I will argue the best way to see York is to get lost in it. It could be along the main roads that pass through the gates (known as bars) of the city walls, or York’s mysterious snickelways, winding footpaths tucked away in plain sight that duck between buildings and link broader streets to one another. With half-timbered buildings looming crookedly overhead, so lopsided sometimes I thought they might tip over, I felt like I was transported back in time.
Nowhere was this feeling more apparent than in York’s famous Shambles. The lane’s name has nothing to do with the state of the overhanging timbered buildings; rather, it once housed butcher shops who displayed their goods on “fleshammels”, an Anglo-Saxon word for their shelves. Can you imagine the filth and muck, the stench of meat rotting in the sun, the road covered in the slop of entrails and blood? Luckily these days the Shambles are more pleasant. The street bustles with people brushing against one another as they peep into shops and are tempted by the scent of freshly-baked pies, while others peer down curiously through windows on the upper floors to catch sight of the scene.
After dark, the Shambles take on a spooky, otherworldly quality to them. It was easy to see why ghost tours are a fixture of the tourist scene as shadows in corners took on shifting shapes.
York’s snickelways are another source of fascination for me. They’re easy to miss, but irresistible to venture down when you spot them. Narrow, too small for a vehicle to pass through, they lead to sometimes surprising places. And, like the snickelways themselves, their names are often mysteriously quirky.
There’s Mad Alice Lane, named for a woman who murdered her abusive husband and hanged for it.
There’s Grape Lane, which isn’t so odd except when you learn it used to be called Gropecunt Lane. Reasonably enough judging from the name, this snickelway was a hub of prostitution in the Middle Ages.
There’s Lady Peckett’s Yard, named after the wife of the Lord Mayor of York in the early 18th century.
There’s Coffee Yard, the longest snickelway of them all. This one, which branches off of Stonegate, leads to Barley Hall, a medieval town house you can tour for a small fee. When we went, there was an exhibit on the costumes from the television series Wolf Hall, but even without it, the house was worth a once-around. It bears worth mentioning that nearly everything in Barley Hall is either a restoration or recreation; while fascinating to see the rooms as they would have looked in medieval times, visitors shouldn’t expect to see original artefacts that date from the Middle Ages themselves.
And there are countless other snickelways for you for you to stumble upon on your own, or else discover with the aid of a guide like that from Secret York. There’s just something intriguing about these little lanes that make you feel as if you’re seeing a whole different side of York!