‘The history of York is the history of England’ remarked King George VI. Since its founding as a garrison for the Roman army, this northern city has featured in many important prominent moments, from the marauding invaders the Vikings to warring Kings and Nazi bombings. The town just oozes bygone times, with its Norman churches, Medieval shops, and Cold War bunkers. As a former busy port that rivalled London, York was and a centre for spiritual study and worship, York suffered under the new religious regime of the Tudors but later found new purpose as the centre for the railways. At every corner, York has a heap of heritage to explore.
York is still popular today as it was recently voted the ‘Best Place to live in England’ by Sunday Times readers. Aesthetically attractive and only two hours by train from London, it draws large crowds of tourists too.
You literally can’t miss the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York aka ‘York Minster’. It’s not only a must-see, the sheer size of it means the building dominates the city. The Minster has around over 1,500 tourists every day and in order to appreciate one of Europe’s largest Gothic cathedrals you need to get there early. Taking over 250 years to complete, the workmanship of the building is highly impressive. You can’t fail to admire the huge stain-glass pictures in the Great East window, made to illustrate biblical stories to a congregation who at the time were mostly illiterate. Use the handy mirrors to keep an eye on the ceilings too, which are just as stunning. There are also tombs, a very large organ and crypt to discover.
There’s plenty to more to do in the Minster, including a dizzying climb up the tower, passing carved grotesques (non-water spouting gargoyles) to the grand views from the top. There is a fascinating museum down below, revealing the treasures that were underneath the site of Minister from Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Viking times, along with details of the Minster’s modern tribulations of rescue from potential collapse to devastating fires.
The most entertaining stories are about the mischievous medieval monks who used some special laws to their advantage. After drinking copiously and causing mayhem in the town the vicars simply entered the walled off area surrounding the minster – known as the ‘liberty’ – which was under the rule of the archbishop, not the king, and therefore very lenient towards the naughty vicars. This did not go down well with the locals. It was probably a good idea that the world’s first police force was formed around the Minster in 1285 to keep the peace!
After the holy start to the day, a little liquid refreshment seems fitting. The House of Trembling Madness, stuffed with character and taxidermied wildlife, serves up quality fares. The setting is authentic medieval; the booze is delightfully different and the locally sourced food is generously portioned. The building features a wall which formed part of the first Norman house to be constructed in York in the 12th century incorporates beams that were formally parts of ships that sailed over 800 years ago. It’s a small space manages to squeeze in quite a few atmospheric chapel benches and is up a flight of stairs from the ground level bottle store extraordinaire.
The bar serves up a number of craft beers and ciders on draft, of which the stormtrooper marshmallow beer was the most interesting. Like a liquid caramel, it was decidedly moorish whilst at 9% proof being very dangerous. Needless to say, it worked and we were temporarily converted to the dark side. To counterbalance the booze we wisely opted for the generously portioned platters, served on wooden plinths stacked with meats, pickles, cheeses, salads, sauces, and chutneys. Nom.
After a gluttonous meal fit for a Tudor King, it’s a good idea to walk some of the goodness off. Here you have two excellent options. There are free guided walks around the city, appropriately led by the oldest organisation The Association of Voluntary Guides to the City of York, who take you on a magical history tour. Be enthralled as you are told tales of the desecration of York’s abbey intertwined with one of the UK’s best-loved actresses fledgling career. Hear all about the protests of the Philosophical Society which saved York’s heritage. The best part is walking along the city’s Medieval walls, from gatehouse to gatehouse, overlooking the moat and admiring the views.
Alternatively, you can take yourself on a cat hunt. York has numerous kitty sculpture’s dotted around the city centre and finding them all can be a fun mission to complete. Legend has it that the statues were placed on buildings to scare off vermin. After a revival by ‘80’s architect Tom Adams the trend caught on; soon they were popping up all over town. Use the map to wander around ticking the moggies off the list and at the same time admiring York’s best features.
If that’s got you purring with delight then make sure to pop into The Cat Gallery shop. Inside you will find feline-inspired jewelry, bags, mugs, tea towels, and almost anything else that you can think of. Miaow.
King George summed the city up pretty succinctly. York is indeed a living history lesson, where you can step back in time and enjoy the fascinating facts of yesteryear.