York, at the confluence of the rivers Ouse and Foss, is a beautiful North Yorkshire town of about 120,000 inhabitants, much the finest medieval town in England. Though it can feel overwhelmed by its touristic identity it has such life and charm and such a wealth of things to see that all its commercialising sins are easily forgiven. You will not have a local guide here so you need to show the group York's highlights yourself. These comprise the medieval walls, York Minster, a short stroll through the town's medieval heart and perhaps finally Clifford's Tower. You might find that you lose the group to the shops as soon as you set foot down the Shambles. You should certainly encourage people to visit the Jorvik Viking Centre in free time or, if anyone is interested, the superb National Railway Museum. If these activities don't appeal there is a plethora of attractive shops, restaurants and street life that can keep the group happy for hours. You will probably have an evening ghost tour included. If not, try to arrange one. They are informative, entertaining and, at their best, genuinely chilling. York is with reason said to be the most haunted city in Europe.
The above quotation is surprising given York's relative lack of importance today but it is basically true. Just about every significant epoch in English history has left its mark on this historic city. For this reason a short excursus into the history of York is necessary before you reach the city.
York was born in 71 AD. The Romans founded it first as a military camp which then developed into a permanent settlement. Its Roman name was Eboracum. Emperor Hadrian (as in the wall) spent a lot of time here. Constantine the Great was proclaimed Emperor here in 306 AD. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the town was occupied by the Saxons, who built the town's first church, the predecessor of the present-day Minster. The Saxon name for the town was Eoforwic. Danish raiders, Vikings, who came by sea and landed on the eastern coast not far away siezed the town in 876, and made it a major centre of North Sea trade. The Danish name for the town was Jorvik. The remains of this Viking city were recently uncovered during building works in the heart of the modern city and have been turned into a fascinating 'dark ride' museum, complete with many of the bits and pieces that were found during the archaeological digs. Viking rule came to an end in 954 but the Scandinavian population, together with many of their traditions and their linguistic influence, stayed on for many years to leave a deep imprint on the developing city. After the Norman Conquest in 1066 the town was largely destroyed and then rebuilt. The artificial mound on which Clifford's Tower stands was originally part of the Norman fortification. Most of what you see today, however, dates from the C13 and later.
This was the era when the medieval walls began to be built along the line of the old Roman wall. The layout of the streets as it appears today is exactly as it was 700 years ago. Many houses still stand from this date. York grew to a population of 10,000, England's second largest city. It had some 40 churches and 9 guildhouses. Its prosperity was based entirely on the wool trade. The greatest testament to the city's wealth was, of course, York Minster. Begun in the early C13 it was finally completed about 250 years later in 1470. It is the biggest Gothic cathedral north of the Alps and, in importance, the second church of the Church of England after Canterbury.
With Henry VIII in the C16 came a sudden decline in the power of the Church. At the same time the wool trade fell in importance. York declined alongside. In the C18, however, it enjoyed something of a resurgence as a fashionable social centre for the north of England. The Assembly Roms, many rather elegant townhouses and York racecourse (still the scene of one of the country's finest and best quality race meetings) date from this time. York's contact with the industrial expansion of Victorian England was restricted to the coming of the railways so the historic townscape was unscathed. The railways had a big impact, however, with York something of a major hub. Hence the presence today of the National Railway Museum. Happily York was also barely touched by WW II in spite of attempted raids on it in the aftermath of the bombing of Dresden. Today, it is tourists who contribute most to the lifeblood of the town.
Sightseeing in York A bemused and witty American tourist once complained of being constantly lost in York, a city where "the streets are called gates, the gates are called bars and the bars are called pubs." He had a point. The word 'gate' derives, unhelpfully, from the old Viking word for street. Nor does it help that the medieval streets are such a labyrinthine maze. However, getting lost in York is such a pleasure that it doesn't really matter. Better first, though, that you should at least show the group the basics before leaving them to their own devices.
The Walls The walls are still entered by medieval fortified gateways known as Bars. The best section of the wall to walk is from Bootham Bar to Monk Bar. You have splendid views of the Minster and its surrounds all the way along, and at one point you can see what remains of the medieval city moat. The walls date from the C13, though they have been heavily restored. Bootham Bar is built on the foundations of the old Roman gate into the city of Eboracum. Monk Bar is very well preserved. Its portcullis still works. This gate served as a prison in the C16. At Monk Bar descend through Goodramgate towards the Minster.
York Minster York's history is intertwined with its cathedral. The beginnings of Christian activity here date to the Saxon period when in 627 Paulinus, the first Bishop of York, baptised King Edwin of Northumbria (as this area of England - a separate kingdom - was then called). The baptism took place in a wooden chapel, on the site where the cathedral stands today. Several churches have stood on this site over the centuries, but have been burnt down or destroyed. (Incidentally, somebody always asks what is meant by a minster. A minster is or was a centre of Christian learning or ministering. York Minster is both this and a cathedral.) The following notes only hope to highlight a few of the cathedral's greatest points of interest:
1. Dimensions: length 524 ft, width 25 ft, height to the vault 90 ft, height of central tower 234 ft.
2. The C15 Choir Screen: the figures are all the kings of England from William the Conqueror to Henry VI, contemporary of the sculptor. All the figures are original except for the last. Above the kings are angels playing musical instruments, and above them a figure of God the Father.
3. Stained glass: the finest in England (with Canterbury). About one third of the ancient glass is preserved in 130 windows. All the stained glass was temporarily removed during WW II for safekeeping and then underwent a 20 year period of restoration before returning. There is also some C20 glass. The best windows are:
4. The crossing: look up to the Lantern Tower, built 1480. The gilded bosses are C20. The central boss shows St. Peter (to whom this church is dedicated) holding the church and the keys to Heaven, and St. Paul with the sword and the Gospels. From here you can get a nice appreciation of the stylistic differences in the cathedral resulting from its long period of construction (250 years). The style of the transepts is Early English (C13). This is the purest and simplest form of English Gothic, with few decorative details. Pointed-arch windows rely on proportion rather than elaborate tracery to achieve grandeur. The style of the nave is known as Decorated - the type of Gothic architecture associated with the C14. Decorated Gothic stresses dramatic effects: height, spaciousness, ornate detail, and large windows full of stone tracery.
5. The Chapter House (entrance charge): built early C14, octagonal with conical roof. An architectural work of genius, having no central supporting pillar. The weight of the roof is supported by external buttresses. Beautifully carved and decorated canopies to the chapter stalls.
For a small fee, you can climb to the top of the central tower (198 ft) for a view of the whole city.
From the Minster follow the signs to the Shambles in the centre of the town. Shambles meant Street of the Butchers. Many houses still have shelves or counters in front of the shop windows and hooks above them on which meat was displayed. No. 40 is the Butchers' Guildhouse. No. 35 used to belong to Margaret Clitherow, a butcher's wife who was pressed to death for hiding Jesuits in her house to save them from persecution. She was later canonised as St. Margaret of York. The upper storeys of the half-timbered houses lean toward each other across the road, and the whole scene is "yesterday's York" at its most authentic. The street, then called Fleshammels, is mentioned in the Domesday Book, William the Conqueror's C11 census of his new lands.
Some famous natives and residents:
Guy Fawkes, man behind the C17 Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
Dick Turpin, highwayman and resident of York Prison before being hung nearby in 1740.
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