By Tom Merchant
There are few places where the span of two millennia of history is laid out as clearly and attractively as in York. Roman, Viking, Norman, Medieval, Tudor, Georgian, Victorian and the 20th century are all represented here. Join me on my trail to explore how this ancient city has evolved through the centuries.
If you’re visiting York and decide to follow the trail on foot, be prepared for cobbled streets and plenty of steps!
York is steeped in history, from the top of the magnificent Minster down to the cobbled alleys and even further down, to Roman remains below street level. No wonder there are thirty museums here. There is so much to see within this compact walled city, so let’s get going!
We start at the visitor information office on the corner of Museum Street and Blake Street, right in the centre of York. I’ve added in a few trivia questions, just for fun. Answers at the end.
Across the street in Museum Gardens, the appropriately named Multangular Tower is the greatest piece of surviving Roman architecture in York. Winston Churchill once said, “History is written by the victors.” That’s especially the case here as the Brigantes, the Celtic tribe who lived in these parts never acquired writing technology so there is nothing recorded of York before the Roman Ninth Legion arrived in AD71.
Here’s the first trivia question: 1. What did the Romans call the city we know as York? a) Yorkibarum b) Eboracum c) Ehbygumium
In York, buildings from different eras of history are often found in close proximity. The Multangular Tower was 14 centuries old when the King’s Manor was built next door for the abbots of St Mary’s Abbey. The Abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539 and the Manor become the seat of the Council of the North which entrenched royal control in the North of England until it was abolished in 1641.
Just along the road is the impressive stone structure of Bootham Bar, one of the four gateways into the Roman Fortress. Fifty acres was walled as security from the local tribes.
In York, Gates are called Bars and Streets are called Gates! Bootham Bar dates from Norman and Medieval times and was damaged in the siege of York in 1644. The street of High Petergate passes through it, but let’s take the narrow steps up onto the City walls.
These defensive walls are the most complete in England and are the only walls set on top of earth ramparts. The original 50 acres enclosed by the Romans was extended a millennium later to 263 acres and the walk right around the walls is 2.5 miles.
From the top of the wall you can enjoy magnificent views of manicured gardens and superb historic buildings including the imposing York Minster which dominates the City.
When the Romans left in the early 5th century, the City was without trade and industry and without administration or the Roman army. There is little written record of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom that came into being here after the Romans departed and which continued, in one form or another, until the next wave of invaders in 866AD.
2. Who were these invaders? a) The Welsh b) The Angles c) The Vikings
We’ll walk the walls as far as Monk Bar, another of the four fortified gateways to the city. Building started in the 14th century in response to increasing threats from Scotland. It was completed in 1484, during the short reign of Richard III, the last king of the House of York. During visits here he enjoyed plays, pageants and feasts and his son Edward was invested as Prince of Wales at the Archbishop’s palace.
The Richard III Experience at Monk Bar reveals a great deal about the king’s life. He died in 1485, aged 32, at the Battle of Bosworth, effectively ending the Wars of the Roses, an event said to signify the end of the Middle Ages. He was buried by the Grey Friars, a Franciscan Holy Order, in their friary church and his remains were only discovered in 2012 during an archaeological dig in a car park, the site of the former friary. The comedian Paul Merton quipped that he always thought Richard III was an under-par king.
Turn right into the delightfully named Ogleforth, a Scandinavian word meaning ‘owl ford’. Two distinct eras of York’s history converge at the next corner with its impressive view up the cobbled street to the Minster; Ogleforth dates from the time of the Vikings and Chapter House Street was originally a Roman Road separating the legionary camps of the Ninth and Tenth Cohorts.
Here is the preserved Treasurer’s House, the first property given to the National Trust complete with its contents. It was built on the line of the Roman road which runs through the cellars and is the scene of a famous ghost story: a plumber working in the cellar in 1953 watched a column of Roman soldiers marching through. His description of their clothing and weapons later emerged as highly accurate. Weird or what?
Across the road, York Minster is a masterpiece of gothic architecture built on the remains of a Roman fortress. Construction started in 1220 and the Minster was completed and consecrated in 1472. The brass model of the city in front of the west door shows how the Minster in its unique location dominates York by its sheer scale and beauty.
The Great West Window is known as the ‘Heart of Yorkshire’. A display in the undercroft entitled ‘Revealing York Minster’ displays treasures discovered recently including a 1,000 year old carved elephant tusk which a Viking Lord used to gift the land on which the Minster stands.
- What is it called? a) The Horn of Ulf b) The Horn of Ayup c) The Horn of Plenty
Walk up attractive Precentor’s Court and through a narrow alleyway – locally called a snickelway – to find the Hole in the Wall pub. A snickelway is a word coined in the 1980s by local writer Mark Jones to describe the many narrow, often medieval, passages between buildings in York. According to Mark’s authoritative books on the subject, the hole-in-the-wall is the shortest snickelway in the city, while Pope’s Head Alley is the narrowest, as little as 790mm wide.
Further along High Petergate intersects with Stonegate, named for the quantities of stone conveyed up here from the river during the building of the Minster. On the corner at high level there is a small statue of Minerva reclining with her books above what was a bookshop in the 16th century. It had a stock of 3,000 books, a huge number in those days. In Roman times this was the centre of Eboracum and the entrance to the Principia.
- What was the Principia? a) The senior school b) Military Headquarters c) The food market
Stonegate was a key Roman street leading from the fortress to the bridge over the river and to the civilian population living beyond. In mediaeval times trades that supported the Minster sprang up here such as goldsmiths, glass painters and printers whose traditional symbol was a young apprentice and his devilish tricks. Later other shops opened; an apothecary, clothing shops and the first Coffee House.
Through Coffee Yard is Barley Hall, rediscovered in the 1980s and restored to reflect the period at the end of the 15th century. Follow the green finger sign points to the Castle Area and find the Roman Bath pub in St Sampson’s Square.
The Roman Bath pub illustrates the historic layering of the city – a pub built directly over a Roman bath house, discovered and excavated in 1929. These baths, which you can visit, were probably used by the Roman emperor who was crowned here in York in 306AD. He reigned for 31 years and was the only emperor to be crowned outside Rome.
- Who was he? a) Constantine the Great b) Marcus Aurelius c) Justinian
On the roof of the Duke of York pub a cut-out cat constantly stalks the pigeon. Just past the pub is Shambles, the oldest shopping street in Europe. It’s even listed in the Domesday Book of 1086.
Once a street of butchers, 26 of them, you can see the hooks and the benches at the windows where meat was laid out; ‘shammels’ in old English; hence the name of the street and the term ‘a bloody shambles’. The Roman garrison town had transformed to a thriving medieval city and now to a tourist destination.
- Shambles has been voted as Britain’s most… a) unusual street name b) Googled street c) picturesque street
Turn right onto the street called Pavement and around the corner is the magnificent Merchant Adventurers Hall. This beautifully preserved building was one of the most important in medieval York. It was originally a Guild, but the name was changed to the romantic ‘Merchant Adventurers’ by a charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I.
Cross the road and follow the walkway to Clifford’s Tower, sitting prominently on its grassy mound. Clifford’s Tower is the keep of the original York Castle. Unlike many fortifications around the country which have never seen action, Clifford’s Tower has a long and turbulent history.
A motte and bailey castle was built here after the Norman conquest but damaged the following year in a Viking attack. It was rebuilt in stone in the 13th century to the unusual design with the four lobes that you see today, closely resembling a French 12th century tower.
- Which monarch built a dam to create a defensive moat around York Castle which became known as the King’s Fishpool? a) Henry III b) George III c) William the Conqueror
Climb the stairs to see the extensive views from the top. The Romans founded York in the strong defensive position at the confluence of the Foss and the Ouse. The rivers were navigable by sea-going ships and Roman jetties and wharves have been discovered on the banks.
Now head down to the River Ouse and stroll along the quayside. The Ouse was a route for the invading Vikings in 866 and York developed as a vital trading port through Norman times and in the 14th century was exporting wool and grain. Barges transported freight between here and Hull to the end of the twentieth century.
The river brought commercial trade and invaders to York for over two millennia from the Romans, the Vikings, the Normans and Anglo-Saxons. It is truly the lifeblood of the developing settlement of Eboracum, Jorvik and York. By the 16th century the river was starting to silt up and the larger sea-going ships of the era could no longer navigate the river. The Black Death was, in part, introduced from sea traffic on the Humber and devastated York’s population and wealth.
In the 19th and 20th centuries major industries here were the railways and chocolate, which Quakers promoted as it offered an alternative to strong drink. Cocoa was brought to York along the river from Hull and confectioners Rowntree and Terry’s became major employers.
The roll call of leaders of York down the millennia includes Roman Emperor Constantine the Great crowned here in 306, the Saxon King Edwin of Northumbria who built the first minster in 627, the Viking conqueror Ivan the Boneless in 866 and the last Viking king of Jorvik, Eric Bloodaxe who died in 954. York has its share of notoriety; Guy Fawkes was born in Stonegate and Dick Turpin was hanged here in 1739.
- What was Turpin’s crime? a) Bank robber b) Highwayman c) Traitor
Head back along the winding streets to the start point of the trail.
This city has many tales to tell, all brought together in this beautiful and amazing setting. I’ve only briefly mentioned the railways, but if you have even a passing interest in trains, the National Railway Museum is an absorbing place to visit. A shuttle road train to the museum runs from near the Minster. The Mallard is the holder of the world speed record for steam engines of 125mph achieved in 1938.
It’s easy to see why a Sunday Times poll rated York as the best place to live in the UK. I hope that following my trail has inspired you to visit to discover more about the attractions of this rich and historic city.
Answers to the Trivia questions: 1b 2c 3a 4b 5a 6c 7c 8b