Stephen Lawrence - 2011-01-20
As well as its Roman, Viking, and Medieval heritage, York is renowned for being a jolly nice place to visit. Steeped in history, with a vibrant café culture and lively cultural scene, the city has something for everyone – whatever floats your boat - or should that be whatever steams your engine, for York is a city synonymous with Britain’s rail industry.
Unless your one of the many thousands of railway buffs that heads to York’s National Railway Museum each year (more of that later), the most logical starting point to any visit to this beautiful city is a visit to York Minster. Described as Northern Europe's greatest gothic cathedral, the Minster offers a fascinating insight into York’s history and development through the ages, from the Roman occupation through to the present day.
Having taken the best part of 250 years to build, it’s no surprise (and something of a relief) that the Minster is regarded as an artistic and architectural masterpiece. Be sure to visit the Octagonal Chapter house, constructed between 1260 and 1286, where you’ll find some of the Minster's finest carvings.
Head, too, for the depths of the Cathedral where you can explore Roman, Norman and Viking remains and the jewels of the treasury in the Undercroft, Treasury and Crypt. For those fit enough to take on the Tower’s daunting 275 step climb, there’s the reward of some fantastic views of the city's ancient streets. Those that choose to brave the climb can distract themselves (and pause for breath) by admiring the numerous medieval pinnacles and gargoyles along the way.
Jorvik Viking Centre
York is immensely proud of its Viking heritage and the Jorvik Viking Centre represents one of the most famous and astonishing discoveries of modern archaeology, allowing visitors to experience Viking-era York first-hand. Archaeologists discovered the houses, workshops and backyards of the Viking-Age city of Jorvik, as it stood 1,000 years ago, during the Coppergate dig, a five year excavation project that began in the late seventies. The incredible archaeological detective work that lay behind the Coppergate dig is now open to public viewing on the original excavation site. Audio and video displays are available to help visitors to piece together the jigsaw of where the Vikings came from, what brought them to York and how they lived and died. It’s a fascinating opportunity to encounter old-Norse speaking citizens, to see inside Viking-era houses and back yards. Kids will love it!
The Shambles is often referred to as Europe's best preserved medieval street, though the name also covers a surrounding maze of narrow, twisting lanes and alleys. The street dates back for over 900 years and is mentioned in the Domesday Book.
Walking through The Shambles presents a time-travelling glimpse of Elizabethan life. Houses, bursting with character, jostle for space, their upper levels reaching out across the narrow lane in a seeming attempt to kiss the facades of those opposite. In some places the street is so narrow that you can stand with arms outstretched and touch the houses on both sides!
The name originates from a Saxon term, "Fleshammels", translating as “street of the butchers”, for it was here that the city's butcher's market was located. Look out for the giveaway wide window sills still found on some houses, once used by butchers to display their wares.
The butcher's shops have long since been replaced by high quality boutiques, art galleries, jewellery and antique gift shops that have established the Shambles as a key shopping destination in the city.
If you find yourself wandering through The Shambles, look out for the home of Margaret Clitherow, arrested in 1586 on the charge of harbouring Catholic priests. Condemned to death by pressing (crushing beneath a heavy weight), Clitherow was canonized in 1970, and her home is now a shrine.
Once home to the Priors of Nostell and the Mayor of York, Barley Hall is a stunning medieval house lovingly restored to its original splendour with stunning high ceilings, beautiful exposed timber frames and, possibly, the only horn window in England. Discovered hidden beneath the façade of a derelict office block in the 1980s, the building now stands as a hands-on "living museum" and a window into household life in 15th century York. Breaking with convention, this is a historic attraction that actually encourages visitors to make themselves at home and explore as they wish. No yelling “don’t touch” to the kids in this place! Exhibits can be picked up and examined and you can even sit down in the chairs if you want to give your feet a rest!
Costumed guides are on hand to escort groups through the hall but audio tours can also be hired for those that prefer a more solitary exploration of life in a 15th century household. Visits last approximately 1 hour. A busy weekend events programme that includes mystery plays and medieval markets operates throughout summer months.
National Railway Museum
Given York’s deep-rooted, historical ties with the British rail industry (even the city’s first five-star hotel, the ultra swish and stylish Cedar Court Grand, is housed in the former headquarters of North Eastern Railways), the city makes a fitting location for the National Railway Museum with its collection of over 100 locomotives and nearly 200 other items of rolling stock. The museum relays the story of Britain’s railways from the early 19th century through to the present day and is a must for historians and railway enthusiasts looking to get up close and personal with the engines. An impressive line up it is too with crowd pleasers such as the Lady Hamilton and the legendary Flying Scotsman, the first locomotive to complete a non-stop London to Edinburgh run, the first steam engine to reach 100mph (in 1934) and the star of the first ever full-length British feature film with sound, entitled ‘Flying Scotsman’. Saved by the nation in 2004, Flying Scotsman is the star attraction of the National Collection and currently the subject of an ongoing restoration project with a view to being returned to main line operations in 2011. A national treasure.
Betty’s Tea Room
St Helen’s Square in the heart of York is where you’ll find Betty’s Tea Room. The Art deco elegance of the lower floor Belmont Room with its curved windows, elegant wood panelling and ornate mirrors, is the ideal stopping point for a pot of afternoon tea and a plate of Betty’s mouth watering cakes, scones and delicacies. The basement ‘Betty’s Bar’ was once a popular haunt for the thousands of airmen stationed around York and ‘Betty’s Mirror’, on which many of them engraved their signatures with a diamond pen, remains on display today as a fitting tribute to their bravery.
Where to Stay
Housed in the grade II listed former headquarters of North Eastern Railways, the Cedar Court Grand is York’s first five star hotel and the ideal bolthole for anyone visiting the city. A jolly nice place to bed down it is too with friendly, accommodating staff and a high level of classic English style and service. Many of the rooms offer views of the historic city walls and the spectacular Minster and, with many of the building’s wonderful, original features tastefully (and thankfully) retained, the hotel manages to get the balance between old and new, historic and contemporary, absolutely spot on. Guests can enjoy the splendour of afternoon tea in the White Rose Room, as well as a swanky cocktail bar, the cosy surroundings of the whisky lounge (with over 190 bottlings) and the elegant HQ restaurant that offers some refined dishes and an excellent wine list.
The hotel is also well placed for those looking to take advantage of the many swanky riverside bars where you can sit, sip a few drinks and watch the world go by or, for the more traditional, one of its numerous heritage taverns. Park yourself in a corner with a paper and a pint of real ale and immerse yourself in the incomparable, charm of a good, old-fashioned British boozer.
National Railway Museum York
Address: Leeman Road, York, YO26 4XJ
Opening Times: Daily 10.00 – 18.00 (closed 24, 25, 26 Dec)
Tel: +44 (0)8448 153139
Betty’s Tea Rooms
Address: 6 – 8 St Helen’s Square, York, YO1 8QP
Opening Times: Daily 09.00 – 21.00 (closed 25, 26 Dec and 1 Jan)
Tel: +44 (0)1904 659142
Jorvik Viking Centre
Address: Coppergate, York, YO1 9WT
Opening Times: April – October, daily 10:00 – 17:00 (last admission 16.00) / November – March, daily 10.00 – 16.00 (last admission 15.00). Closed on 24, 25, 26 Dec. Last admission 2pm on 31 Dec and 4pm on 1 Jan.
Admission: Adults - £8.95 / children and concessions - £6.00 (family of 4 group tickets - £26.00 / family of 5 group tickets - £29.00)
Tel: +44 (0)1904 615505
Address: 2 Coffee Yard, Off Stonegate, York, YO1 8AR
Opening Times: April – October, daily 10:00 – 17:00 (last admission 16.00) / November – March, daily 10.00 – 16.00 (last admission 15.00).
Admission: Adults - £4.95 / children and concessions - £3.00 (family of 4 group tickets - £13.50 / family of 5 group tickets - £15.00)
Tel: +44 (0)1904 615505
Cedar Court Grand Hotel & Spa,
Address: Station Rise, York, North Yorkshire, YO1 6HT
Accommodation: £149 - £850
Tel: +44 (0)1904 380038