A place of rich and colourful historical character, England’s ‘Eternal City’ born in AD71, is the home to relics of harmonic titans; Roman Eboracum and Viking Jorvik in the modern setting of Victorian and Edwardian Streets …
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As Rome fell around the 5th century, the Anglo-Saxons moved in before the Vikings’ ruled the 9th to 11th centuries and a later Norman occupation shaped York’s trading prowess yet further – its siting at the confluence of the Rivers Ouse and Foss compelling. York’s walled town is guarded by imposing Bars, once defensive wooden gates built on the stone foundations laid by the Romans that today guard only history, sights and sounds of the past so they can still clearly be sensed by visitors today. Our visit to this ‘Eternal City’ starts at North Westerly Bootham Bar, a 14th century gate giving clear line of site of the Minster and from the Minster, before we work Southerly through the town. The medieval walls built by Henry III around 1220 can be accessed here and walking the three miles of walls is a great method of getting around the city.
Once on the walls, we head North towards Monk Bar via the Victorian Robin Hood tower built in 1888. The circular limestone tower has been known as the Bawing Tower in 1370, Frost Tower in 1485 and Robin Hood Tower in 1622. The large defensive fortress and once jail of Monk Bar is an exit point from the wall, and access can be regained across the road. It is the tallest and strongest fortress with two square gun ports and turrets. Six ‘silent watchers’ figures hold stone missiles above. Monk Bar now hosts the Richard III Experience. On the walls East of the City is 1490 Red Tower, the only brick section of York’s famous city walls. 12th century Walmgate Bar is the most complete of the gates, complete with Barbican and portcullis and a two-storey wooden structure added between 1584-6 which now houses Gatehouse Coffee.
The next opening is Fishergate built in 1487 along with sixty yards of wall and in the early 19th century, allowed cattle access to the markets. The York Barbican centre is opposite, a regular snooker venue for the UK Championship. We continue to the 16th century rectangular Postern tower, once home to poor freemen of the city and lovingly restored by the Friends of York Walls. Exiting the walls at the York Castle museum, we cross 1878 Skeldergate bridge bringing us back to the wall via Baille tower, before passing Bitchdaughter tower. The tower’s name is from 1451 or earlier, referring to its use a medieval prison, roughly translated as ‘Nightmare room’ or ‘Nightmare Dormitory’. Next is Victoria Bar and then onward to South facing Micklegate Bar. This was the principal gateway commanding the southern approaches. Sovereign’s worth received through the gates and the heads of traitors were displayed prominently on top so that they could see York and be seen postmortem. Two doors, a Norman Archway and two impressive turrets still remain. Continue North along the walls and dismount at Lendal bridge to return within sight of the minster.
A site of significant historical interest, 519 foot long York Minster is the largest Medieval cathedral in England. 250 years in the making from the year 1220 and now the seat of the Archbishop of York being the second highest office of the Church of England. The term Minster is used when a church is established in Anglo-Saxon times – a Christian presence has indeed been here since the fourth century and the Roman Emperor Constantine was proclaimed such here in 306 AD – his statue is outside the South transept. The Minsters’ wide decorated Gothic nave contains 100 ft high limestone columns that support a rib-vaulted roof. The West window, constructed in 1338 is the largest expanse of stained glass in the world. The 198 ft central tower can be seen from anywhere in the City and the tennis court sized East window is the largest single expanse of medieval stained glass in the world. In 1984 the south transept was hit by lightning. A fire broke out destroying the roof and 2.5 million pounds was spent on repairs completed by 1988 that included the restoration of the world famous 7000 piece Rose Window. York Minster is one of only seven cathedrals in the world to maintain its own police force, playing an important role in the rich history of the Minster for hundreds of years and has recently acquiring their own powers of arrest. The eight officers and one Inspector are custodians of over 380 sets of keys, providing information and directions to tourists, overseeing fire safety, and security for the movement of cash around the Minster. The church outside with the ornate 1848 belfry is St Michael-le-Belfry built between 1525 and 1537, and famously where Guy Fawkes was baptised in 1570. The earliest recorded church on this site dates back to 1294. Opposite Emperor Constantine is a Roman column placed in its current position since 1971 having been found in the foundations of the Minster in what was the 4th century great hall, headquarters of the 6th legion. This column would have no doubt witnessed the coronation of the Emperor.
The treasurer’s house dating from the 1620s resides at the rear of a minister in Minster yard, a building acquired by Frank Greene in 1897 in order to create a lavish home that impressed Edward VII. His passion for history helped to preserve not only this building but also other buildings in the city. Frank Green built a large collection of fine antiques, art, china and furniture. The award-winning garden grants splendid views of the Minster. In 1953, a 17 year old plumbers apprentice Harry Martindale is said to have experienced an apparition where Roman soldiers appeared in the cellar.
St William’s College named in honour of William Fitzherbert, Archbishop of York is on College St. Overshadowed by the Minster, it was originally built in 1453 for the Chantry priests, it has a charming quadrangle and well preserved medieval rooms. The grass land opposite is a great place to relax and observe the half timbered exterior with plenty of refreshment available near by.
To the West of the cathedral lies the York city art gallery and Yorkshire museum with gardens, all on the site of St Mary’s Abbey, a ruined Benedictine Abbey, once the richest Abbey in the North of England. The Yorkshire museum was built into the ruins of the Abbey on top of the chapter house, its riches subject to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. Its interactive displays are housed in a Georgian building that bring a time line of geology, astrology, human and animal history to life. The unmissable venue with the splendid backdrop, vibrantly attracts schools and adult learners. Chisel marks left by Roman masons are seen on the Multangular tower in the gardens, a fortress from 200 AD, part of the Roman fortress city of Eboracum. Tudor King’s manor dates from 1270 and was originally the abbot’s house, now used by the university archaeology department after restoration in the 1960s. The other church-like ruins in the garden are that of St Leonard’s hospital, rebuilt after a fire in 1137.
Theatre Royal neighbours the Yorkshire museum, once the lead Georgian theatre in the country in 1740. It was later built and enlarged with a Victorian Gothic frontage with parts of Roman and 12th century construction preserved through design.
The entrance to Stonegate is nearby the minster, and a short walk along will bring you close to the Ye Olde Starre Inne, Yorks’ oldest licensed inn from 1644 however it has been suggested that the cellar is much older than this. Royalist soldiers were treated here during the Civil War which are said to account for the ghostly cellar activities. It has recently re-opened after a £250,000 make over and the interior gives an air of the olde world with its plentiful wood panelling, serving 8 real ales, 3 craft and food daily.
An alleyway near here at 52A Stonegate leads us to the only remaining example in York of Norman domestic stonework that survives – a house was built between 1170-1180. Twelfth century house as it is known would have been occupied by a person of great importance.
Snickleways, or alleyways are dotted around York. These ‘holes in the wall’ give access through original fortified walls. Barley Hall is accessible through one such Snickleway, via coffee yard opposite Ye Olde Starre Inne. Today a reconstructed and furnished medieval townhouse, this 14th century Hall was constructed by the monks of Nostell Priory and extended in the 15th century. The interactive museum recreates York in its medieval era and explores Henry VIII influence on the city.
York’s National railway museum displays an array of beautiful historic trains including the Mallard, the first train to be able to travel at two miles a minute, the world renowned Flying Scotsman and Queen Victoria’s plus personal carriage. Historic varying gauge locomotives, rolling stock, workshops and railway memorabilia explain three centuries of railways in Britain. Remarkably, entry to the railway museum is free, thoroughly interactive for all ages and includes themed refreshment facilities and an outdoor play area for children.
Standing on the site of the original castle, York Castle Museum is one of Britain’s leading museums of everyday life. They cover four centuries of Yorkshire life, detailing the way people used to live through thousands of household objects and by recreating rooms, shops, streets, and even prison cells. Best known for its recreated Victorian street, Kirkgate, which combines real shop fittings and stock with modern sound and light effects, the street evokes an atmosphere of Victorian Britain. Visitors are immersed in the lives of Victorian children by experiencing life in the classroom or playing with toys from the nineteenth century. The museum’s room settings include a Victorian parlour, an 1850s Moorland cottage Jacobean and Georgian dining rooms, a 1940s kitchen, and a 1950s front room. Experienced and friendly staff and actors help to bring the collections to life for visitors and school groups. ‘The Sixties’ gallery explores the music, fashion and everyday life of this exciting decade. The museum’s past as two prison buildings is explored in ‘York Castle Prison’, where visitors come face to face with ex-prisoners including highwayman Dick Turpin, who was hanged in 1739 for horse stealing. Conditions in the over-crowded prison were harsh and brutal, and the real stories of the prisoners and staff are told in sometimes gruesome detail. Remains of the former Medieval castle walls can be seen outside the museum next to the River Foss and the 18th century Victorian corn watermill, Raindale Mill, which has been restored having been brought back from the Yorkshire moors. The riverside area makes a wonderful picnic spot.
There is just so much to see, that we’ll continue to explore more of York in our next blog.
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These places and many others are listed as markers on the map on our home page. Places to visit in the UK and Ireland. www.touring-britain.heralded.co.uk