Founded by the Roman empire in 71 AD as Eboracum and surrounded by impressive city walls, York is an English city in Yorkshire in the north of the United Kingdom. Stepped in centuries worth of history and surrounded by countryside, the cobbled streets of the city echo the sentiments of the past, stark in contrast to the modern conveniences found within the walls. With quiet country charm, rich architecture, heritage-listed sites and fascinating history, York is a city of many stories and a must-visit location for anyone travelling in the north of England.
After driving down from Edinburgh, I arrived in the afternoon and met up with a friend. We started our exploration at the most well known of the city’s streets – The Shambles. The lane is famous for its closely overhanging timber framed buildings and originates from the 14th century. It once had 25 butcher shops along its length; the street has a reputation as having a ‘bloody’, yet interesting history (more on this later!). Today the bustling street is lined with a variety of chocolate shops, cafes and assorted stores and forms the tourism centre for the city, with nearby restaurants and pubs.
After wandering through the Shambles we headed towards Monk Bar, one of the four main city gates that line the city walls. The walls can be walked from 8.00am till dusk, and you can find more information here. Be sure to walk along the main sections between Monk and Bootham Bar for spectacular views of the Minster and surrounds – there is a great map available which shows the entire extent of the walls and the trails around them.
At 3.4kms in length, the walls are the most intact, longest and most impressive of the remaining town walls in the United Kingdom. They have been fortified and built by generations of occupants, including the Romans, Vikings and Normans, and feature a series of defensive structures and additions added after battles and the subsequent conquerers.
It’s surreal walking along the walls and thinking about how different the area would have looked thousands of years ago during the rise of the Roman Empire in Great Britain, then during the occupation of the city by the Vikings before the city fell into the hands of the English. Signs abound and it’s easy to find out about the different sections of the wall remaining around the city – the walls themselves have been built and rebuilt countless times since the 1st century, but the overall character of the enclave remains the same. More about the history of the walls themselves can be found in a handy City Council guide here.
Descending the walls we head towards the impressive Minster, the cathedral of York and one of the largest of its kind in northern Europe. The Minster is the seat of the Archbishop of York, the second-highest office of the Church of England, and is the cathedral for the Diocese of York. Archaeological excavations have revealed that the site itself has been the location of at least three previous churches; the present building was completed in 1472. The cathedral is built of magnesian limestone, quarried nearby and giving the building an impressive presence and but with a light creamy-white facade.
Admission is £15 for both the cathedral and ascent to the tower. I recommend doing both – the impressive interior and amazing stainless windows are well worth the price, and the view from the top of the 61m high tower out over the city and countryside is thrilling. Beware though, the climb up the narrow staircase is strenuous and takes about twenty minutes up and down. You’re also prevented from beginning the descent for about fifteen minutes once you’re reached the top. For more information on the Minster, check their website for opening times and services here.
Finishing up our tour of the Minster we headed out for a quick dinner before heading out on a night tour of the city. There are so many choices for themed walking tours of the streets of York, but the tour offered by Mad Alice is among the most entertaining and fun tours I’ve ever been on. Ranked number #1 on TripAdvisor, Alice truly is mad and guides willing victims on a tour of the bloodiest aspects of York and its long history – tours are run every Thursday / Friday / Saturday at 6.00pm and 8.00pm from St. William’s College and will only set you back £5. More information can be found on her website. Comfortable walking shoes are suggested – though not an intense hike, the tour covers a lot of ground along cobbled stone streets.
The tour begins near the Minster, moving to the Shambles through back alleys and some of the scarier looking thoroughfares of the city. Passing through the still-working portcullis of Monk Bar, Mad Alice recounts stories about head mounted on pikes and the various battles fought on the walls. Moving along, the Shambles, she tells us, were the location of medieval butcher shops, owned by butchers who would dispose of blood and entrails directly into the centre of the present street (hence the ‘bloody’ history of the Shambles). Gruesome and spooky stories are plentiful, and Alice relishes in telling them – from the hundreds of executions in the town square, to Viking torture methods and religious persecution throughout the city’s history – no story is too gory or bloody.
The tour concludes after about an hour and a half back outside the Minster, and close to where we are staying (the Guy Fawkes Inn – a fantastic pub with attached accommodation on the birth spot of the famous mastermind of the Gunpowder Plot of November 5th). Mad Alice bids us farewell, but we grab a photo before she disappears into the night – a walking tour through the dimly light streets of York is a perfect end to a great day.