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An introduction to York

April 16, 2011

Now, here’s a problem. I promised more about York, where we spent a sunny few days over last weekend. But the problem is, the city of York has such an embarrassment of riches in terms of history, beauty and the picturesque, that I don’t know where to begin. So I think I’d better just begin somewhere, and see where it takes us. Will you come with me?

Let’s begin at the river. In a first glance at York, the cathedral or Minster, the city walls and the river are probably the most notable features. For centuries, York was the second most important city in England after London. It owed its prosperity largely to being built on a navigable river, the Ouse. Whoever controlled York had easy access not only to the surrounding provinces of northern England, but also to the trade routes with Europe and Scandinavia. Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans have at various times made York a headquarters in the north of England.

The Ouse from Bridge Street, looking down river

The Romans established a legionary fortress here in the first century A.D., and called it Eboracum. Constantine the Great – he who became the first Christian Emperor of Rome – was in Eboracum when he succeeded to his title in 306. There is a rather splendid statue of him outside the Minster, near the site of the legionary headquarters. (While it doesn’t look much like the army HQ that he would have known, I think the gothic Minster makes a suitably glorious backdrop for him.)

Here is the rather awe-inspiring blurb about him on a nearby wall, if you’re interested:

Most of the Roman settlement is buried under the strata of history now, but it can still be traced in parts of the map of the city. The city walls, for example, begun in around the twelfth century, in some sections follow the line of Roman defenses erected around a thousand years earlier.

At intervals along the walls you come to the great medieval gate towers that once guarded the entrances to the city.

Monk Bar, which has a museum about Richard III

These days, a couple of them have tiny museums in them, where adults and small boys alike can learn gruesome facts about the Wars of the Roses (the English dynastic wars of the fifteenth century) and can try on medieval armour.

Inside Micklegate Bar, where the severed heads of the Kings enemies were once displayed on spikes - much to the glee of this small would-be knight

Wherever you are on the walls or streets, however, the feature of the city that continually draws the eye is the Minster, the mother church of the diocese of York, the second most important diocese of England after Canterbury.

Let’s come down from the walls now, and make our way towards the Minster through the heart of the old city. Walking along Petergate, you are following the line of the Roman street that led to the headquarters of the legions, where the Minster now stands.

As the streets stand today, though, it is the Middle Ages which seem uncannily close. An extraordinary number of the buildings in the streets around the Minster have stood here for five centuries or more. Despite modern life going on in and around them, it is still easy to imagine the good burghers and tradespeople of medieval York going about their business in these narrow lanes.

The Shambles: once the medieval meat market

The centre of York is a delight: pedestrian-friendly, jaw-droppingly pretty and, unlike many other tourist hotspots (Edinburgh’s Royal Mile springs to mind) still remarkably free of kitsch. While you might be hard-pressed to find anything as practical as a screwdriver or a tin of dog food around here, there is a fine mixture of bookshops, boutiques and cafes to entice the visitor. It is the buildings that make it so special, though. It is hard to decide what not to photograph. In fact, the shop fronts and architectural quirks of York deserve an article all to themselves: I think I’ll put them in another post. Oh, but I’ve just got to show you this one before we go on! It’s one of my favourites:

notice the date inscribed below the middle window

I love the way that there are no straight lines in medieval buildings. When was the spirit level invented, I wonder? Not by 1434, by the looks of Mulberry Hall.

Anyway, after a couple of brief diversions, we are now nearly at the Minster. The last building we pass before our first clear view of the Minster is another medieval church, St.Michael-le-Belfry. Beautiful though it is, it would be quite overshadowed by the Minster were it not for the fact that it was the parish church of Guy Fawkes. Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot? Yes, him, the Guy of ‘penny for the guy’; the Catholic convert who famously tried to blow up (the Protestant) King James VI and I in the Houses of Parliament in 1605; the terrorist – or religious martyr (‘discuss’, as they say in school essay questions) – who died a horrible death for his crime and whose downfall is cheerfully commemorated with bonfires and fireworks throughout the British Isles every November the fifth. He was a son of York, and this is the church where he was baptised.

St.Michael-le-Belfry, south side

But we are rounding the corner of St. Michael-le-Belfry now, and before us soars the great gothic wonder of York Minster, faith made visible in stone and stained glass.

There has been a Christian church on this site since 627 A.D. To give some perspective, that’s more than two and a half centuries before the Vikings settled in York. The Minster which exists today is based on a massive rebuilding work begun in 1220: work continued for another 250 years, until the building was consecrated in 1472.

If you look at the right of the photo above, however, you can see that there is scaffolding on part of the stonework. That is a reminder that a building of this magnitude and age is never really ‘finished’: there are always repairs to be made, damage to be made good after mishap (the Minster has suffered several devastating fires in the course of its history) or slow decay. Beneath the scaffolding there is a stone-yard, where new blocks of limestone are being cut to replace older pieces eroded by the weather. It’s rather extraordinary to think that stonemasons have probably been doing the same sorts of tasks hereabouts for most of the past nine hundred years.

Well, I think that is as far as we’ll go for now. There is so much more to show you, but we have been taking our time and the day is drawing to a close. I’d love to do some more exploring of York with you soon but, for the moment, my idea of the perfect end to a perfect day is to slip into the cool quiet of the Minster, and to take a seat in a choir stall for the Anglican service of Evensong. I can’t take photos inside, so I ask you to imagine the dark gothic choir stalls, the soaring east window, the choir facing each other across the aisle, lit by candles in tall glass lanterns. The service of Evensong is peculiar to Anglicanism, being an amalgamation of the monastic offices of Vespers and Compline. It provides a period of reflection, pulling together the loose ends of the day and setting the soul in order for the night. After a day filled with new facts, new faces and new sights, this ancient, soothing service is just what is needed.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2011 5:46 pm

    York is such a fascinating city. Thanks for this – and bringing back memories of my visit there.
    Do you want my story…..?
    I had stopped there on a whim (travelling between relatives in Scotland and England) and was pleased that the Minster was finally reopened after years of renovations. Except the crowds lining the streets were my first indication that I may not get inside – for it seems they were waiting for the Queen to arrive. Some old English lady was so excited for me – a Canadian!- that she made me stand there, clutching my arm, for hours when what I really wanted to see was more of the Shambles and that amazing wall. Still, saw the Queen. She wore pink. I think she waved at me and winked, but I could be wrong.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 16, 2011 7:34 pm

      Great story! I’m sure the Queen – in pink! – was delighted to see you.

  2. April 16, 2011 5:50 pm

    Many thanks for the lovely guided tour and super photos. The course I was on was based at St Michael-le-Belfrey, so it was so easy to visit the Minster. I love Mulberry Hall. Was it, I wonder, something to do with silk-spinning or weaving in mediaeval times?

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 16, 2011 7:35 pm

      Oh, now there’s an interesting idea. I hadn’t thought that far. I bet you’re right – I must try to find out.

  3. April 16, 2011 6:04 pm

    What a visual feast and what stories . . . York, of course, holds particular appeal for someone as well versed in mediaeval history as you, dear Dancing Beastie. It took me back to the 1970s, when I visited York with my small daughter and my aunt and late uncle who lived at the time in nearby Selby (which has its own rather splendid abbey). We had a wonderful day there and your post has made me want to revisit this ancient city. Good to hear that it is not groaning under the weight of too many souvenirs.

    You were, however, far luckier with the weather; we visited in deep midwinter, wrapped up to the nines in jumpers, thick coats, scarves and warm hats to keep out that bitter east wind that comes all the way from the Urals. Cathedrals always look at their very best when bathed in sunshine.

    Do so agree with you about Evensong; although I am not an Anglican, I have always loved this service, with its combination of quiet reflection and glorious music. I always try to time our return from the afternoon dog walk with the choral evensong broadcast on R3, especially in winter, as the light fades. Whatever has been going on during the day, it all seems to fall away as I close my eyes and lose myself in the words and music.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 16, 2011 7:38 pm

      The winter cold can be *incredibly* bitter in York, can’t it. The frost just stagnates in the Vale of York until that east wind blows it away. But I love it in all seasons.

      Our radio reception is pathetic here, sadly, and I can’t get R3 in my kitchen. But now that you have told me about choral evensong I must try to listen to it on my laptop. So soothing…

  4. April 16, 2011 7:26 pm

    Oh, I needed that amble through York. Thank you so much!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 16, 2011 7:39 pm

      I haven’t put in half of what I meant to, I’m afraid – will definitely be posting some more photos, though without the tour-guide commentary next time! 🙂

  5. April 17, 2011 3:18 pm

    Such a fabulous recount of your visit to York. I was there in 1985, and am delighted to see so little has changed (since 1484 or so). Unfortunately, last time I was in York (last year), our youngest was car sick en route from Halifax, and so we spent the few hours we thought we’d spend seeing the sights, cleaning up vomit and consoling the child. You can imagine my disappointment!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 17, 2011 4:03 pm

      Oh, Lord, how miserable for all concerned! I hope you’ll make it there again one day – meanwhile check back here for more photos! 🙂

  6. April 17, 2011 10:48 pm

    The ideal way to sightsee, without the foot-slogging (tho we’re in for that when we do visit in the summer). I’m struck by how busy it is already – all those buses lined up, disgorging their tourists.
    Choral evensong on Radio 3 is one of life’s delights. I used to listen at university in Aberdeen. The prayer ‘lighten our darkness, we beseech thee O Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night’ seemed to hold at bay the gales off the North Sea, in the little granite city on the edge of the winter darkness.

    Seeing your photos of the cathedral soaring upwards reminds me of Rosemary Sutcliff’s ‘The Witch’s Brat’, still one of my favourite books.

    (an off-topic question – how easy did you find your WordPress blog to set up? I’m looking at the WordPress format for a new, static blog, because I want to be able to reply to each comment in sequence. But it seems very complicated to a simple Blogspot gal like me.)

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 17, 2011 10:56 pm

      It was busy, being the start of the Easter holidays, but there was a golden evening hour (just after Evensong, in fact) when the shops had closed and the nightlife hadn’t got going, and the streets were almost empty. Blissful.

      I love your evocation of that prayer in the darkness. It’s one I have always loved too, for its atmospheric words. And talking of wonderful words, I love R. Sutcliff but have never heard of that book before. How exciting – must look it out! I read her Arthurian trilogy recently (think I told you that before) and just loved it.

      WordPress was very easy, I found, apart from customising colours, which was frustratingly difficult. In general though it’s all fairly intuitive and there are plenty of help pages. I am a total techno-ignoramus so if I could manage, you could too! I started with both and just felt more at ease with WP.

  7. April 17, 2011 11:12 pm

    I was intrigued by your comment about spirit levels – according to Wikipedia ‘The spirit level was invented by Melchisedech Thevenot… some time before February 2, 1661’ (cool name!) So it wouldn’t have been around when Mulberry Hall was built! However, they would have had plumb lines. It wouldn’t have been built so crooked, but wood warps as it ages. The cathedral of course, although older, has plenty of straight lines 🙂

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 17, 2011 11:50 pm

      Thank you for that! And for pointing out the properties of wood. Duh, of course – I hadn’t thought of that. The cathedral is a marvel of engineering. The north transept has buckled a bit under the thrust of the massive central tower, apparently – but it is still standing, still serving its purpose beautifully after centuries. Imagine how it must have appeared when there was nothing else for miles any bigger than Mulberry Hall…

  8. April 18, 2011 9:58 am

    Thank you for the tour around York! I really enjoyed reading your blog posting: interesting, informative and well-illustrated. I’ve wanted to visit York – in particular the cathedral – since I studied Gothic architecture last year. You’ve whetted my appetite once again.

    I visited Salisbury Cathedral last week and tried to take some photos but they didn’t come out very well. It – too – has lots of scaffolding around it. They are like the Forth Road Bridge in that respect aren’t they?

    Many thanks.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 18, 2011 11:14 pm

      Thank you, my pleasure. I wonder if you have visited Wells Cathedral? It has a unique and extraordinary double arch in the crossing, which is illustrative of the development of gothic architecture and of experiments in stone. One of these days I’d love to get to Salisbury too.


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