number of exhibits including the recreation of a cobblestones Victorian street complete with facades and counters from demolished buildings. ‘The Coppergate Helmet’ is also on display – a 1,200-year-old Anglo Saxon helmet discovered during excavations beneath the streets of the city.
The Coppergate Helmet is only one example of the many pieces of history’s jigsaw that are regularly unearthed during excavations in the city. Viking discoveries such as jewellery, lathe-turned bowls and leather shoes on an authentic Viking site led to the creation of the Jorvik Centre. Here, archaeologists have recreated a Viking street in astonishing detail where you can experience the sights, sounds and even smells of Viking England.
While walking in York you are likely to come across some of the city’s twenty or so surviving mediaeval churches – each one in their own right an architectural masterpiece. At St Mary’s Church, there is an exhibit called the ‘York Story’ devoted to the history of the city.
If you become thirsty while exploring, call into one of the city’s many historic and characterful inns for some liquid refreshment. With well over 200 pubs and a thriving craft beer scene York allows for a superior pub crawl – The Maltings, The Blue Bell, York Tap and the brilliantly named House of Trembling Madness on Stonegate, to name just a few. Or drop into the Cock and Bottle and you may even meet one of York’s ghosts, the 17th century Duke of Buckingham who reputedly appears from time to time in a tall hat and a blaze of green light.
There can be no pleasant a way of learning the history of England than to visit York, England’s second capital. You become a time traveller for a while and watch 2,000 years of history roll by.
Getting there: (from London) By train; it takes approximately two hours from London’s King’s Cross and Euston stations. By car; From London the Motorway M1 is the main route north. It takes approximately four hours to Leeds, where you branch off to York on the A64 road.
Accommodation: A wide range is available from top-class hotels and boutique guest houses through to B&B’s and Airbnb’s which usually offer the best value.