A trip to York in the United Kingdom has it all, including medieval minsters and Guy Fawkes, cobbled stone streets and a dungeon.
By George Christopher Thomas, Travel Writer
YORK, UNITED KINGDOM — I had heard of this city for decades. After all, one of the most famous places in America is New York … and we were off to Old York. In England, however, the locals just call it York, and it’s one of the coolest places I have ever visited as a tourist. We drove in after dark on a recent winter day, and stayed at the B+B York just outside the famous walls of this incredible, historic city.
York has such a historic atmosphere that it almost feels like a theme park version of Olde England. I was waiting for King Arthur and some of his Knights to trot through the streets carrying jousting sticks on their way to a tournament with Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. But this is the real deal. There are genuine fortress walls surrounding the city, and once we made our way through the boundaries — just minutes on foot from the B+B — it began to feel even more medieval and historic.
Before we began our tour of this famous place we has a proper English breakfast at the B+B York, located off Saint Peters Grove. This quaint bed and breakfast is ideally situated for a stay in York, within walking distance of the walls and the city center. We had driven in from Scotland, and were knackered as they say in this country. After six hours in the car, it was time to check in, find some pizza and beer, and then knock out for the night in preparation for a full day of tours.
The staff at B+B York were friendly and accommodating, recommending the best delivery pizza place, as well as helping us get oriented on the map before the next day of activities. We had King’s Pizza delivered right to the door of the B+B York. We feasted and rested, ready to wake and explore York for all of the following day.
We were up before the sun, which isn’t that big of a deal in England during the winter time. The B+B York includes a full English breakfast with your stay, and you are well advised to clean your plate before embarking on touring this great Northern City. For those unacquainted with a full English, it includes sausage, bacon, eggs, mushrooms, grilled tomato, plenty of toast, and a pot of tea or coffee. The B+B also has a selection of juices, cereals, and fruit available.
Before our visit, everyone I told we were going to York mentioned the Minster, and I wondered how great it could really be. After all, you if you have seen one Gothic minster, you have seen them all. Well, this was not the case at all. After entering the city walls, you can see the very tops of the Minster’s towers above all the other buildings. This church must be pretty tall, I thought to myself, and then it happened: I got to see what everyone had been talking about all this time — the most grand and beautiful church I had ever seen.
The York Minster is the largest Gothic cathedral in the UK, and all of Northern Europe. This building is huge, and in snapping a few dozen photos just of the front of this massive structure, I had trouble fitting its facade in the scope of my camera. I told my wife and 10-month-old son that we had to go inside and tour this monument.
Well, the inside was as brilliant and gorgeous as the outside. It was a few days before Christmas, and we were fortunate to discover an outstanding choir rehearsing Christmas carols inside the acoustically magical hall. I lit a candle and said a prayer, feeling the provenance of the centuries of worship in the Minster that continue to this day.
We walked around the entire minster, including the museum underneath the church. We learned how the Minster was in danger of collapsing in the 1950s, and was saved by an impressive feat of engineering, planting 20th century concrete alongside the remains of Roman stone columns.
After several walks around the church, we wandered off to the Shambles, the most photographed street in all of Europe. This is one of the best preserved medieval shopping streets in Europe. In its heyday, the Shambles was lined with York’s butchers’ shops, and you can still see the meat hooks hanging from the fronts of the second stories. The street is also situated to be out of direct sunlight throughout the day, so as to preserve the meat hanging in front of the butchers’ shops. Today the picturesque street is home to cafes and boutiques, and it is a great place for shopping and walking around. The butchers have long since moved on, but one can imagine how it was in the times of Shakespeare and King John, with the bustling street flooded with people in a noisy, chaotic jumble of York residents going to and fro, looking for a deal on that night’s supper.
It is amazing how much history there is in this one English locale, dating back some 2,000 years. The Romans had occupied York, and a couple of Roman Emperors died there. The Vikings were also present for a couple of hundred years, as were the Anglos and the Saxons. After walking through the Shambles, we went to the Jorvik Viking Center. The Vikings settled in York for hundreds of years starting around the 10th century. I had no idea the Vikings had traveled this far south in Europe, and had always imagined them up in Sweden and Denmark. When they occupied the city of York, they called it Jorvik, and the museum and center of the same name is very informative. A few decades back Viking artifacts were discovered in York, and after excavating the area, they found thousands of Viking treasures that revealed much about how these people lived.
The Vikings’ lives were not that different than yours or mine, in many ways. They had one and two story homes, ate a diet of beef and fish, and traded goods with other people and cultures throughout northern and western Europe. The Jorvik Viking Center is a great place to learn about these ancient Scandinavian people, and if you are in the market for a battle axe, you can purchase one in the gift shop. The center comprises an interactive museum, and a ride that takes you through a Viking village.
After the Jorvik Viking Center, we took a walk around York to see more sights and take pictures. Among the landmarks is Clifford’s Tower, built atop a grassy mound in 1068 by William the Conqueror. You can walk up to the top of the tower, and see sweeping panoramic views of York and the surrounding countryside. This is also the place where a terrible massacre took place in 1190. A mob of angry residents wanted York’s Jewish community to renounce their religion. Instead of denying their Judaism, they took refuge in the tower from the mob. Unable to escape, they committed mass suicide, and the wooden tower was set on fire. Survivors were all killed.
Just about a stone’s throw from Clifford’s Tower is the York Dungeon. This place of inhumane torture gives the tourist a glimpse into York’s dark past. Although this dark and theatrical attraction wasn’t ideal for a 10-month old baby, my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the tour. At first I thought it would be a narrated tour of the dungeon, but it turned out to be an hour and a half show with theater antics and interactive shows in each of a series of room full of stories and history. What happened to Guy Fawkes there at the dungeon would make anyone’s stomach turn, and the reenactment left nothing for the imagination. We also heard the tale of infamous highwayman Dick Turpin, and the legend of The Golden Fleece, among other medieval misadventures. This tour proved to be a fun way to learn about York’s colorful history.
After the dark and morbid tour of the dungeon, we decided to lighten things up a bit and went on the York’s Chocolate Story tour. We discovered that the Kit-Kat chocolate bar was invented in York, a city known as the United Kingdom’s chocolate capital. While other cities in England went the way of the industrial revolution, producing wool, cotton, steel, cars and manufacturing, the city of York went into the chocolate business. The tour lasted just over an hour, and gave us an in-depth history of the chocolate business, as well as live chocolate-making demonstrations from skilled chocolatiers, and plenty of sweet samples. We also got to make our own chocolate lollypop at the end of the tour.
With so much to see and do in York, a day trip is barely enough time to do it all. There were several attractions we were sorry to miss, including the Henry the VIII Experience, and the York boat that travels up and down the River Ouse. There is also a hop-on-hop-off bus tour that runs during most of the year, as well as several castles and museums to check out if you have the time. We only had time for the top attractions, and it was quite the jam-packed day for us.
If you only have a day, tour the York Minster, walk along the Shambles to do some shopping and take some pictures. If you have children, the Jorvik Viking Center and the York Dungeon tour are great for most ages. Also be sure to get a Yorkshire pudding. Here, they’re not just a side dish, but a full plate-sized meal filled with lamb, turkey or beef, plus gravy, potatoes and vegetables.
We thoroughly enjoyed our adventure in York, and our stay at the B+B York proved ideal. York has been voted the top place to live in England, and with its rich history and culture, I can see why it’s one of the top attractions in the United Kingdom. (www.bb-york.com/)