York… the Old One
Updated: Jul 14, 2019
With winter readily holding on here in Leeds, Katie and I have been dying to get out and explore despite the persistently cold, wet weather. So, in the good name of Valentine’s Day, we decided to take a Saturday day-trip to York to celebrate, and to cure our cabin fever.
In preparation for our trip, Katie and I relied on the wonderful guidance of Rick Steves, the well-known travel writer that we’ve counted on for nearly all of our European adventures. My dad was thoughtful enough to give Katie Rick Steves’ latest edition on Great Britain before we moved over here, and we designed our entire day-trip around his chapter on York.
Lucky for us, York sits just 30 miles from Leeds, and took just a little over an hour to get to by coach from Leeds Coach Station.
Despite the short drive, it definitely felt like we got to see a good deal more of the countryside than we did even on our longer bus trip to London, probably because a lot more of the trip took place on smaller roads, passing through a few small towns on the way, rather than just sticking to the larger highway.
Today, York’s number one business is tourism, and for good reason, as the history of the city runs deep. York was once the northern-most city of the Roman empire, back when it was known as Eboracum, and then was later conquered and settled by the Vikings, after which it was known as Jorvick. Being such an important hub, the city was well fortified on all sides hundreds of years ago by the later-invading Normans, and one of the coolest things, and probably biggest draws that bring tourists to York, is the amazingly preserved medieval stone walls that still surround the original area of the city, as well as the other buildings with their centuries old, quirky architecture on both wide and narrow cobble-stone streets; not to mention the indelible magnificence of York Minster, which is the largest cathedral north of the Alps (that’s right, larger than Paris’s Notre Dame!), and which boasts the legendary “Heart of Yorkshire”, a heart-shaped stained glass window at the front of the nave.
These were all of the fun things that we planned to see during our little visit, and Rick Steves was going to help us make it happen.
Arriving in York
The double-decker coach that brought us into town out of the quiet countryside dropped us off at the very classic-looking York Train Station, with its many archways lined underneath with exposed bulbs.
Pulling into town, we could already see the ancient ramparts that we would be walking along later that day, and my imagination kicked excitedly into high gear as I began to imagine soldiers and archers watching our approach.
Now stepping off of the coach, we started down a sidewalk which eventually led us underneath and inside the city wall, and then to a bridge over a river.
Coming up to the river was great. Upon reaching the bridge, we were delighted to see the cylindrical structure of a medieval tower that was actually still in use as a café. There was a plaque nearby that explained that this tower, along with its brother on the opposite bank, used to be joined by a chain that could prevent boats from making passage through this checkpoint.
Katie and I were both particularly excited to see the river, not only because it was very picturesque, there were also crew boats stacked on racks right on the riverbank, and had it been warmer, we may have been tempted to do some rowing!
Alas, it was freezing, so forget that!
We made our way across the bridge, and looking down the street, we could already see the gloriously imposing and magnetic façade of York Minster, inviting us to skip all of the other things we were supposed to hit on the way, and just go straight for dessert. We resisted, and took an immediate left into a small, quiet, green park, where Mr. Steves’ walking tour began, right in front of the Yorkshire Museum.
Skipping the museum itself (other than a brief, fruitless moment of perusing their gift shop), we were instantly struck by the serenity of the old, original archways of St. Mary’s Abbey, crumbling, but still standing in powerful elegance across the lawn. Although clearly ruins, these archways were certainly enough to make you awe at the imagination, determination, and devotion to craft the ancient inhabitants of yester-centuries must have had to create these larger-than-life edifices.
Katie mentioned that this would be a great setting for an outdoor wedding, and I heartily agreed.
After walking around those grounds for a few more minutes, and checking out the interesting headstones in the cemetery next to the abbey (York is rife with ghost lore…), we made our way down an inconspicuous path until we reached King’s Manor, a building which now houses the history department of the University of York. It was here that Henry VIII (whose wives seemed to have so much trouble keeping their heads) came to stay for a little over a fortnight in order to enforce his religious reforms after splitting with the Catholic Church.
Cooly enough, it was free to walk inside the stone complex, so we stepped through the small entrance and out the other side of the building into a large courtyard, where I stood coming to terms with the fact that I could be standing where one of the most infamous English kings of all time once stood, looking at architecture that he himself may have once admired. I removed my glove to touch some of the stone on our way out, connecting with history through all the senses.
After our brief moment at the Kings Manor, we crossed Exhibition Square outside, and then to the opposite side of the street, to the next phase of the trip which I was most looking forward to: walking along the old city walls.
I must say, York has done a fantastic job of ensuring its visitors get to really experience its history, which I think is a huge contribution to why the city is so enchanting.
There are several old “city gates” (called “bars”) in the city walls that allow one to pass into central¸ central York, and it is at these entrances that one can ascend to the ramparts of the walls themselves and enjoy a delightful stroll with fun views on all sides. The gates themselves are actually small towers in their own right, and it’s awesome to peer up at the arrow slots from the ground, and then to be able to actually go up in the tower and look down through these same slots at the people below, drawing back on your imaginary bow.
After walking up and through the inside of the first tower bar, we stepped out onto the first, long, straight stretch of the “L”-shaped portion of medieval wall that we would be walking along. From here we caught a gorgeous shot of the massive York Minster, towering over the surrounding buildings in the foreground.
We continued to “ooo” and “aww” as we made our way down this first length of the “L”, with York Minster on our right, and the little castle-esque cutouts in the top of the wall to our left.
We soon reached the “elbow” of the “L”, a corner of the wall known as Robin Hood’s Tower. I can’t tell you why they call it that exactly, but according to Rick Steves, the moat you see on the outer side of the wall here is actually part of the original Roman ditch. Nice!
On our way down this second length of wall, we arrived at a spot where there were two, tall, mini-towers built into the larger wall itself. They were round on front and open in the back, and each had a slit through which one could apparently spy on or shoot arrows at the suckers outside while remaining well protected; and I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to hoist myself up the three foot ledge to have Katie take my picture, a proposition to which she only too readily agreed! I was in good company too; there was a toddler in the other tower just a few feet away, his parents smiling up at him.
The wall walk was truly awesome, and something funny to mention here is the houses that were constructed just along the inside of the wall. If the exteriors of the houses weren’t actually built into the wall itself, many of them had their back patios and windows facing or right next to the wall, and Katie and I wondered how comfortable we would be living in a place where you’ve got hundreds of tourists walking by and looking in your back window from dawn to dusk every day. Ah well, to each there own. The length of York Minster sure looked nice in the background.
Katie looked pretty great too…
After descending from the gatehouse tower of Monk Bar, it was time for yet another important stop on our trip: Red Cow Music.
“Red Cow Music?! How the heck did you hear of such a place as Red Cow Music?!”, you might ask.
Having left her more portable instruments back in the US for the sake of luggage space, Katie had been feeling a little down about not having anything to play over here, and had been developing an inclination towards the ukulele for some time. We had actually visited a music store in Leeds around Christmas time to look for the right one, but the shop we went to had almost no selection. When we asked the shop owner if he had any place he recommended, he almost immediately mentioned Red Cow Music in York.
So, we decided that whenever we made it to York, we’d stop in and check it out.
Having planned our itinerary carefully (…the day before…), we ended up on the exact street Red Cow Music was on when we came down off the wall, just a stone’s throw from their storefront.
We stepped inside, and Katie had a plethora of “ukes” to choose from, and the shopkeeper was only too kind in tuning as many as she wanted to try.
After spending about an hour plucking, strumming, and asking questions, Katie decided that she was pretty sure what she wanted, but in typical Katie fashion, wanted to give it a bit more thought, so we headed back out onto the street, and headed to our next stop: York Minster.
Now before you get all excited about seeing pictures of this magnificent work of art from the inside, allow me to disappoint you now: we didn’t get past the gift shop, where we spent a few hilarious minutes trying to catch glimpse of the inside of the church itself through the interior gift shop doors, which led from the nave of the church into the gift shop. Every time someone would walk into the shop through one of those interior doors, I would whisper “It’s open!”, and we would take turns crouching down a bit to catch a glimpse of the incredible stained-glass windows and giant columns inside, all while those walking in through the doors were likely wondering what the heck was wrong with us.
American cheap skates, hard at work.
Lucky for us though, the exteriors of York Minster did not disappoint in the least. Katie and I have seen a lot of cathedrals in our day, both inside and out, and this place was just massive, both in its height and length, and was wonderfully ornate.
And of course we cannot neglect to mention the most romantic part of all, the endearing “Heart of Yorkshire”, the giant stained-glass heart at the top of the tall central window at the front of the church. This heart is not only popular in photos, but has even been incorporated into jewelry design, as we discovered after stepping into an Azendi, a British jewelry shop, later that day, and saw everything from ear rings to necklaces replicating its recognizable construction.
For you Roman history fans out there, the site of York Minster is a must-see, as this is where Constantine was made Emperor of Rome in 306 AD, six years before he legalized Christianity, which is commemorated in the statue scene below. This site helps us hold in perspective how far the Roman empire once stretched, and the power that civilization once held over so much of the world. Now, literally, ancient history.
We also took a brief moment to marvel at an original Roman column, recovered at one time from underneath York Minster, standing as a testament today to that civilization.
The Old Quarter
Our next stop was to be easily the most famous street, in the most popular quarter in York, known as The Shambles.
Leaving the area of York Minster now, we stepped into a very charming, bustling English market street known as Stone Gate (a “gate” is a street in York). Much like the rest of York itself, this street dates back to the Roman period. Here there were tons of cute little store fronts, beckoning one to come inside and explore their goods.
We skipped much of Stone Gate when we first came upon it, simply because it was early afternoon and we were very hungry. In trying to stay true to the path of Rick Steves, we continued zig zagging through the charming blocks of stores until we came to Newgate Market.
This outdoor market was bustling with people and vendors selling fresh meats, cheap hats and purses, and… finally… food! We spotted a little food stand called Brunch Wagon, which only accepted cash and was run by two girls who looked like they were in their teens. They served a giant cheeseburger for a great price, and also “cheesy chips”, which probably ended up being the biggest disappointment of the day, as while we were right in translating “chips” to “fries”, we were wrong in translating “cheesy” to “melted nacho-like cheese”. Our hearts sank when we opened our Styrofoam box and found fries covered in shredded, unmelted, white cheddar cheese (pictured on the right below)… a pretty big bummer when you’re starving and expecting the American version of cheese fries.
It was funny though, and we laughed as well at the bottle of “American Mustard” on the condiment counter, as well as the mound of steaming teabags by the cash register, left behind by the many patrons of this establishment who had already stopped by for this staple in daily-British-beverage life.
It was a nice area to sit and people watch, nestled in the corner of a tall, magically misshapen building and getting hardly warm at all from the fire in the gas heat lamp in the center of the tables.
After lunch, we took a quick walk through a short alleyway off of Newgate Market and suddenly, we found ourselves on the magical Shambles
According to Rick Steves, the name “shambles” comes from the word “shamell”, “a butcher’s bench upon which he’d cut and display his meat.” In fact, Rick also pointed out the meat hooks that to this day still hang under the eaves of the different store fronts up and down the narrow, cobbled path.
The coolest part of The Shambles by far is its quirky architecture. Several of the buildings on this strip are half-timbered, and you can see several of the wooden pegs that were used instead of nails to bind the wood beams together, as well as smile at how much these structures have shifted over the years to create the almost magical sort of jigsaw ridge that walls both sides of the thoroughfare.
What was especially interesting to me is how the different floors of some of these buildings project out from the one below the further up you look, essentially forming incomplete archways over the pedestrians below; something truly unique. The whole area is enough to make any Harry Potter fan to feel like they’ve just stepped onto Diagon Alley, an aesthetic feature that several business owners have taken little shame in capitalizing on. In fact, amongst that average English tourist shops peddling their souvenirs on this 50-meter stretch, there are three – count them, three – Harry Potter stores…
…all of which we visited, haha.
The Shambles (left), Stonegate (right)
Trying to see as much as we could in the daylight, we decided we’d stop back through the Shambles later on, closer to sunset, to take more pics and see some more of their shops. For now, we needed to move on.
At the end of The Shambles, we came to The Golden Fleece, which boasts being the most haunted pub in York, even being featured in one of those TV shows that cover such places of paranormal repute. Being pretty cool looking on the outside, we decided we’d maybe hit it up for dinner later that evening, despite Rick Steves’ warning that it was “dingy”, a rumor that we later discovered to be largely true.
We made our way towards the York Castle Museum and Clifford’s Tower. As we did, we started to spot more and more people in Viking garb, and came to realize that we were wandering into a fully-fledged Viking festival! In fact, upon arriving at the York Castle Museum (which, unfortunately, looks nothing like a castle), there were two hoards facing off on the lawn outside as spectators watched excitedly.
Enthralling as that scene was, our interest was in the authentic, and so we focused our time instead on admiring Clifford’s Tower, the last remaining portion of York’s once greater castle. High on a hill and surrounded by grass, the area around Clifford’s Tower is known as the Eye of York, and is sadly the site of a mass suicide of 12th-century Jews, who locked themselves inside to escape some angry townspeople, and elected to die at their own hands rather than give their pursuers the satisfaction. This story reminded me of the story of Masada, a plateau-like fortress in southern Israel that my dad and I visited on a trip there a few years back. There, another even larger group of Jews met a similar fate while under a Roman siege. Sadly, there’re really not that many more openly advertised stories about Clifford’s Tower, but it was nonetheless nice to gaze upon.
Merchant Adventurer’s Hall
After Clifford’s Tower, we decided to make our way back to Red Cow and complete the purchase of the ukulele that Katie had decided on, while making few quick stops along the way.
The Merchant Adventurers’ Hall is what some claim to be “the finest surviving medieval guildhall in Britain”, dating back to the fourteenth century. To be honest, I could have cared less about the history of the building or what it was used for; it was it’s shear size and half-timbered construction that I wanted to appreciate in person, and I was not disappointed. The building was massive, and right next to it we randomly stumbled upon a large bell, apparently provided so one can “ring for peace”, as the sign says. “What could it hurt?”, I asked as I struck the bell with the mallet, immediately discovering the answer to my question: “my ears.”
Shortly after going deaf, we were back on The Shambles, and taking the opportunity to check out the third Harry Potter shop that we skipped the first time through because the line out the front was ridiculously long. Then, in keeping with the afternoon’s delighful theme of religious persecution, we visited a tiny chapel dedicated to St. Margaret Clitherow, who used her home on this very site to hide Catholic priests back in the 16thcentury, and as a consequence, was crushed to death under the door of her own house by the local Protestants, apparently a popular punishment back in those days. Yikes.
We made it back to Red Cow before they closed, and left elated with our long, triangular cardboard box, protecting Katie’s ukulele inside.
Dinner and Station
Having discovered first-hand that Rick Steves’ unflattering description of The Golden Fleece pub was no lie, we decided to hit an interesting restaurant with a modern take on Yorkshire pudding: The York Roast Co!
Inside this corner restaurant, its floors as uneven and twisted as the rest of the buildings in Old York, we approached the counter, and the cashier walked us through the most popular selections. I decided to go with a traditional Yorkshire pudding, a bread-bowl-and-stew-like dish which I actually hadn’t ever had to my recollection, and Katie decided to go with the famous “wrap” version, known as a The Yorky Pud, both of which were delicious, and included your choice of pork, turkey, beef, or ham, gravy, potatoes, seasonal vegetables, stuffing, and on Katie’s, cranberry sauce .
By the time we finished dinner it was well after sunset, and we made our way slowly back to the station, passing York Minster again to see the light from the inside shine faintly through the glowing, stained glass façade, afterward walking along a charming street still lit by Christmas lights, seeing some impromptu fireworks, apparently from the Viking festival, over the rooftops, crossing the bridge over the river that we had crossed earlier that day, and spotting a ghost tour bus that looked almost exactly like the night bus from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, whose conductor was only too happy to pose for Katie as she snapped a quick shot.
Then there we were, back at the station, where the drop-off/pick-up driveway was alight with the exposed bulbs that we’d noted earlier that day, now shining romantically in their brick archways. Soon our bus was there to take us back to Leeds, and sitting on the second level of the coach again, we were happy to rest after our long day of enchanted strolling.
Photo Credit: Katie Miller
Reference: Rick Steves Great Britain 21st Edition