Travel review: York

York Minster

York Minster - Credit: Archant

It was founded more than 2,000 years ago by the Romans, became the capital of the Vikings’ northern kingdom and was sacked by the Normans after mounting a failed rebellion.

The Shambles

The Shambles - Credit: Archant

York has been through a lot over the centuries – and it even gave the world the Kit Kat.

Middlethorpe Hall & Spa

Middlethorpe Hall & Spa - Credit: Archant

There are reminders of this rich heritage at every turn, from majestic York Minster to the famous walls and battlements that encircle and once defended the city.


Stonegate - Credit: Archant

And for Londoners keen to delve into this beguiling treasure trove of a city, now is a great time to visit.

York is famed for its city walls, the longest and most complete in England, first built by the Roman

York is famed for its city walls, the longest and most complete in England, first built by the Romans, the vastly expanded by the Normans. Picture: Jim Richardson / - Credit: Jim Richardson

East Coast trains has been advertising cut-price single fares for as little as £13 from King’s Cross and journeys can take under two hours.

I recently visited for the first time since I was far too young to remember, staying for two nights at Middlethorpe Hotel Hall & Spa, a beautiful hotel about five minutes from the town by car, near York Racecourse.

The city has clearly embraced its status as a popular tourist destination and there is certainly plenty to do.

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I couldn’t cram in all the highlights in such a short stay, but a guided tour was a good place to start.

I was led around the historic city centre by Matthew of Exploring York (, who proved an engaging guide with a taste for the odd cheesy joke.

He helped engender a real sense there is a fascinating story behind every nook and cranny of the city – and much of them are pretty gory.

There were tales of highwayman Dick Turpin’s execution, the notorious Harrying of the North, York’s most famous son Guy Fawkes, and the massacre of the Jews on the site that now hosts the iconic Clifford’s Tower, which can be scaled for views of the city.

Matthew also took us to the most famous street in York, The Shambles, which was named the most picturesque road in the country after topping a Google poll. It is a stunningly well-preserved medieval street, with overhanging, misshapen timber buildings responsible for much of its charm.

Once upon a time, it housed dozens of butchers who would have hung their meat out in the street and thought nothing of chucking discarded flesh onto the blood-streaked cobbles.

Next up was the York Castle Museum, famed for its convincing recreation of a Victorian street, where you can wander in and out of the shops, chat with historically-informed attendants dressed in Victorian garb and even purchase vintage sweets.

After a tiring day of tours and museums, we headed back to our hotel.

Built in 1699, Middlethorpe is a converted country house that fell into disrepair and by the 1970s had become a nightclub, but has now been refurbished.

Favoured by the likes of Richard and Judy, the Duke of York and even Hollywood megastar Russell Crowe, it has been elegantly restored to its 18th century splendour, with plush period fittings throughout.

The hotel also boasts 20 acres of beautiful gardens and an excellent restaurant, where we enjoyed a fantastic evening meal that culminated in a storming cheeseboard with a total of 11 British offerings to pick from.

The next day we were treated to a behind-the-scenes peek at the restoration work going on at York Minster, a truly fascinating experience.

The Minster is in the midst of a huge restoration project on the east window – which dates back to the 12th century – and is the largest expanse of stained glass in the world. Apparently it was built for £56, but it will now take £20million and eight years to restore.

The panes have been removed and some are on display in a special exhibition space, so visitors can appreciate the stunningly detailed artistry up close.

We were also able to see the highly-skilled technicians painstakingly cleaning and replacing the lead in the windows.

This workshop is only opened three times a week, so pick your dates carefully if you’re into glass (as I have now discovered I am).

Climbing the 275 spiral stairs to reach the top of the central tower for stunning views is another must.

We also found time to enjoy the Jorvik Viking Centre, the highlight of which is a recreated Viking village, which you get taken around in a chair on rails. It’s a bit like going on the world’s slowest rollercoaster, but more fun than that sounds.

There was also afternoon tea at Bettys, drinks at the historic Black Swan pub dating back to the 15th century, a late-night “ghost tour” – York has been branded the world’s most haunted city by people who know about such matters – and a thorough exploration of the city’s history of chocolate, as the home of Terry’s and Rowntree, the creators of the Kit Kat.

Not only did we visit York’s Chocolate Story, a sort of interactive museum that would be fun for kids, but also the York Cocoa House.

This more grown up affair doubles as a cafe where the food all contains chocolate – even the savoury sandwiches or soups – and a “chocolate school” where you can learn how to make the stuff.

All great fun, but you can’t really beat simply wandering around the historic streets. While it is no longer a seat of power or titan of industry, York remains one of the UK’s most charming and fascinating cities.

* Go to for more information on accommodation, activities and more. A two-day York Pass offering free entry to over 30 attractions costs £48.

* Tom Marshall stayed at Middlethorpe Hall & Spa. Call 01904 641 241 or visit

* East Coast operates 72 weekday services between King’s Cross and York, including an hourly non-stop service that takes as little as one hour 49 minutes.

Customers travelling first class enjoy East Coast’s complimentary food and drinks offer plus unlimited wi-fi. Lowest fares are always online at Times and fares also on 08457 225225 or from staffed stations and agencies.