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HOME AT FIRST's

ADVENTURE

YORK, ENGLAND

MEDIEVAL WALLS ENCLOSE 2,000 YEARS OF HISTORY

PHOTO: York Minster © VisitBritain / Doug McKinlay

 

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN AUGUST, 2007.                     MOST RECENT UPDATE: 2015.

 

          Join us on a fun day trip to York, ENGLAND. Let’s discover why York has been the (official and unofficial) “Capital of Northern England” for most of its 2,000 years of history, and why it is one of the most interesting and most easily visited cities in Britain.

 

O

ld York packs 2,000  years of history into a very walkable square

mile, earning it the status as one of Britain's most visited cities. And, with its central location on Britain's high-speed rail network, York is within easy day-trip reach of parts of Britain over 200 miles away, including London and Edinburgh.
         
With some 182,000 residents — about equal to Little Rock, Knoxville, or Ft.

 

 

CROSSING THE RIVER OUSE INTO YORK'S OLD CITY
Photo © HOME AT FIRST

Lauderdale — modern York

 

is a large, sprawling, English city. However, York’s very walkable old town center, defined by its still standing medieval walls, represents not more than about one-tenth of the city of York.

 

F

OUNDED BY THE ROMANS: York began as a Roman garrison in the first century AD. Called Eboracum, which may refer to the existence of yew trees in the place between the rivers Ouse and Foss where the Romans built their

fort. York became the Roman capital of southern Britain, and witnessed visits by Roman emperors. During a British military campaign in 306AD, Roman Emperor

 

Constantius Chlorus fell ill and died in

 

 

STATUE OF EMPEROR CONSTANTINE AT YORK

York. His son, Constantine, was crowned emperor in the city. Constantine (the Great) went on to reunite the Roman Empire and create a newimperial capital city, Constantinople (now Istanbul). A statue of Constantine stands by York Minster, near the site where he was proclaimed emperor.
 
ROMAN YORK: Visitors can visit a portion of the original Roman city walls still standing (especially the Multiangular Tower in York’s Museum Gardens), as well as a small museum at the site of York’s Roman baths in the cellar of a York pub called The Roman Bath at 9 St. Samson’s Square. (Ask the barman to show you the Roman baths in the basement.) York’s two miles of walls are the most of any British city. They include 5 main gateways and 45 towers. Visitors can walk the walls and experience two millennia of history in two hours (no admission charge).

 

 

T

HE DARK AGES: SAXONS AND VIKINGS. The Romans withdrew from Britain at the end of the 4th century, leaving the island undefended. Waves of invasions swept across Britain over the next 700 years, first from tribal

groups of Saxons, Angles, and Jutes from across the North Sea in what is now northern Germany and southern Denmark. These groups intermarried and created the foundations of the English language. They also brought Christianity to the region. York — Eoforwic to the Anglo-Saxons — became a major British center of religion and learning. The origins of York’s great Minster cathedral are traceable to the 7th century during Anglo-Saxon period.
          Eoforwic’s rise as an important regional center was bound to draw the interest of marauding seafaring tribes from Scandinavia during the height of the Viking period: the 9th through the 11th centuries. First came the Danes under Ivar the Boneless in the latter half of the 9th century, and Saxon Eoforwic became Viking Jorvik. Within 100 years, however, Saxons from southwestern England chased the Danes. The stability of the town was under constant threat over the next century as Vikings from Norway frequently invaded the region and challenged its Saxon protectors.
          Finally Saxon King Harold repelled the Vikings at the conclusive Battle of Stamford Bridge a few miles east of York that ended the Viking invasions of

Britain in Harold’s Saxons had no

 

time to celebrate their victory, however, as word reached them that Duke William of Normandy was leading his own invading army to England’s south coast. Within three weeks King Harold was dead, the Saxons were defeated, the Dark Ages were over, and William was the Conqueror.

JORVIK CENTRE & DIG ARCHEOLOGICAL SITE: Although little is left architecturally from these times, visitors can see an excellent representation of 10th century York at the Jorvik Viking Centre in York’s Coppergate Shopping Centre near Clifford’s tower (Admission: £10.25/adult, £8.25/senior/student, £7.25/child; Open daily except 24-26DEC), and its companion DIG archeological site in St. Saviour’s Church on St. Saviourgate (Admission: £6.50/adult, £6/senior/student/child; Open daily except 24-26DEC.

 

 

The Battle of Stamford Bridge, by 19th century Norwegian
artist Wilhelm Wetlesen. The Viking Age in Britain ended
here, when the Anglo-Saxon English under King Harold II
 defeated a large invading force of Norse near York on
September 25, 1066. The Anglo-Saxon Age of Britain would last
only three weeks longer, as William the Conqueror invaded
and defeated Harold's army at Hastings in southern England.

 

 

M

EDIEVAL YORK: NORMANS, A YORK DYNASTY, TUDORS, AND CIVIL WAR. William the Conqueror abided no rebellion. His Norman army quashed resistance wherever it was encountered, and it was encountered

in York. The Normans punished York, then fortified it with two castles to enforce England’s new reality. When rebels burned one to the ground, it was replaced

 

with a stronger one. When a storm wrecked

 

 

— CLIFFORD'S TOWER —
York's medieval castle from the 13th century.
Photo © HOME AT FIRST

that one, an even stronger one was built in 1270. It came to be known as Clifford’s Tower, named after the guest of an especially grisly execution within its stone walls. Today, the 13th century tower still stands, albeit without a roof.

Visitors can climb the walls of CLIFFORD'S TOWER (Careful! Open heights and narrow, stone steps and ledges) and look over walled, medieval York. (Admission: £4.40/adults, £2.60/children, £11.40/families, £4.00/seniors & students; Open daily April thru September 10AM-6PM. See website for opening times during other months. Closed 24-26DEC, 31DEC & 1JAN.

       England’s Norman conquerors built great

 

churches in addition to great castles. The

greatest of all of these was York Minster,

 

built atop the site of the Saxon church in Norman style shortly after York was pacified in the late11th century. Subsequent fires, re-buildings, and expansions resulted in York Minster becoming the largest gothic cathedral in northern Europe, complete with all the architectural bells and whistles of the most decorous of that ambitious medieval style. During the 16th century English Reformation and the 17th century English Civil War much of the elaborate decoration was stripped from the cathedral. A series of fires — only some accidental — and structural failures resulted in further changes in York Minster. The great church remains something of a masterwork

 

 

— YORK MINSTER —
Northern Europe's largest gothic
cathedral remains a work in progress.

Photo © HOME AT FIRST

in progress.

          If York’s greatest treasure, the Minster, is once again in its glory, during its long history it was often in shambles. But, since its Norman beginnings, York Minster has always been near the Shambles, among England’s most visited streets, a scant quarter

YORK MINSTER: No visit to York should exclude time to explore York Minster & its Tower.  Admission: £10-£15/adult, £5/child, £9-£14/senior/student. Open to visitors Mo-Sa from 9AM-6PM; Sunday visiting times 12:45PM-5PM.

 

mile southeast of the great church.

 

 

— THE CHOIR SCREEN AT YORK MINSTER —
Among the treasures of York Minster is the
magnificently carved choir screen with statues of the
first 15 kings of England from William the Conqueror
to Henry VI (1066 through 1471). 

Photo © HOME AT FIRST

The Shambles shambles through the heart of York’s medieval core, too narrow for automobile traffic even if allowed in old York. Lining its footpaths are half-timbered erstwhile abattoirs with overhanging upper stories blocking much of the daylight but formerly facilitating the flinging of offal and awfuller into the narrow medieval street below. Garda loo! The medieval butcheries that originally gave the Shambles its name (“Fleshammels”: Saxon for “butchers’ street”) are today upmarket shops, tearooms, and restaurants.

 

          The Shambles is the best-

known street in a warren of streets, alleys, and

 

Snickelways that make up medieval York. During the day, this paved maze is full of shoppers, tourists, and tradesmen, but few vehicles, as driving and parking inside York’s walls is heavily restricted from 10:30AM until at least 4PM. The resulting pedestrian zone — one of the UK’s largest — has made old York into something of a medieval mall. During the evenings vehicle traffic is permitted inside the walls, but parking is still heavily restricted on many streets. Although most shops close after 6PM, York’s many restaurants draw crowds in the evening.
          Nighttime in York draws crowds to experience its spooky side, as numerous guided “ghost walks” sneak through York’s darkened, narrow Snickelways. York’s “ghost walks” were among Britain’s earliest organized after dark city crawls, and helped start the craze that has swept the scariest haunts of most tourist towns of

  

 

A York SNICKELWAY

size in the UK. Led by often costumed tour guides who

 

 

are usually more performance actors than oral

 

 

Guided ghost walks —
make for a scary 2 hours of entertain-ment  each  evening in the warren
of medieval  streets of old York
.
Photo © HOME AT FIRST

historians, York’s “ghost walks” are an especially fun for the whole family to learn something of York’s past whilewalking off dinner. And, if a guide dressed in Jack-the-Ripper chic tells tales designed to raise your neck hair, so much the better.

York’s “ghost walks” have become so popular that numerous small tour companies offer them and a broad offering of daytime guided walks, too. For a reasonable price (usually around £6/adult, £5/kids 5-15; more for walks to places that require entrance fees, like York Minster), guided walks now explore such divergent themes as Roman York, York’s Snickelways, Richard III (York’s ultimate bad boy), the Historic Toilets of York, York’s Jewish Heritage, Graveyards — Coffins — Crypts, Chocolates & Sweets, The Walls, Historic Pubs & Inns, with more being introduced every year. Expect each walk to last 1-2 hours, be attended by about a dozen walkers, to begin and end at a specific location (usually a pub or historic spot) in old York, and to operate regardless of the weather (York is in England; it rains in England). Expect more fun than history, and bring your camera.

 

 

T

HE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION: During early medieval times York was still very much “the capital of the North”.

But the loss of Yorkshire’s importance as a wool-producing region and devastations to York following the 15th century War of the Roses and the military siege of York during the 17th century English Civil War significantly lowered York’s prestige and power. During the 18th century, while the Industrial Revolution was being invented elsewhere in England, Wales, and Scotland, York remained largely unaffected.

          But with the dawn of the Railway Age

 

 

— York's National Railway Museum —
is large enough to fit complete historic train sets
 together under one passenger terminal roof.

Photo © HOME AT FIRST

in the 19th century, York regained its former

 

 

national prominence, as its halfway status

 
 

The National Railway Museum collection includes
 several of Britain's greatest railway achievements.

Photo © HOME AT FIRST

between Londonand Scotland made it an ideal location for a major railway center. With railway construction and repair shops and a great run-through mainline rail station (1877), York became a regional capital once again during the Victorian Age. Today York remains an important rail center on the east coast mainline, serving many passenger trains daily in its historic station. Passenger trains connect London and York at least every half hour daily on a high-speed journey that requires only two hours. Similarly, Edinburgh and York are served by at least two trains hourly on a scenic,

 

high-speed journey of just over 2.5 hours.

         York’s historic rail station lies just west

 

of the old city walls and across the Ouse River,

and is a practical and convenient way for visitors to come to York. Conveniently, the world’s largest — and probably the best — railway museum, the National Railway Museum, is just 5 minutes walk northwest of York Station. Its vast, important collection of railway artifacts includes some of the most noteworthy locomotives ever built and some lavishly appointed passenger cars for British royalty. Housed in large, open sheds, the NRM ranks with England’s best museums. Its displays appeal to the railroad enthusiast, of course, and also to anyone with an interest in the Industrial Revolution and, especially, the Railway Age of Victorian England.

 

 

— MICKELGATE BAR —
One of the main entrances to York's old city.
Cars and trucks are discouraged
from entering old York.

Photo courtesy www.britainonview.com

 
The National Railway Museum is
open daily (except 24-26DEC) from 10AM-6PM, and, thankfully, admission is FREE. Car Parking at the NRM costs £9/day, a reasonable cost if you include a visit to the museum as part of a full day in York.

 

 

 

IF YOU GO –

TO THE CITY OF YORK

GETTING TO YORK: Thanks to Britain’s frequent, high-speed train service, you can easily visit York as a day trip from these Home At First locations in England & Scotland:

From Home At First lodgings in North Yorkshire:
drive 30 minutes east from Harrogate on the A59 to the A1237 ring road on the  outskirts of York. Take the A1237 two exits northeast to the A19 roundabout. Watch for the signs pointing to the Rawcliffe Bar Park & Ride car park just south of the roundabout. Park at the Rawcliffe Bar Park & Ride lot (free parking!) and take the Green Line (Number 2)  bus (operates every 10 minutes Mo-Sa from 7AM-7PM, last bus back at 8PM; operates Sundays every 10 minutes from 10AM-5:45PM, last bus back at 6PM). Bus fare is cheap: £2.80/person, with 2 children 4 or under free with each adult. On the  return journey, buses depart from these key York city stops: Museum Street, Station Avenue, and the National Railway Museum.

From Home At First apartments in London: take the
tube 15 minutes counter-clockwise on the Circle Line from Tower Hill Underground Station to Kings Cross rail station.   Trains depart Kings Cross at least twice hourly for York,  traveling the 200 miles to York in two hours. Travel during  off-peak (non-commuter) hours for the best round-trip  fares, currently from about £90/adult, with child/family discounts  available. Or, order a 3-Day or 4-Day Flexi-Pass for BritRail GB (for all of Great Britain) or just for England as part of your Home At First London travel package. With it you receive 3 or 4 days of your choosing of unlimited rail travel during a specified two-month travel period. A round-trip ticket to  York equals about one-half the value of the pass, but takes up only one of its four days of validity.

From Home At First lodgings in the Scottish Borders:  drive 45 minutes to Berwick-upon-Tweed train station  (£4/day car parking). Trains depart Berwick at least  hourly for York, traveling the 150 miles to York in under two  hours. The best round-trip fares currently are from about  £45/adult, with child/family discounts available.

From Home At First apartments in Edinburgh: take the city bus or a taxi to Edinburgh’s Waverley train station. Trains depart Edinburgh Waverley at least twice hourly for  York, traveling the 200 miles to York in 2.5 hours. Travel  during off-peak (non-commuter) hours for the best round-trip fares, currently about £90/adult, with child/family  discounts available. Or, order a BritRail 3-Day or 4-Day Great Britain Flexi-Pass as part of your Home At First Edinburgh travel package. With it you receive 3 or 4 days of your choosing of unlimited rail travel during a specified two-month travel period. A round-trip ticket to York equals about one-half the value of the pass, but takes up only one of its four days of validity.

Note about rail fares: all fares quoted are subject to change without notice. Special lower-cost promotional fares often exist: be sure to ask when purchasing  tickets. Choosing certain trains/times/routings can save significantly over the cost of normal tickets.

 

 

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