I have had my draft of this post open on my computer for two days and all I’ve managed to write is: “York.”
Eboracum, capital of Britannia Inferior. Jorvik, capital of of the kingdom of Northumbria. York, capital of the northern ecclesiastical province of the Church of England. The city has always been mighty.
Where to start when it comes to one of the highlights of our Great British Roadtrip? The history, from York’s Viking and Roman roots to its rise as a stronghold of the North (and its associations with one of England’s most notorious kings), seems a reasonable place.
Founded in 71 AD, York enjoyed a rise to prominence thanks to its advantageous location, where the rivers Foss and Ouse meet. Many peoples have settled here over the centuries, among them the Romans, Angles, and Vikings. Today evidence of their existence has been painstakingly preserved (and, in some cases, replicated) at a number of museums and exhibits, including the JORVIK Viking Centre, which provides an in-depth look at the city’s Viking roots, and York Castle Museum, home to a much-touted recreated Victorian street and history both ancient and modern. And the Yorkshire Museum is filled with treasures from the city’s Roman days.
York also happens to have the longest medieval town walls anywhere in England, all 3.4km of which you can walk. The walls can be accessed at a number of different gates, also called bars; if you don’t want to stroll the entire length (about a two-hour walk), enter at Bootham Bar and head towards Monk Bar. This trail offers a stunning view of York Minster, although you will miss many of the other gates and towers, called posterns, on this walk. Friends of York Walls has solid recommendations for routes, as well as points of interest, along the walls.
Finish your walk on the walls at Monk Bar, and you’re on your way to deciding whether King Richard really did do his nephews in.
York is inextricably tied to Richard III, England’s last Plantagenet king. And Richard III is forever linked to Henry VII, England’s Tudor king who defeated him at the Battle of Bosworth. There are two museums in York dedicated to the monarchs, the Richard III Experience and the Henry VII Experience. Each explores the kings’ influence on York itself, as well as their parts in wider English history. They are located at two of the city’s main gateways, Monk and Micklegate Bars, respectively.
No post about York’s history would be complete without mention of York Minster. The seat of the Archbishop of York, England’s second highest ecclesiastical office, exudes awe-inspiring splendor. As the second largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, York Minster has been built, rebuilt, refurbished, and restored over hundreds of years, starting in the 600s (although construction on the current building started in the mid 1200s). You might get a sore neck from craning to look at all the architectural facets of the cathedral. Look for the Five Sisters Window, the Heart of Yorkshire (purported to be good luck if you kiss your sweetheart under it), the Kings’ Screen (featuring the likeness of English kings from William the Conqueror to Henry VI), the organ, and the rose window. And don’t skip the undercroft museum, housing rare artefacts from York’s Roman and Viking days, including a Viking horn.
Some visitors to York Minster may be surprised that there is an entrance fee, but given the massive efforts it takes to preserve and operate the cathedral, the price is quite reasonable. The cathedral also indicates quite clearly it “never charges people to enter the cathedral to pray, light a candle, or attend a service”. Queues for entrance are likely, especially early in the morning, but tickets can be purchased in advance to circumvent them.
For all of the city’s early history, one of York’s most fascinating museums has nothing to do with the medieval period. The National Railway Museum provides an interactive, immersive experience that will have even the most unlikely visitors declaring they’re born-again train enthusiasts, or at least train connoisseurs. (Entrance is free, but please consider a donation for such a wonderful facility). Two main halls house trains ranging from rail’s earliest days to the present, including a Shinkansen bullet train. Many of the cars’ interiors have also been preserved, although only those on special tours can enter them. (You can still peer into them from the platform).
Even the museum’s cafe is a visual delight, lovingly decorated with details that hearken to a bygone era and the glamour of travel in days past.
The best time to go is towards the end of the day, but leave yourself at least two hours to get a good look. The tour buses will have packed up and gone, leaving you to wander among the rail cars at your leisure. As Matthew enthused to me, “This museum wasn’t why we came to York, but it might be the reason we come back!”
York transcends hundreds of years of history.
From its medieval period as an epicentre for the wool trade to its heyday in the 19th century as a major rail hub, the city has retained a timeless mystique and ever-evolving vibrancy. It has cemented itself as my favourite stop on our Great British Roadtrip, one I would return to many times over given the opportunity.