Old York, Old York –It’s a Hell of A Town.
The city of York has been the classiest place in northern England for two
thousand years. It was pretty cool back in Roman times. It had a bit of a slack
patch in the medieval period when it was badly hit by the black death; it also
got a little bashed up during the English Civil War in the seventeenth century.
Since then it’s become bigger, richer, prettier and cooler.
Today it’s an oddly compelling amalgam of ultra-modern cafés and medieval walls
and churches. Architecturally, the old city is as important as New York –
though the styles are more than a little different.
York is one of the small number of English towns still to have a complete city
wall. A really good way to get an overview of the city is walk around the wall.
It’s around twenty feet high, and has walkway all along the top. The complete
circuit is about two miles long, and takes in gardens, gatehouses and some
lovely views of the old city and the River Ouse.
The building that dominates everything is York Minster – it’s a cathedral, but
only ever referred to as ‘the Minster’. Built in the fourteenth century, its
cavernous interior is well worth a look around. The cool air inside the Minster
is a welcome relief on hot sunny days, though it can get a little crowded in
high season. Look out for the altar screen, which has statues of all the
medieval kings of England. Some of them – especially the usurper King John –
have been made to look pretty evil!
Outside there’s an endless amount to see and do. York is great for shopping,
and is particularly good for book-lovers. There’s a huge Borders, two branches
of the Waterstones chain and lots of small shops selling second-hand books and
fantastic lithograph prints of the surrounding Yorkshire countryside.
If you’re looking for refreshments, take a stroll southwest from the Minster
down Stonegate. When you reach the bottom, call in at Betty’s Tea Rooms.
Betty’s is a traditional teashop, serving everything from full English
breakfasts to cream teas. The waitresses are all dressed in Edwardian maid’s
costumes, and there’s a wonderful feeling of gentility about the place. It is,
however, a little expensive, and there is sometimes a queue to sample Betty’s
uniquely English delights. If you feel like a cup of tea and a scone there are
plenty of other teashops in the city centre. They tend mostly to be a little
less plush than Betty’s, but the food, drink and service are uniformly
excellent – much better than the over-branded chain coffee bars that infest the
Full of tea and cream, head along Davygate and Parliament Street. Take a left
by Marks and Spencer. One of the best views of Medieval York, by the way, is
from the top floor of M&S – there’s a viewing gallery and telescope, and
great vistas towards the Minster.
Take another left and you’re in The Shambles, and you’ve stepped back in time.
In medieval times and afterwards the street was the city’s butchers’ quarter.
These days its narrow thoroughfare is packed with tiny shops selling books,
clothes and souvenirs. The medieval buildings are built with overhangs, so if
you look up only a narrow strip of sky is visible.
If you feel like a little more daylight, stroll down to the riverside, by
Clifford’s tower. The tower, on its steep artificial hill or ‘motte’, was built
by the conquering Normans in the eleventh century. Today it’s a great place for
getting a view of the city. Below, the River Ouse is very prone to flooding,
and in recent years flood defense schemes further upstream have led to greater
and greater volumes of water being flushed through the city. There’s no danger,
however – the floodwater stays in a relatively contained area, and there’s
always plenty of warning of the river coming up.
There’s some great parkland around this area of the city, and the city museum
is also close by. It’s worth a look for its recreation of several of the old
city’s streets and the condemned cell in which the notorious highwayman Dick
Turpin spent his final night.
York is also a great night out. Although it can suffer from the
problem of most English towns on Friday and Saturday nights – lots of people
getting very drunk and making a lot of noise – the pubs and bars of the city
are excellent, and all are quite close together. So if you think you can manage
a real English pub crawl. Try the Golden Slipper in Goodramgate for a superb
pint and chance to meet George, the resident ghost. In fact, York’s full of
ghosts – you can even take a guided ghost walk around the city centre. But what
else would you expect from a city that’s been around so long?