York is one of my favourite UK cities with its fabulous mix of Romans, railways and ruins as well as one of the best cathedrals in Europe.
It’s the perfect weekend break especially in autumn when its street markets, specialist shops and cosy historic pubs become increasingly inviting as the darker days of winter draw in.
My first trips to York were as a child on family days out and then as a student on college field trips, but more recent encounters have been purely hedonistic.
This weekend’s trip might have been blighted by wet and windy weather but there’s plenty of indoor attractions to keep everyone happy if the heavens open.
I enjoy wandering around York’s alleyways and historic streets as much as anything else, peering into shop windows and admiring the medieval architecture.
York has it all – its history runs from the Romans and Vikings through to the English Civil War, the Georgians and the great Victorian railway age.
And if history isn’t your top priority for a weekend break, York is also the UK’s most haunted city with ghosts. ghouls and gory stories aplenty.
But where better to begin our trip than the National Railway Museum with its exceptional collection of stream trains, classic locomotives and rail paraphernalia.
Arriving by train is a good option in York because the city’s streets are congested and car parking can be a complete pain in the proverbial neck.
Rail fans will swoon over the National Railway Museum whilst ordinary folk will also get steamed up with the excitement of the railway age.
This huge complex requires at least a couple of hours of your time and it’s easy to get lost inside for almost a whole day. Best of all – admission is free.
You’re allowed to go on board many of the trains in the collection so it’s easy to imagine the sights, smells and sounds of the classic steam era.
Here I am looking inside the royal carriages complete with opulent furnishings from the 19th Century.
My favourite is Queen Victoria’s splendid saloon constructed in 1869 in which she took the long journey between southern England and Balmoral in Scotland.
I could imagine Queen Victoria sipping her tea and eating dainty royal cup cakes from porcelain plates as she travelled over the border in style.
But the Railway Museum isn’t just about steam, there’s also a brilliant collection of contemporary stock like the Japanese bullet train.
A British Rail Deltic caught my eye – I remember travelling on a train just like this when I made the fortnightly journey home from university back in the late 1970s.
Look out for special events at the National Railway Museum – past treats have included excursions on the museum’s classic trains including the world famous Mallard and the Flying Scotsman.
The latter is being restored in York and it’s possible to get a glimpse of work in progress in the sheds section together with other large locos.
Walking back in time
York’s wealth of history means that there’s intriguing historic stories and tall tales everywhere you look.
It’s one of the best places in Britain for exploring a maze of medieval streets, ginnels, snickets and ‘snickelways’ (tiny alleys).
Some of these were tiny shortcuts several centuries ago but they remain today as a throwback to York’s medieval streetscape.
York gets my prize for having the largest number of odd street names anywhere in the UK.
My favourite is Whip-ma-whop-ma-gate which is thought to mark the site of a medieval whipping post and pillory.
However, some commentators believe the name relates to the ancient local custom of dog whipping on St Luke’s Day, whatever that might involve!
Other intriguing names include Mucky Peg Lane, Little Thief Lane, Whip Dog Lane and Pope’s Head Alley.
But York’s most famous street is the Shambles (or fleshammels), a medieval alleyway once full of butchers where carcasses would be hung outside the premises.
It was so narrow to keep the sun and heat off the raw meat. This, of course, was long before the days of refrigeration and modern preservatives.
Just imagine the stench of offal and garbage during the hot summer months!
With poor sanitation, overcrowding and not-too-hygienic water, this area of town was a medieval magnet for The Plague until the 17th Century.
So it’s perhaps surprising that by 1830 there were 25 butchers still trading in The Shambles.
There are many colourful stories associated with the street including one with a bloody ending.
Take a walk and look for the white house which is now a shrine to St Margaret Clitherow. Margaret was born in the Shambles in 1556 and married a local butcher who lived at number 10.
During the period of Protestant rule the couple took in Catholic priests and hid them from persecution in an upstairs room.
Margaret would smuggle the priests in and out of York under the cover of darkness but after a while the authorities discovered her cunning plan to protect the Catholic community.
In 1586 she was caught and tried at York Assizes Court – her punishment was horrific even by the standards of the times.
In brutal Tudor fashion, she was pressed to death by large stone boulders which were laid onto a heavy wooden door.
In 1970 Margaret Clitherow was made a saint and you can discover more about her by visiting the chapel in her former house on The Shambles.
Today’s Shambles is a more relaxed place with none of the gore of its 16th Century past. Nearly 500 years on, the narrow street is full of tourist shops and cafes without the rotting odours and gore of yesteryear.
Stonegate is another of my favourite historic streets with its paved flagstones, buildings with overhanging gables and lopsided frontages.
Its name derives from the fact that it was once used as the main road for carrying stones from barges moored by The Guildhall to the Minster.
The street has Roman origins but its maze of alleyways is largely medieval. Look out for the Olde Starre Inn with its rare beam sign – it’s also one of York’s most haunted public houses.
Walk down one of the street’s hidden alleyways and you’ll happen upon the Barley Hall which was discovered hidden inside a derelict office block as recently as the 1980s.
Blink and you’ll miss the entrance which eventually opens up into an impressive courtyard flanked by the splendid medieval townhouse.
Originally built by monks in 1360, it was once the home of the priors of Nostell Abbey and the Mayor of York but fell into disrepair. It’s hard to believe that it was lost from sight for so many years.
After major restoration work, it opened to the public in the 1993 and it’s now one of my favourite historic buildings in the city.
The building has been decorated to replicate what it would have looked like around 1483 and the rooms feel very liveable for a medieval town house.
Don’t miss the magnificent Great Hall where visitors can sit on the chairs and imagine they’re dining at a medieval banquet.
York’s magnificent Minster is the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe north of the Alps and dates back to the 13th Century.
It’s a landmark that dominates the city with its 200 feet tall tower, impressive stone exterior and beautiful rose windows.
Energetic visitors can climb the 275 steps to the top of its tower for unparalleled views of the city.
My earliest memories of York are from school trips to the Minster when we would draw the famous Rose Window with its medieval multi-coloured stained glass.
There was also the obligatory walk around York’s fine City Walls, which date largely from the 13th Century – it’s also possible to see remnants of the earlier Roman wall including ramparts.
Roman York or Eboracum continues to be as fascinating as when I was a child with several Roman remains to be seen.
The Principia or headquarters originally stood on the site of York Minster; part of the Roman building’s wall was discovered under the cathedral’s south transept in the early 1970s.
Since I visited York as a child, there has been a new addition to the street scene – a splendid modern statue of the Roman Emperor Constantine outside the Minster.
Constantine was proclaimed Emperor in York in AD306, the first Christian Roman Emperor. A column from the Roman Headquarters has also been excavated and erected in the same area.
Ghosts and ghastly deeds
York is supposed to be the most haunted city in Europe so ghosts and ghouls are high on its list of visitor attractions.
It’s hard to miss the many ghost walks and haunted tours of the city centre which run daily. Within the city walls there are said to be around 140 ghosts lurking so if you’re of a nervous disposition, you’ve been warned!
The King’s Manor is the most haunted building in York and boasts a wandering monk, a Tudor woman wearing a green dress with a bouquet of roses and a nobleman from the Stuart period.
At the Treasurer’s House, next to York Minster, a Roman legion of soldiers has been seen marching through the walls by several people who’ve been working in the building late at night. This ghostly tale always raises a chill whenever I walk past on a cold, dark night!
Elsewhere you can discover every type of spectral activity from footsteps and wailing to things that go bump in the night and odd smells that appear and disappear.
There’s also an opportunity to get into the spirit of medieval crime and punishment in York outside the Barley Hall where visitors can pop their heads and arms into the stocks.
Fortunately nobody was throwing apples or rotten tomatoes at me on this trip!
At nearby Mickelgate Bar it’s easy to imagine the 16th Century gorefest when the heads of those executed for treason were displayed on spiked poles.
For those of you who love this grim history of punishment, a trip to the Castle Museum and its dungeons is essential.
The museum is housed in the city’s old prisons and visitors can descend into the creepy old Debtor’s Prison which has had a modern makeover where spectres are projected onto the walls to tell their horrific stories.
Don’t miss the condemned cell where the highwayman Dick Turpin was incarcerated before being hanged in 1739.
Time travel in York
York has such a rich history that it’s hard not to be fascinated by the many twists and turns in the city’s story.
Back in Georgian times King George VI said that “the history of York is the history of England”.
Since then, even more has been learned about the city’s rich veins of history including the discovery of its Viking past at Jorvik.
York is Britain’s most important city for Viking archaeology, as you’ll see in the following video:
Why not delve into the city’s past and wander its streets looking for clues to centuries gone by?
Like me, I hope that you’ll enjoy being a time traveller in one of my favourite British cities… and it’s a great weekend break for shopping too!
Tammy’s York travel tips
York is located in north Yorkshire and it’s easy to reach by train and car from all parts of England.
Arriving by train is the best option – York is a two hour ride from London and Edinburgh – and only an hour from Manchester and Newcastle. The nearest airport is Leeds-Bradford, about 40 minutes drive away.
The five top attractions on your ‘must see’ list should include the National Railway Museum, the Castle Museum, the City Walls, Jorvik Viking Centre and York Minster.
Don’t miss the Castle Museum’s recreation of a Victorian street which captures the sights and sounds of the period. Don’t forget to take a trip down into its dungeons (check opening times in winter).
The Yorkshire Museum is a must for lovers of archaeology and Roman relics. It also boasts a collection of some of the earliest Iron Age jewellery in England.
The Jorvik centre recreates a Viking settlement in York with the help of some authentic archaeological finds. Visitors travel around in an electric ‘car’ through layers of history. It’s great fun and there are some genuinely interesting artefacts.
A good introduction to York is provided by a walk around its medieval walls from which there are good panoramic views. Start at Bootham Bar and continue along Lendal Tower, Mickelgate Bar and Monk Bar.
Those who like getting out on the water shouldn’t miss a boat trip down the River Ouse especially in the spring and summer.
Those who enjoy medieval gore will relish a trip to the York Dungeon. There’s the historic pub called the King’s Arms just down the bank by the River Ouse where you may need a stiff drink after this excursion!
Ghost walks are plentiful, starting from The Minster (19:30 nightly), The Shambles (19:30 nightly) and the King’s Arms public house (20:00 nightly).
One of the great things about York is the large number of public houses with olde worlde charm from half-timbered ale houses to candlelit snug bars.
Personal favourites include the Punch Bowl, Ye Olde Starre Inn (the oldest pub in York), the Golden Fleece, the Old White Swan and the Three Tuns.
Car parking is hell in this historic city so leave your car at one of the city’s five main park and ride areas on the outskirts of town.
There are park and rides at Monks Cross (north), Rawcliffe Bar (west), Middlethorpe (south) and Grimston Bar (east).
Hotels are plentiful in York but you’ll need to shop around to find the best prices during popular times.
Middlethorpe Hall would be my choice for a treat if I had plenty of money. This stunning historic property is set in fairytale grounds. The Hotel du Vin and Holiday Inn also receive a good write-up from friends and colleagues.
Motorhome and camper van owners can choose from a range of sites. My favourite is a small rural site at Red House, a few miles out of town in Monk Monkton. It’s also near to major roads and a park and ride with regular buses into the city.
The site is part of an equestrian centre and there are lovely walks along the nearby River Ouse and through the woodlands. Beningbrough Hall is an intriguing National Trust property worth exploring nearby (open during the tourist season).
Nun Monkton over the other side of the river is a charming English village with a green, duck pond, maypole and pretty church with Pre-Raphaelite windows by Burne-Jones and William Morris.
The village pub – the Alice Hawthorne – is excellent and serves real ales and fab food whilst roaring log fires take the edge off the winter chill.