Weekending: Historic York
My last trip to York was over 20 years ago on a primary school trip, so I thought I’d pay it another visit on my way back from Scotland to see what had changed. And appropriately enough for a city famed for it’s history, not too much. With influences from the Romans, Vikings, Normans, Tudors, Victorians and more, you’ve got a whole snapshot of British history in this one city. But there’s not just history though, there were also enough narrow cobbled lanes, museums, interesting little shops, tea rooms and cozy pubs to keep me occupied, whether it was at age 11 (with less of the pubs then admittedly!) or, er, 30-something.
York is still surrounded by the remains of its Roman city walls, with about 2.5 miles-worth still standing, along with some of the original gateways, which are known as bars. Walking around them is a great way of getting your bearings as well as some fantastic views of the city’s most famous monument, York Minster, from all angles. The Minster is one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in Europe – yes it’s both a cathedral and a minster, which was originally a title given to large churches that were also monasteries. It has stunning stained-glass windows, with its large round Rose Window the best-known. You can also climb up the 275 steps to the top of the bell tower for views across the city and over Yorkshire. And if you’re there in the early evenings, there’s a free choral evensong at 5.15pm (or 4pm on Sundays) where you can listen to the haunting voices echoing through the Minster.
On the subject of haunting, York is reputed to be Europe’s most haunted city, and you can hear some of the gruesome tales on a guided walk. There are a few different companies doing ghost walks, but the Ghost Hunt of York is probably the most over the top (which, to be honest, is a good thing in this context!). A guide dressed in a top hat and tails leads the group on a 75-minute tour through the twists and turns of the city’s medieval streets and snickleways (aka hidden passageways). He doesn’t step out of character at all – well not until drinks in the pub at the end – though it’s a bit more comical than spooky with theatrics and audience participation.
Back in the land of the living, all that history is put to good use in York’s museums. One of the most famous is the Jorvik Viking Centre, on the site of the 1000-year-old ruins of old York, or Jorvik as it was then. You ride on a carriage through recreations of the sights, sounds (and some very odd smells) of York in Viking times. But my favourite was the Castle Museum with its completely eclectic mix of exhibits – from an old prison and recreated Victorian Street, to sections on cleaning through the ages, military weapons and 1960s London. A good tip for both these of museums is to keep hold of your entry ticket and you can use it to return as many times as you like in the next 12 months. York’s National Railway Museum is the world’s largest and shows off the city’s long railway history in a huge railway shed near the train station. Entry is free and exhibits include the world speed record-holding Mallard, the only Bullet Train outside of Japan and the (slightly less historically accurate) Hogwarts Express steam train.
Getting there… York is in the north-east of England and easy to get to from around the UK by train – it’s around 2 hours from London or 2.5 hours from Edinburgh. If you’re travelling from further afield, the nearest airport is Leeds Bradford Airport, where budget airlines like Jet2 and Ryanair fly to other UK destinations and around Europe. Once you get to York, the city centre is fairly small and it’s easy to get around on foot.
Sleeping… Unlike other countries, the UK hasn’t quite embraced the concept of boutique hostels (a mix of dorms and private rooms, en suite bathrooms, towels included and hotel facilities). York’s Fort Boutique Hostel fits the bill though with dorm beds from £24 a night, and a great location tucked away in one of the lanes above Kennedy’s bar and restaurant (though watch out for noise at weekends). Or if you want to go a bit more luxurious, the Cedar Court Hotel and Spa is York’s only five-star hotel, in the red-brick, Grade II listed former railway headquarters overlooking the city walls (you can just make it out on the far-right of my city walls photo). Standard rooms start from £110 up to £710 for the penthouse with your own butler and views across York from your roll-top bath.
Eating and drinking… Bettys is York’s most famous tea shop, an art deco café with afternoon teas of cream-filled scones, dainty sandwiches and delicious cakes. Step back 90 years to when it first opened with waitresses in black and white Edwardian-style dress serving your tea on silver cake stands while a pianist plays in the background. Though it’s hugely popular so get there early to avoid the 20th-century -style queues. A good spot for drinks is one of the pubs and bars along the riverside, where you can watch the boats sail past. And for an even better view with dinner, DCH restaurant in the Dean Court Hotel serves British and French dishes using seasonal Yorkshire produce in a classy, elegant setting overlooking the Minster.