York, England: The Original York

Caskets by the Roman Wall in York, England
Caskets by the Roman Wall in York, England

A walled city that was once a capital is today one of England’s finest attractions

By Max Hartshorne

Boogie woogie piano man jamming in the center of York, England. photos by Max Hartshorne
Boogie woogie piano man jamming in the center of York, England. photos by Max Hartshorne

We arrived in the city of York by train. It was almost hot, and by Northern England standards, that’s call for celebration.

York’s reputation was cemented when the earliest visitors to the New World named what would become their biggest city after this English city of 195,000, which was first settled in the year 71 AD. Back then it was called Eboracum.

Walking over one of the many road and footbridges over the River Ouse, the sun glinted off the water and onto the terraces of the cafes, and it was indeed a beautiful morn on one of Northern England’s most scenic cities. York is known far and wide as a place to get away to, a touristy sort of town with major league attractions.

While the attraction of these ancient walkable walls and Roman-era burial grounds and intriguing excavations still in progress brings millions to the city each year, York is firmly looking ahead in 2011, with lots of exciting exhibits taking place in and around the city.

The center of York and the edifice everything is built around is the York Minster, that towers up 275 feet. Visitors can pay a pound and climb up hundreds of steps in a narrow dark aisleway, and at the top marvel at the view. It’s a big cathedral that takes up so much space that all of the streets head down toward it like spokes in a hub

Minster
York Minster

Looking out over the Yorkshire countryside from the top of the Minster, in the distance some of the largest buildings are former chocolate and candy factories; today the biggest industries here are the National Health Service and the university.

Exhilaration Station

The Jorvik Centre gives a glimpse of Viking life
The Jorvik Centre gives a glimpse of Viking life

But it’s not just dry history that gives York its appeal. One new attraction planned for 2011 at the National Railway Museum in York is Exhilaration Station, where guests will race around a train-themed track on Segway two wheeled scooters. There will be inflatable railway tunnels and even some level crossing barriers!

At DIG – An Archaeological Adventure, visitors get a chance to dig through the layers of history and learn about a real archeological dig that is taking place now, all across the city. It’s a children’s attraction without using real dirt

DIG will host a new exhibition providing a look at Roman funeral rituals, shedding a light on the more recent finds from Hungate. This is a burial site near York that was unearthed in 2010 which contained 50 decapitated Roman soldiers. Some scientists believe that many of the men were gladiators who died with the scars from fights with tigers in the amphitheatre.

Mark Graham, the original ghost hunter of York, England. photo by Max Hartshorne.
Mark Graham, the original ghost hunter of York, England. photo by Max Hartshorne.

York’s Roman roots are well known but another group of inhabitants left their own mark in town: The Vikings. The city was once conquered by Vikings from Denmark who called it Jorvik. Today visitors can see a recreated world of Viking life at the Jorvik Viking Centre.

Entering into the museum, you ride in a little cart on an indoor train as dioramas and life-sized Vikings move animatronically, capturing some of what life was like in that time before recorded time. You see what they are preparing for dinner, and what they wore, as they move as if come alive.

In 2011, the Jorvik Viking Centre will unveil a new exhibition about Coppergate. Included are two human skeletons from the dig, which will be used to tell visitors how the Vikings of Jorvik lived, what diseases and afflictions they suffered from, what they ate and even what they looked like.

A Violent Past

The Roman Wall in York, England.
The Roman Wall in York, England.

York is a city with a violent past. We joined a popular pastime one summer evening… strolling the city following an actor who recounts tales of savagery by citizens of York to other citizens of the town.

Mark Graham, our tour guide and the city’s resident ghost hunter, wears black jacket pants, shoes and gloves. And he tells tales with… just.. the right… timing and punch, scary stories about ghosts, jittery objects and… as he tells the story he YELLS! making many audience members shudder with fright. A good endorphin rush. A SCARE!
Contact Mark at 01759 373090 for reservations to the 8 pm nightly ghost tours.

There are many competing actors who like the proceeds and prestige that comes with taking dozens of tourists out on ghost hunt walks. So now Graham dubs himself as ‘The Original.’ Since 1974, he said.

But we met Mark at another gig, giving us the official tour of the city of York. We began with the Romans and then to the Vikings, and later to the reigns of kings through the ages.

A Tower Atrocity

Cliffords Tower, York England. photo by Max Hartshorne.
Cliffords Tower, York England. photo by Max Hartshorne.

One of the city’s most famous sites is actually a reminder of a terrible act of bigotry. A circular building called Clifford’s Tower in downtown York has a nice grass lawn to sit on and is right on a pedestrial walkway. It was where prejudice begat mass murder in 1190

That year, 150 of the city’s Jews sought sanctuary in the tower, the fortification within the city belonging to the Crown. The mob besieged the trapped Jews for some days while preparations were made to storm the castle. Eventually a fire was started, whether by the Jews or their persecutors is uncertain.

Several perished in the flames but the majority took their own lives rather than give themselves up to the mob. Those who did surrender were killed, despite being promised their lives. At least 150 Jews died and some authorities put the figure as high as 500.

York Dining

We found the oldest restaurant in the city to dine in; that would be the Nineteen Restaurant, on Grape Lane, in a historic building that was once a 15th century whorehouse.

Its table 9, with its view along Swinegate, is the most sought after table in the city. After a dinner of local rabbit, we met up with our ghost hunter.

Another popular York attraction is Betty’s Tea Room, where a long line forms each morning for a sumptous banquet of tea, sandwiches and pastries, all stacked up on trays three feet high.

Outside in the square, a piano player bangs out boogie woogie tunes, and there are a million visitors (ok, tourists) all milling around browsing the shops and enjoying the music.

Betty's Tea Room
Betty’s Tea Room
Girls waving from the banks of the River Ouse, York England. photo by Max Hartshorne.
Girls waving from the banks of the River Ouse, York England.

Boating the Ouse

YorkBoat offers a leisurely trip up and down the River Ouse, and it’s a great way to see the other side of the wall and enjoy the sun as you take this slow boat. If it gets cloudy or cold, you can retreat to the heated cabin and have a cocktail.

Other popular attractions in York are the Yorkshire Museum that was just re-opened in August 2010, and the York Castle Museum in the city center.

Along with the National Railway Museum mentioned earlier, another must-see for train enthusiasts is the North Yorkshire Moors Railway: take a steam-powered trip through Yorkshire’s beautiful countryside. Open March through October.

Further Information

National Railway Museum

DIG – An Archaeological Adventure

Jorvik Viking Centre

View Max’s York Photo Gallery

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Max Hartshorne
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.