Spring brings out the travel bug in me and this year I headed for York. I hadn’t been there for many years so it felt like a whole new experience. The weather was beautiful, as were the early daffodils, the buildings, the gates and the handmade fudge. I shamelessly turned tourist and revelled in the gorgeousness of a city that’s bursting with history and proud of it.
First up was a visit to the York Castle Museum, I was especially delighted by the individual rooms and street reconstructions; imaginative, atmospheric and informative.
Further into the city I wandered up a little alleyway and found the medieval Holy Trinity church at Goodramgate. Cute on the outside and a revelation on the inside. It’s one of the few churches that wasn’t remodelled by the Victorians; the once common 17th-century box family pews are still there. I’ve never seen anything like it, except at (I think) St Martin In The Fields in London. There is also a rare example of a hagioscope, an angled window built into the chapel wall that enabled the chantry priest to say mass at the same time as the officiating priest at the high altar. Thanks to a representative of the Churches Conservation Trust who shared lots of brilliant detail about this unusual and beautiful church, with its wildly uneven floors and 15th century stained glass. Well worth a visit to York just for this enchanting step back in time.
A walk around the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey reveals much potential for a silent horror film set, despite the bright flowers, lush lawns and families playing in the sun; Nosferatu could have easily been sleeping somewhere nearby.
And so to the Minster. It’s a tourism cliche I suppose, nevertheless it’s spectacular and endlessly interesting. There has been a place of worship on this site since 627AD. The Norman style building dates from 1080, with many later additions; it’s the biggest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe and has the largest collection of medieval stained glass in the world.
First impressions of light and space:
Once I’d stopped gawping, I began to notice some lovely human touches among the stonework.
The chapterhouse, the place for meetings rather than worship, has beautiful, intricate floor tiles and, according to a guide I overheard, the stonemasons had a bit of freedom here to make their mark on the cathedral, and so they did with stone portraits of who knows… perhaps family members or other masons? Utterly magical.
I was visiting on International Women’s Day and there was a large group of women and girls sewing and making goods in aid of the charity Days For Girls, which provides hygiene kits for girls and women to manage their periods without losing school and work days.
The streets in the old quarter have avoided the horrors of many other high streets, which are so often pockmarked with pound shops, cheap card shops and other gaudy tat. Instead, independent retailers dominate: it’s a joy to walk along Fossgate past vintage clothes shops and quirky cafes, even with the current flood repair work in full flow. What’s missing is an independent book shop, although there is (at least) one proper record shop, selling vinyl and all. I live near Cambridge, a city that could easily be as interesting as York, but has been populated by characterless chain stores with little individuality. If only Cambridge would learn a lesson from York.
And of course there is the craziest street name ever, for the tiniest street you can imagine, just a few metres long:
“Whip-ma-whop-ma-gate. The shortest street in York. Known in 1505 as Whitnourwhatnourgate (and meaning ‘What a street!’) it was changed later to its present name.”
The last stop before the homeward train was the National Railway Museum. I didn’t think it would be especially interesting, not being a mechanically-minded kind of gal, but I was wrong – it was brilliant. And it’s free! The collection is a great lesson in social history from the 1830s, not only the locomotives themselves, but signs with orders for the workers to abide by, film footage of the Flying Scotsman (sadly not on show on this day). It’s a tangible way to connect with our ancestors’ lives that were forever changed by the coming of the railway.
And that was it! My visit was over. I’ll be back, that’s for sure; there is so much to see and enjoy in York and there are the Moors, the coast and so on. I can’t wait.
- There’s a good timeline of York from prehistoric to modern times http://www.historyofyork.org.uk/
See York and Yorkshire on film
- Yorkshire Film Archive holds several films of York dating from the 1920s.
- Search the BFI’s Britain on Film collection, which has 27 archive films of York, including the railways and tourism. This from 1963 http://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-sites-and-theatre-in-york-1963/.