If you’re looking to holiday “at home” in England this summer, as many are doing because of Brexit and terrorism, think about York! I visited for the first time with my Mum and my friend Charles (leaving part-way through) last month. Not only is it one of the most English-feeling cities I’ve stayed in, but this city has many layers of history and a laidback attitude that Londoners lack, and is now my 2nd favourite city in England after London. Whereas previous places I’ve stayed in have been good for transport connections but were themselves unexciting, York ticks both boxes and more.
Firstly, the major route from London to Edinburgh runs through York, making it a hub of connections in the North East. And even though my friend warned me that Northern trains are always late, the only delayed train we’ve taken was not from the Northern Rail company. Secondly, York is great for eating and shopping, and I don’t just mean large retail streets with all the famous brands, but independent restaurants and shops too. Even though it is a city with quintessentially English tastes, from the architecture to the food, with traditional pubs almost on every street, international cuisines are well represented, from Jamaican to Argentinian to Chinese.
Another thing worth praising is York’s pride in its appearance. There are flowers everywhere, and the streets are surprisingly clean, despite the vast numbers that go out partying and drinking on a Saturday night (the day we arrived, so we’ve seen how crazy it gets). Most importantly, York is unique – it has the best-preserved city walls in England and is the most haunted city in Europe.
As mentioned, we arrived on a rowdy evening and one of the first things we saw on our walk around the city was the church of All Saints Pavement, which is where 34 Lord Mayors are buried, and which has a lantern lit in its tower every night to maintain the tradition from the 12th century, when it guided those lost in the Forest of Galtres towards the city. ‘Pavement’ refers to one of the oldest paved streets in York.
We joined 3 walking tours in York, all of them highly recommendable, with very little crossover of information.
- King’s Square is home to York’s newest attraction, York’s Chocolate Story. We were one of the first groups to go on their walking tour. Offers a fascinating introduction to chocolate making, chocolate tasting, chocolate marketing, and the chocolate industry in York. Also involves chocolate eating.
- The White Rose York Tour is free and comprehensive (3 hours long) – extremely useful for newcomers to York. Our guide was Alan Sharp, a published historian who sounded like a pirate – he explained that he hailed from Cornwall – and had appeared on Mastermind!
- The Ghost Hunt was the least enjoyable one for me, but it was more the size of the crowd that I had issue with than the guide, who was appropriately terrifying – so much so that you would avert your gaze – and a humorous storyteller.
At the ‘Home and Abroad’ exhibition in St. Mary’s Church, Coppergate, my friend Charles and I wrote our names in runes and played a Viking game. The church has 3 known Viking patrons and is one of 3 places exhibiting the finds from the 1976-1981 Coppergate Dig until the JORVIK centre, which was damaged by the 2015 Christmas floods, is reopened in 2017. Rules of the Viking game, in a nutshell:
- white must get its King to one of the 4 corners.
- brown must surround the King on 4 sides.
- pieces move like the Rooks in normal chess.
At Barley Hall, a reconstructed medieval townhouse that was home to Lord Mayor William Snawsell in 1466, I first realised that windows could be made of thin sheets of horn, which was a popular alternative to glass because it was cheaper. Here I lost a game of Nine Men’s Morris to Charles but won 8 silver pieces in a game of One and Thirty. It was here that I first encountered the tents York attractions like putting up for children to sit in to watch Horrible Histories episodes.
At the Richard III Experience in Monkgate Bar, where there was another children’s play tent, my friend and I had great fun trying on replica helmets, with padded caps for the first time, at and wondered why the caps couldn’t be provided elsewhere to make the wearer more comfortable and get a better sense of how helmets would have really fitted.
The Merchant Adventurers’ Hall is the largest building of its kind in England, and though we might not have gone had Charles not chosen to, I am very glad that we did. There is much more to see than the timbered roof, though to see that alone, our walking tour guide Alan said, was worth the entry fee. There are standards from the York Pageant of 1909, a high-water line showing just how serious the 2015 floods were, a pancake bell rung on Shrove Tuesday, a game for aspiring merchants, and the Governor’s Chair which was the work of a carpenter Robert Thompson, nicknamed ‘Mousey’, whose signed off his chairs with a carved mouse. The Mercers (traders in wool and cloth) became the largest guild in York, built its own hall in 1357, and was granted monopolies in imported goods except fish and salt and renamed the Merchant Adventurers by Elizabeth I.
On an evening stroll, we saw that the motte of Clifford’s Tower is now used by (tipsy?) people on a night out as a slide. It is actually the site of the most infamous massacre of Jews, which occurred in 1190; it bulges out because a neglectful soldier ignited gunpowder inside in 1684; and it later became an extension of the Castle Prison in which Dick Turpin was imprisoned.
As National Trust members, my Mum and I always take the opportunity to visit a property if we can. The Treasurer’s House was changed many times by Frank Green, an industrialist who earned his millions by selling economisers. He changed his house many times, but the clock with the long pendulum that goes through the floor stayed where it was. A flamboyant bachelor, this was not so much a home as a guesthouse. He hosted many guests here, including Dame Ellen Terry and the Edward Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and his family. Things of note here are the LEGO figures for children to find, the witch’s ball, the ship of (possibly human) bones created by Napoleonic POWs, the beds, embroidered with royal crests, that Frank commissioned to boast of the royal visit, the haunted cellar, and the floor in the room frequented by the ghost of the lady in grey, which has a seemingly-dented pattern made by an adze.
As for Yorkshire food recommendations, York Roast Co. at Low Petergate is a cheeky little fast-food carvery that serves giant Yorkshire Puddings. We ate roast beef, stuffing, green beans, carrots, and caramelised onions in a giant Yorkshire pudding, served with roast potatoes and horseradish sauce. Having also tried another carvery called Russell’s, I would say that I prefer the Yorkshire Pudding in York Roast Co. for their prettier colour and crispness, but everything else in Russell’s. The seating, portions, and variety in Russell’s is better, as is the value for money (they have unlimited sides). In any case, Charles, who is himself a resident of the North, prefers soft Yorkshire Puddings made soggy by gravy.
Further afield, the North and West Yorkshire countryside is very beautiful – Turner painted many landscapes here, and as I looked out of the window on the train up to York I could see fields of gold, which I later discovered were rapeseed crop. We made use of York’s excellent rail connections by visiting sites around Yorkshire.
In the Leeds Royal Armouries collection, I happened upon the lion armour, which is marked with sword cuts, and known also from contemporary portraits of several famous figures in history, including Charles I and Charles II. Other standout artefacts for me were the Sikh akalis, which looks like a wizard’s hat only it has throwing quoits strapped to it, and Henry VIII’s grotesque helmets – one had spiralling horns and spectacles while the other had a Saxon-esque moustache. This was one of the best museums I’ve visited, due to its:
- imaginative displays – one alluded to a sword’s strength by have a deliberate crack on the glass pane where a fake sword tip touched it.
- interactiveness – I fired a crossbow and held a machine gun and a two-handed sword for the first time.
- live demonstrations – the two-handed swordfight was accompanied by detailed step-by-step explanations.
Durham Castle felt even more like what one would imagine the Oxford and Hogwarts academic institutions to be like, and more strictly protected the privacy of its students. Inside there is an oak staircase, crooked because it was made of too heavy a wood, and decorated with carvings of pineapples that looked nothing like pineapples – our guide said that people used to rent them for their dinner table centrepieces, they were that expensive and rare. Durham Castle was former home of the Prince Bishop of Durham, now University College of Durham University. Its Norman chapel is the oldest building in the city and features the oldest known image of a mermaid in England.
Whitby was a pain to get to – the delay of our train from York made us miss our connection train at Middlesbrough, which would have traveled on the scenic Esk Valley Railway – but well worth the effort. Highlights have to be Whitby Abbey, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and our fish and chips at Hadley’s, cooked in the traditional way in beef-dripping and complimented by Yorkshire tea and bread and butter, with which I made my first chip ‘butty’ (the northern word for ‘sandwich’). The Yorkshire Tea Meal Deal at Hadley’s was actually voted the fish and chips shop of the year by the Whitby Gazette in 2014. The town has many curiosities: we passed Mister Chips, a fish and chips place Top Gear presenters Jeremy Clarkson and James May claimed were “beyond belief brilliant”; learnt more about the local gemstone from a mini-museum inside a store selling Whitby jet; staged an argument at Argument’s Yard, named after the Argument family who once lived here; passed the booth of a TV and radio clairvoyant, a full-scale replica of Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour (Cook was an apprentice here in Whitby), and one of the longest-serving RNLI lifeboats; and posed at the whalebone arch, made from an Alaskan whale to remind us of the whaling industry that once flourished in Whitby.
At Castle Howard, we saw the National Sheepdog Trials as well as looked inside the home to the lower branch of the Howard family and former seat of the Earls of Carlisle. It was the first great house to have a lantern-cupola combination. From a family from China we met at the bus stop in York, I learnt that there are 2 more reasons to go: it was where the 2 films of Brideshead Revisited were filmed, and also where Jay Chou, a Mandopop superstar, got married. The surprise room for me here was the Pre-Raphaelite chapel, designed by William Morris.
We must have spent at least 12 hours inside churches, for they are county gems.
York Minster was where King Edwin of Northumbria was converted to Christianity by St. Paulinus in AD 627, and now houses England’s largest collection of medieval stained glass and the body of St. William Fitzherbert (former Archbishop of York). St. Aidan founded Durham Cathedral in 635, the same year in which he founded Lindisfarne, to which the northern centre of Christianity moved until the Vikings raided it in 793, and the cathedral now houses the largest collection of medieval manuscripts in England and the bodies of St. Cuthbert and St. Bede. St. Hild founded Whitby Abbey in 657 as a double monastery for monks and nuns. A splinter group from St. Mary’s Abbey left York in 1132 to found Fountains Abbey, which has the largest cellarium (storage area) in Europe. We also sheltered in the rain at St. Helen’s on Davygate, and visited the Holy Trinity Church, hidden from view by a series of 14th century buildings called Our Lady’s Row, and fitted with 17th century box pews.
Where I stayed
York Apart Hotel – we were looked after extremely well by the manager of the mini-apartments. He was very understanding in the arranging of our rooms and luggage storage on our checkout day, and replied to queries quickly and clearly. Facilities were clean, stylish and functional, and it was 5-10 min walk away from York Brewery, 2 Chinese supermarkets, Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s. Undoubtedly the best self-catering accommodation I’ve stayed in.
Where I ate
Castle Howard café – large selection of appetising dishes.
Earl Grey Tea Rooms – out of 3 waiters (2 waitresses, but I generalise) we encountered, 2 served us without smiles and with a great show of effort. I would recommend this place for the building décor and the food though (we had a Yorkshire cream tea and Yorkshire curd tarts with English breakfast tea and house blend tea and coffee), and the magazine stand where you can find out more about the area even as you take a break from sightseeing.
Fountains Mill tea room – very small, little choice, but do have guidebooks for you to flick through. This NT site doesn’t have great toilet and catering facilities in general. The only ones of a decent size and easy access are the ones at the visitor entrance, 10 min away from the Abbey and at least 30 min away from the Studley tea rooms, which only slightly improves on the Fountains Mill tea room and has toilets up a hill.
Hadley’s – see above.
Russell’s – see above, at the description of York Roast Co.
Silvano’s – we chose this Sardinian-started restaurant over Bari in The Shambles and Piccolino on Bridge Street because only here had a noise level low enough on a Saturday night for conversation. Hearty food and good ambiance, and our complaint would be the clumsiness of service: my crespoline di mare was introduced as lasagna, and we called 3 different people for the bill it was so neglected.
The Golden Fleece – where we had to wait 5 min at the bar to be served by inattentive and glum-looking bar staff and shared home-roast ham sandwiches with generously thick-cut slices. A very British menu with good portion sizes but uninspiring taste. A pub with character, but an unfriendly and ghostly one (death masks of former landlords are displayed in the corridor, a skeleton sits at the bar, the wall clock moves in reverse direction, and there are many framed stories of ghost tales hung up on the walls).
The Old White Swan – pub food so delicious that I can now say that I, who prefer one-off pubs, like eating at the franchise of Nicholson’s. I ate a starter called a London Particular (a salad that contained ham hock, mint sauce, pea purée, Bramley apple slices) and drank a West Yorkshire pale ale called Bread and Butter. Others at our table ate Devonshire potted crab (also a starter), a wild boar and chorizo burger, and lamb with mint glaze. We shared the dessert, a rhubarb and custard parfait. This pub is a mini-museum in itself, and has on its premises (a group of 9 buildings) a Roman column, the ghosts of Catholics in hiding, a medievalesque chandelier, and mounting steps. It also, for a few days in 1781, exhibited the world’s tallest man.
York Roast Co. – see above.
What I regret
- Not entering St. Mary’s Church in Whitby, whose church graveyard is mentioned in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and whose interior contains one of the few remaining box pews in the country.
- Not walking down Blossom Street to (a) buy some original York ham from Robert Burrow Atkinson’s Butcher Shop and get a taste of what Shambles produce would have been like, and (b) see the Bar Convent, which houses the oldest living convent in England and is a fine example of Georgian architecture.
- Not visiting All Saints Church on North Street even though we walked past it often going to and from our accommodation – it has a window called “The Pricke of Conscience” (dated to 1425) which is unique in portraying the last 15 days of the world before it was due to end, in around 1500.
- Not visiting York Brewery, which was just next door to York Apart Hotel, to buy a bottle of Centurion Ghost Ale the day after the ghost tour.
- Not ordering a pint of Theakston’s Old Peculier, “Yorkshire’s lunatic broth”, inside the Golden Fleece pub.
- Not looking out for St. Peter’s School, the 3rd oldest school in the world (founded by St. Paulinus in the AD 600’s) and where Guy Fawkes and other conspirators were educated and converted by a zealously Catholic teacher. John Barry, who wrote the score for the early James Bond films, is also an alumnus.
- Not knowing that the first bridge which we crossed to get from the train station to the Leeds Royal Armouries was the first bridge to appear in moving pictures (Leeds featured in the first moving pictures ever in 1888).