'The history of York is the history of England'; unearth the past with a slow tour of this medieval city.Read more...
York - A view from our expert author
York Minster dominates the city’s skyline © Alastair Wallace, Shutterstock
You don’t need an in-depth history of York to enjoy the city’s pleasures – partaking of a hot-buttered teacake in a tearoom, aiding the profits of the independent retailers that line the streets or relaxing on a grassy knoll in the Museum Gardens.
‘The history of York is the history of England,’ according to George V, and he was probably right. While the passage of time in other British towns and cities is recorded in books, York’s is still there to be seen in bricks and mortar. And yet, with the help of vibrant industries aside from tourism, it has managed to avoid becoming a stereotypical tourist city with little else to offer the wider community.
My first historical encounter with York, long before I lived there, involved eating ice cream – a fine history lesson for a youngster. The delightful block of frozen loveliness, wedged between two rather soggy wafers, was made by the Ebor Ice-Cream Co Ltd (sadly no longer in existence). I was told that Ebor was short for Eboracum, the Roman name for York.
The city and Legionnaire’s fortress, built some 2,000 before the ice cream eating incident (though I swear the wafers may have been artefacts from the era), was one of the most important places on the map of Roman Britannia. The remnants are still evident: a column from the Roman headquarters, the remains of the fortress in the basement of the Minster, the Multangular Tower – a part of the old Roman bastion – in the Museum Gardens, stone coffins by the city walls and the ghostly figures of a marching army tramping through the basement of the Treasurer’s House, heading who knows where along an old Roman road.
However, York is perhaps more famous for its Viking history, with archaeological digging uncovering all manner of important finds. While I lived in York, I really took all this Viking talk for granted. It was not until I visited Trondheim in Norway that everything fell into place. There were distinct similarities – the streets were named gates, the town gateways were bars and St Olave, a name that crops up repeatedly around York, stood on a column in Trondheim’s centre, the patron saint of Norway. Indeed, the penny dropped – the Vikings made their mark in York. They too are ever-present at the Jorvik Viking Centre, one of the city’s major tourist attractions following archaeological excavations more than a quarter of a century ago.
Yet these invasions are only the start of York’s story, with medieval merchants profiteering from get-rich-quick schemes, infighting royals, men loyal to the royals, guys not so loyal to the royals, highwaymen, railway men, chocolate makers and Quakers all making an impact on the way the city looks today. You don’t need an in-depth history of York to enjoy the city’s pleasures – partaking of a hot-buttered teacake in a tearoom, aiding the profits of the independent retailers that line the streets or relaxing on a grassy knoll in the Museum Gardens – but a brief understanding does help to explain a few things. Whenever I return to the city, I usually head straight for a walk ‘around the block’: down Stonegate (arguably York’s most atmospheric pedestrianised street); along Low Petergate for a look back at one of the most classic views of the Minster; to King’s Square, often frequented by buskers; down the minuscule ‘Shambles’ towards Parliament Street where street markets prevail; and along Davygate returning to St Helen’s Square to visit the civilised world of Bettys Café Tea Rooms, where tea drinkers look out through the great glass window on to the world of York. From there a trip to the Minster is a must for me, to marvel at the size and scale of the creamy exterior walls and the hundreds of years of craftsmanship that have gone into creating and preserving them. Finally a wander around the Museum Gardens would top off a visit, especially on a day filled with sunshine.