To the tune of ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’…
The grand ol’ town of York
It rates ten out of ten
I walked the walls, the streets and the parks
And I walked them ‘round again
When I walked on the wall I was up
When I walked by the river I was down
And when I walked the cobbled streets
I was neither up nor down
I had the day on my own to explore York, while Steve was on a road and rail trip to and from Edinburgh to return the van. This will be one blog post where Steve and my stories will be completely different! I’m sorry Steve didn’t get to experience my day, because I had a great day! A fantastic day! First of all, it was sunny and warm and with temperatures hitting the mid-twenties I actually got to spend the day in a t-shirt. I’d decided to start the day with one of the free walking tours that are led by volunteer guides, because the one we did in Bath was really good, so I thought I’d try the York version. So today’s blog post will probably be less an account from me and more of a summary and recounting of some of the stories and sights from this tour, because it was brilliant!
After a solo breakfast at the guest house, I walked into the city and had a stroll around for an hour while I waited for the start time for the tour. I walked beside the river and found myself walking along Dame Judi Dench Walk. Judi Dench was born in York and began her acting career here in the Mystery Plays, which are medieval plays performed in different locations around the city. They’re performed in public spaces and they’re put on by local actors and volunteers and many years ago, one of them was Judi Dench!
After a stroll by the river I walked in the beautiful, bright, morning sunshine through the Museum Gardens. This is a beautiful garden and was even more so in the sunshine and summer colour.
It was here that I spent some time doing my all time favourite form of free entertainment! When we’ve travelled in the U.S., this is my favourite way to spend some time and have a smile and I was yet to do it here, so this morning I had the opportunity to be entertained with my favourite pastime of…squirrel watching! They’re such funny little things, especially if they’re on the hunt for nuts! I smiled while I watched Stan find some nuts and then set about frantically scratching in the dirt to bury them. Not long after he’d successfully completed, what he obviously thought was a splendid job of subterfuge, along came Gwendolyn, who I think had been covertly observing Stan and his nut-burying work and was all set to rob him of his stash!
I wandered over to the meet point for the tour and met Pat, our guide and there were three other Australians in the group, from Canberra. After some greetings and a chat to Pat, we were off. So you can now come along for the walk and join me on an abridged version of this tour of sights and stories!
As we walked towards the Museum Gardens, we walked beside part of the famous York Wall. This section had been broken and the wall originally ran in a complete line all the way around the city. This broken section is a result of a decision in the 19th century, to pull down the wall. It was thankfully saved by William Etty, a York artist, famous for his paintings of rather voluptuous naked ladies, who began a campaign to save the wall. The demolition was eventually stopped and the wall preserved. Phew! Thanks Bill! Thanks to your determination and proactive protests, this significant piece of history was saved!
In the gardens we found the Multiangular Tower, which was part of a Roman Fort. It’s since been added to, in the centuries after the Romans left, and the two different types of brick show the different periods. The bottom part of the tower is Roman, because they built with smaller bricks, the upper part is post-Roman because it’s been built with larger stones. The row of red bricks is typical of Roman forts. Apparently they always included a row of red bricks and some think this was for reasons of strength, because the red stones were stronger and others think it could have been something like a badge, to mark the fort as Roman and let others know it was a Roman fortification.
At the base of the tower are stone coffins. Apparently these are all over York and have been found in various locations. The ones here are different sizes, but the small ones aren’t for children, they’re for cremation. This would have been an expensive form of burial and no doubt a challenging task for the stonemasons, who must have toiled long and hard to meet demand.
“Good evening my bonny master of stone. I have cometh to requesteth one of your masterfully chiselled burial caskets for mine dearest Auntie Ermyntrude, who has sadly left this worldly place after an affliction of the nasal sniffles and flemmish chest. We commit her earthly body to the soil of York in the morrow, so require a speedy chisel to provide her with a suitably crafted burial vessel. Please knock one up over this night my good fellow.”
I’m sure the poor old stone masons had to burn the midnight oil many times because of last minute orders to provide a stone coffin for a client!
Standing a short distance from the Multiangular Tower is St. Leonards Hospital, a Norman building. It was originally known as St. Peters and was built in the 13th century. When William the Conqueror arrived, he set about burning most of Yorkshire. He sent his knights out to burn towns, crops and York itself and anyone who resisted was killed. He then sat in Yorkminster, the grand cathedral in the city, wearing his crown and handing out plots of land to his knights, as a reward for their work. The knights felt guilty about being made rich as a result of the violence and destruction they had performed, so ended up putting much of this wealth into the hospital which allowed it to be expanded. It was at one time, the biggest hospital in the north of England.
Strolling back out into the gardens there were a couple of trees that were particularly unique. One had been grafted during Victorian times and was now a strange Beech/Oak hybrid. The leaves are Beech, but the trunk and branches are Oak. It’s a olde worlde mutant tree! The other one is a Ghinko Biloba tree that has been planted upside down to encourage ferns to grow in it. Curiouser and curiouser!
St. Mary’s Abbey sits within the gardens and this was once the richest monastery in the north of England. When the priests arrived, they initially focused on doing good works, but over time discovered their suppressed love of wealth and women and set about taking money from the people and spending their time with various mistresses! Oh, the whiff of corruption! This continued until Henry VIII arrived and he put a stop the monasteries forthwith!
What’s amazing about this city is just the age of everything and the fact that centuries old artefacts and buildings are everywhere and in the most run-of-the-mill places. Within the garden, just sitting beside the path, is one of the oldest things around. This is a Celtic stone that’s 7000 years old! People sit on it to eat their sandwiches or rest their feet on it to tie their shoelaces and many would have no idea they’re resting their feet or bottoms on something that dates from BC time!
Time to walk the city walls. The wall runs around the city and is another mixture of Roman and post-Roman features. It was constructed during Roman times but during the Victorian period, the people who made the decisions took it upon themselves to try and pretty things up. Our priceless guide Pat, described it as the “Disneyfication” of everything! The Victorians liked to romanticise things, so some of the features are not original, but date from the time of Victorian exterior design! The walkway itself isn’t original. The Romans didn’t have this style of path around the wall from which to fight. All the Romans had was the ledge at the top of the wall. They would put ladders up to this ledge and fire arrows and fight from there.
There are small holes in sections and these would have held pieces of dowel, with a flap attached. The flap could be flipped forward to fire arrows and then it would flip back down again for protection.
The army would recruit children as young as five years old, who had to go up to these spaces, with a bow and one arrow. Once they had fired their arrow, they could leave. Imagine that! Kiddies today think life’s tough if they’re asked to eat a bit of broccoli! Try firing an arrow at an invading Scottish army!
There were other features that were added by the Victorians, such as the cross shaped holes for firing arrows. This wasn’t a Roman design and they certainly wouldn’t have been firing arrows through tiny little spaces like that. In fact, the Romans didn’t do a lot of fighting from their forts at all, they preferred to go out and fight and show their strength and aggression by taking the initiative and advancing from their fortresses, rather than fighting from within them.
One of the archways leading into the city, is Monks Gate and there’s even a small mark left by the stonemason who created it!
Behind the grand cathedral, Yorkminster, are the tiny cobbled streets, such as Chapter House Street. Along here are examples of houses that had the large, overhanging eaves built into them. Originally, these would have had holes included in them, from the people living there. When people stood or walked under the eaves, their conversations could be heard from within the houses, as the sound travelled up through the holes. This is the origin of the saying, “eaves dropping”!
These streets led to the back of Yorkminster and the Chapter House. This is the only unconsecrated building and was used for church business. There’s ten tonne of lead in the roof and it has no internal supports! It’s just sitting on the external wooden frame! The fact that it’s still there shows what remarkable engineering that must be!
Along these streets we found a house that holds a sad, but now spooky story. During the plague, a family lived there with their small daughter. They thought she had the plague, so they tied her to a door and left her. When they eventually returned, it was to discover that she hadn’t had the plague after all and had eventually died of starvation. On some nights, she can now be heard wailing in distress. York is apparently full of ghosts and ghost stories!
Tucked behind the bustling city streets is a tiny little church, Holy Trinity. It’s completely original and still has the old wooden pews and undulating floors. It’s manned and preserved entirely by volunteers, who work hard to preserve it in its original form. It was a lovely little building.
We finished the tour in The Shambles, where we sat in the small chapel, containing a shrine to Saint Margaret Clitherow. Margaret was a butcher’s wife who, with a priest hole in her house, harboured Jesuit priests during the times when priests were being killed in the 16th century. This was eventually discovered and she was sentenced to death. She was well thought of in the town and the sheriff didn’t want to see her put to death, but it was the law of the land, so the sentence was to be carried out. She was laid out on a stone on the Ouse Bridge, her own front door was laid on top of her and stones were piled on top of this to crush her to death. They were unable to find any local men prepared to lift the stones and carry out this task, so they recruited itinerant labour to do the job. It took her about 15 minutes to die. She was canonised in 1970.
That concluded the tour. Pat, our guide had such a fantastic way of telling a story and showing us some hidden gems and the tour ended up going for over 2 ½ hours. She kept us enthralled and reeled off names and dates with perfect memory! At the end of the tour, she hugged us all in turn and as we hugged, she said to me, “Stay safe on your travels.” I thanked her and said it had been the absolute, best tour of any we had done in all our travels.
I wandered back through The Shambles to Goji, a small vegetarian and vegan cafe, to pick up some takeaway lunch. I then sat in the park behind the Minster and Chapter House and enjoyed lunch in the sunshine. I retraced the steps of some of the tour to have a closer look at some things, then strolled back to the Museum Gardens, wrote some notes from the tour while stories were still in my memory and by then, it was time to walk to the train station to meet Steve. Shortly after arriving, he sent me a message to say the train was sitting on the line, held up by a train in front that was experiencing technical difficulties. He ended up sitting there a while because the train was an hour late. When Steve finally appeared on the platform, I took him on a shortened version of the tour, to show him some of the sights and features I’d seen and told him some of the stories. Then time was getting on, so it was time to find some supper. I picked up a salad at Sainsbury’s and Steve found some noodles in a Chinese takeaway and we returned to our room to feast. It was a feast, because I had also picked us up some dessert from Goji and Steve had a decadent slice of vegan chocolate and ale cake and I had a piece of Earl Grey and blueberry cake and it was delicious! Time to stop eating cake now! That’s my fourth piece on this trip, but the novelty of vegan choice and treats when I find them, is irresistible at times!
My day of flying solo was most enjoyable! The time flew and I happily strolled and looked and discovered and people watched and just enjoyed being in this beautiful city that is full of so much history and so many amazing stories. The tour was a brilliant way to start the day and being blessed with a superb guide such as Pat, gave me the perfect background to York, as I continued by roaming.
Tomorrow it’s back to the bikes and a return to pedal power. We are approaching this with a mixture of relief and trepidation! Relief that we are going back to doing what we are supposed to do and getting out of the fast moving vehicle and back to our ‘slow travel’ mode of transport. The nerves are there though, because we’re bound to have lost some fitness and it will probably feel a whole lot harder than it did a couple of weeks ago. We’ll do it though! We’ll be back to the hills and the woolly weather and we’ll probably huff and puff a bit more than usual, but we’ll do it. We have so far, so we’ll just keep pedalling on and I’m sure the legs will remember what to do. Are you ready little bike? Limber up, warm up those spokes and gears, we’re ready to go!