Travel: Dive into history in God’s own county
11:42 04 March 2015
York is a city steeped in history like few others, and it makes no bones about it.
From being an important Roman outpost almost 2,000 years ago to becoming a Viking settlement in 867 and then the epic capital of the north in the 16th century, no matter who’s in charge of the British Isles York always finds favour, and everywhere you look the place harks back to that illustrious history.
The layout in particular recollects medieval times – the city is ringed by well-preserved walls (the longest in the country), inside which the rivers Ouse and Foss intersect and winding snickelways and alleys hide higgledy-piggledy shops and cosy backstreet boozers.
Strolling along the battlements is a great way to start a trip to York (weather permitting) – not only is it a lovely three mile stretch of the legs but helps you get to grips with the city’s geography.
Various gates punctuate the barrier – including Micklegate Bar, Monk Bar and so on (York is a city where the streets are gates and the gates are bars), which are imperious looking mini-castles, often with period rooms above.
Even the bus stops are dripping with archaism – a mock Tudor shelter greets you coming out of the grand 19th century train station and lets you know you’ve come to a place with serious heritage.
But the city seems keen not to wallow in nostalgia – it enjoys a cracking eating out scene (it was recently named best food destination in the UK, and fifth best in Europe, by a popular travel website) and a thriving creative community, having just been chosen as an Unesco city of media arts.
For our visit, we stayed in the Mount Royale, an ivy clad, three star, William IV listed building just a ten minute jaunt from the old city walls towards the race famous course.
East Coast Trains run a remarkably fast service from London, but despite a journey of around two hours, heading up after work on a Friday night engenders a quiet night in.
Luckily in Oxo’s, the hotel has one of the best restaurants in the city – head chef Russell Johnson has created a very English, very good quality menu of winter satisfaction.
Thus refreshed, the following morning we set off in search of adventure.
York has lots of ‘must see’ attractions – far too many for one weekend. All you can do is your best.
By happy chance, we visited during the city’s annual Viking festival, which meant men in helmets (un-horned, thank you, check your Norse history) running around the streets, engaging in mock battles, driving livestock, shouting and other Viking pursuits.
Thoroughly inspired, our first stop was a pilgrimage to Jorvik – which many readers will remember from their youth.
It’s undergone a couple of technological advancements since I last went on a school trip – you are now carried round in a time capsule – but the famous smell remains and it continues to be a fascinating insight into our Scandinavian ancestors’ lives, which involved much less rape and pillage than I was led to believe.
Some of the attractions can get rather busy (in fact, the York Dungeons had a two hour queue) so don’t try to fit too much in. Instead, enjoy strolling round the famous snickets, with endearing names like Mad Alice Lane, which offer some lovely examples of Gothic architecture. A lot of the shops are a bit twee and touristy, but it’s nonetheless a great place for a constitutional.
The Minster – biggest of its kind in northern Europe – is predictably incredible, featuring an amazing array of stained glass and the famous Heart of Yorkshire window, where legend has it newly weds should kiss to seal their relationship for ever.
By which point an elegant snack at Yorkshire institution Betty’s – complete with a glass of champagne and a luxurious selection of tea, cakes and sandwiches – left us ready for a nap.
In another nod to the Viking festival, we spent the evening at the post-Ragnarok (Norse Armageddon) wedding of Lif and Lifthrasir. Taking place in the beautiful Merchant Taylors’ Hall in front of a roaring fire, it was an unusual event, but lots of fun – much carousing and wassailing took place along side feasting on meat and mutton.
Just time, then, for a look round some of the ancient and very attractive watering holes; the Blue Bell looked lovely, as did the Judges’ Lodgings, but in the end we settled into the Golden Fleece – the city’s most haunted pub, home to some decidedly wonky walls and floors and, on our visit, excellent folk cover bands. Many a pint was supped.
It’s a cliché, but a trip to York really gives you the chance to dive into our country’s rich historic tapestry – and reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall on the way up made me feel I was getting a slightly firmer grip on the past. If you need a break from the glass behemoths of central London, pop up to God’s own county and enjoy one of the jewels of the north.