I love cities that have many layers of history, where the stones speak of grim deeds, majestic events, innovative creations and the odd ghost. If your itinerary allows – spend some time in the atmospheric and elegant city of York, in Yorkshire, the UK’s second mediaeval city. Eat, drink, sleep and play – all budgets catered to.
Vikings, Romans and chocolate have all left a lasting impression on the historic city of York. Encircled by impressive ancient walls (the City Walls form a walkway on both sides of the River Ouse), it has a long and varied history. York has been named the most haunted city in Europe – a fact enhanced by the city’s many ancient and shadowy snickelways (a local term for narrow lanes, passageways and alleys).
York also boasts the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, as well as the largest railway museum in the world, plus it has a comprehensive calendar of events and festivals, including the February Jorvik Viking Festival, March’s York Literature Festival, and September’s York Food & Drink Festival.
Not to forget the world-class horseracing meetings held from May to October each year at York Races – a favourite among racegoers since it was founded in 1731.
The York Minster is a magnificent building inside and outside. Construction in timber began in 627 and stands today as testament to overcoming invasion, war, vandalism, religious persecution and every damn thing humans could throw at it.
Modern day saints
My favourite little statues (above) can be found up above at the back of nave, above the entrance to York Minster. They are actually Semaphore Saints, each of them represents a letter. The twelve headless saints holding haloes are signalling in semaphore. Semaphore is a way of sending a message without a mobile phone! Using two flags, or in this case haloes, each letter of the alphabet has its own signal. Artists Terry Hammill carved these stautues for an exhibition in 2004.
During the sixteenth century Protestant reformers accused Catholics of praying to statues. In a bid to stop this they attacked statues, either getting rid of them completely or making them unrecognisable by removing the heads and haloes and the objects that identified them. There are many instances of this kind of damage in the Minster. The Semaphore Saints pay tribute to all thse that have lost their heads.
Set in a charming Victorian rectory, the Parisi is a small, friendly and affordable hotel. Or, with 101 rooms, casual restaurant, and a sumptuous colour palate inspired by York’s chocolate heritage, there’s the InterContinental Hotel Group’s boutique Hotel Indigo York.
And housed in the iconic former headquarters of the North Eastern Railway Company, The Grand Hotel & Spa is the city’s only five-star hotel, providing fabulous first-class service and facilities.
10:00 Step up to York’s highest point
The largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, York Minster took 250 years to build, from 1220 till its consecration in 1472. This hallowed landmark impresses with dazzling stained glass, historic artefacts and awe-inspiring architecture. It’s open for sightseeing every day, as well as for regular services, concerts and events (including the famous York Mystery Plays). For magnificent views, climb 275 winding steps, passing medieval pinnacles and gargoyles, to the top of the Minster’s central tower – the highest point in all of York.
11:30 Circumnavigate the city walls
Familiarise yourself with York by taking a walk around the City Walls. At 3.4km long, they are the longest and best-preserved medieval city walls in England. Taking approximately two hours to complete the entire circuit, you may prefer to focus on just a few sections – in which case, the Friends of York Walls website suggests various routes and trails.
13:30 Take away a ‘Shambles’ lunch
While exploring the Shambles, York’s oldest street, grab lunch from Shambles Kitchen. Famous for its pulled pork sandwich, other healthy options include street food boxes, soups and smoothies.
14:30 See the return of a steam-era superstar
The Flying Scotsman (a locomotive flagship for modernity in 1924) in York’s National Railway Museum had a complex and lengthy £4.2million overhaul three years ago. This is the largest railway museum in the world, other attractions include the mighty Mallard, which has held the world speed record for steam locomotives since 1938, the massive Chinese Engine, presented to the museum by the Chinese Government, and the only Shinkansen (Japanese Bullet Train) outside of Japan.
16:00 Go back in time for afternoon tea on a train
Travel back in time to an era of luxury railway dining aboard the Countess of York, a beautifully restored rail carriage stationed in the South Gardens of the National Railway Museum. Its Afternoon Tea is a civilised treat with a Yorkshire twist: sandwiches and savouries include Yorkshire blue cheese and red onion marmalade tart, scones are baked to a traditional Yorkshire recipe, and homemade fancies include Parkin crème brulee. Choose a fine leaf tea by Taylor’s of Harrogate.
17:00 Spot the little devil of Stonegate
Lined with shops, Stonegate is one of York’s most fascinating and photogenic streets. Craftsmen including goldsmiths and stained-glass makers had premises here in the Middle Ages, many leaving their mark on the historic buildings. The little red devil outside No. 33 was a traditional symbol of a printer – a printer’s apprentice being known as a “printer’s devil”.
18:30 Start dinner with proper Yorkshire puddings
The cousin of Michelin-starred country eatery The Star Inn, stylish The Star Inn The City specialises in authentic and delicious Yorkshire cooking. Yorkshire Puddings were traditionally served before, not with, a main meal – just as they are here. Other local flavours include Whitby crab, confit of east Yorkshire duck leg and plenty of Yorkshire beef. Served until 19.00, their two-course Market Menu is ideal for lunch or pre-theatre.
19:30 Open the curtains on a new production
A leading British theatre, York Theatre Royal has produced great drama for more than 250 years. Reopening in spring 2016 after a major £4.1million redevelopment project, productions include Shakespeare, opera, ballet and plays by famous UK and international playwrights.
10:00 Invade William the Conqueror’s ruined castle
William the Conqueror built York Castle in 1068 shortly after the Norman Conquest, to cement his status over this former Viking city. The castle endured a tumultuous early history and its keep, known as Clifford’s Tower, is almost all that remains. Standing high on its mound, this medieval ruin has served as a prison and a royal mint in its time. Once a lookout point for castle guards, the open-air wall walk at the top provides wonderful far-reaching views.
11:00 Experience prison life, the First World War & the Swinging Sixties
An increased demand for prison capacity in York in the 18th century required the construction of two new prison buildings below Clifford’s Tower: The Female Prison and Debtors’ Prison. These now form the York Castle Museum, with exhibitions illustrating York’s social and military history. Popular attractions for all the family include a recreated Victorian cobbled street with authentic shops, schoolroom, police cell and Hansom cab. Other galleries give a sense of prison life, portray the horror of the First World War, and recreate the spirit of the 1960s.
13:30 Confront a Fat Rascal at Bettys
The founder of Bettys Café Tea Rooms travelled on the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary in 1936, and was so enthralled that he commissioned the same designers and craftsmen to create this elegant café – and it soon became a local landmark. Although there are plenty of tempting treats, Bettys is renowned for the Fat Rascal: an oval teacake with currants and candied peel, it goes well with a cup of Yorkshire tea.
14:30 See a sweet side to the city
While neighbouring towns made their wealth from wool, cotton and steel, York made its profits from chocolate. Some of the world’s best-known names in chocolate were concocted in York. Joseph Rowntree created bestselling brands including Kit Kat, Smarties and Aero, while Joseph Terry gave us the Chocolate Orange and All Gold collection – inextricably linked with York’s social and industrial past, these sweet empires are now part of Nestlé and Mondelēz International respectively. You’ll find evidence of this chocolate heritage throughout York. Goddard’s, the Terry family’s beautiful Arts and Crafts style home, is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public. A major visitor attraction, York’s Chocolate Story, tells the rich tale of chocolate and confectionery in the city. There are also chocolate-themed walking trails, chocolate-making workshops, even an annual chocolate festival.
16:30 Get a chocolate retail fix
Chocolate connoisseurs should head to Monk Bar Chocolatiers, York’s longest established artisan chocolatiers.
19:00 Dine in a former brothel
Enjoy casual yet decadent dining at The Blue Bicycle, a former 19th-century brothel overlooking the River Foss. Couples may share a romantic meal in one of the original private vaulted booths, while old photographs of exotic girls are reminders of the building’s historic improprieties.
20:00 Unearth York’s spookiest secrets
York has a spooky past. Infamous highwayman Dick Turpin was executed here in 1739, and local folklore is full of similar tales of tragedy and death. Experience the shadowy side of York on one of numerous nightly ghost walks. These include the Original Ghost Walk of York. The eerie apparitions you’ll hear about include the Grey Lady, the Headless Earl, and the Legendary Legionnaires. Rather not walk? Try the Ghost Bus Tour, a professional comedy theatre company who present a mix of thrills, chills and chuckles on board a former funeral bus.
21:30 Whisky, gin…or a ghostly spirit
Afterwards, steady your nerve with a stiff drink at The Golden Fleece hotel, York’s most haunted pub. Said to have five resident spirits, there have been numerous reports of ghostly apparitions and moving furniture. Or sample a vast range of local and international craft ales at The House of the Trembling Madness, an atmospheric ale shop and inn that also serves pub food, snacks and shareable platters.
Writer’s tip: York is in the county of Yorkshire in the north of England, two hours north of London by train. The nearest international airports are Leeds-Bradford and Manchester Airport. Best to fly into Manchester and catch the train to York– quick as a wink!