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York: A Return to Medieval England

Posted on October 8, 2012 by Holly Hayes
Part of: Solo UK and France by Train

As you know from my last couple of posts, I found Glasgow and Liverpool to be very interesting and very cool, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in both cities. But when I arrived in York, it was a return to the UK I love best: good and old! Case in point: during the short ride from the York train station to my B&B, the view from the taxi window included a small section of an ancient Roman wall, large sections of the medieval city walls, a glimpse of the glorious Gothic towers of York Minster, a plaque marking the former home of poet W.H. Auden, and countless Georgian and Victorian houses. Later, when I went for a wander through the heart of the city, with cobblestones under my feet and leaning Tudor facades overhead, I felt like I was home again.

View from Wall View of York Minster from the medieval city walls

However, as historic cathedral cities go, for some reason York doesn't make my top five. I do like it, just not as much as some other places. It's hard to put my finger on exactly why, but I think somehow it's not as warm and welcoming as, say, Canterbury or Lincoln or Exeter or Norwich. It's also more touristy and crowded than any of those cities. And for me personally, it may have something to do with the pure Gothic architecture of York Minster, which is more beautiful but also cooler and more aloof than the warm, earthy, solid aspects of Norman architecture, which many other English cathedrals incorporate along with Gothic (and which I love).

York Cityscape, with Rainbow York cityscape, with the Minster selectively lit by the sun, and another rainbow!

Whatever it is, I'm apparently not alone - my friend commented that "The Shambles [the most historic and charming street in York] didn't seem as charming this time as I remember." But all that said, York is still charming, and there are lots of interesting things to see there, so I'd definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the Middle Ages, architecture, charming old streets, and good shopping. I had a very nice time there myself, was fortunate to have some good light, and took lots of photos I look forward to adding to Go Historic. Here is a small selection.

York Minster

Built in various stages in the 13th and 15th century, York Minster incorporates every major style of English Gothic architecture (Early English, Decorated, and Perpendicular). It is made of a lovely stone with a soft creamy color, and is especially known for its large expanses of stained glass windows. Overall, it is a beautiful cathedral with lots of interesting details to explore.

View from Wall Another view from the wall

York Minster

West towers

York Minster

South side, from west

York Minster

South side

York Minster

Detail of heart shape on the outside of the Great West Window

York Minster An unexpected sight on a roof boss: a scuba diver!

York Minster And Neil Armstrong!

York Minster Another little surprise: a cat and mouse among the foliage decoration on the choir screen.

Tea and Cakes in the Minster

Tea, cakes and other homemade refreshments served in the north transept, with all proceeds going to charity. I love when church spaces are used like this. Note the clergyman in his robe joining a table at lower right. He had just given a nice blessing and short prayer over the loudspeaker from the nave pulpit, ending with an invitation to cake.

York Minster The spectacular star vault in the Chapter House

Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate

I photographed several parish churches in York, but this one was my favorite. Tucked away in a peaceful walled garden behind a busy street (you have to really look for the alley leading to it or you'll miss it!), it is small, humble, and charmingly crooked. It also has its original box pews, which are fairly rare now in England.

Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate

Also part of its appeal is its administration by the Churches Conservation Trust, who have made it feel very valued and welcoming. They had the doors wide open, signboards outside, and even all the candles lit. Inside, there were no less than three friendly guides (whom I assume to be volunteers) to welcome visitors. They were so nice, very informative without being overbearing, and when one of them noticed my interest in photographing the church, she opened new vantage points for me, including the historic wooden pulpit! I had a wonderful time there and I strongly recommend a visit.

Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate View from the pulpit

Clifford's Tower

Clifford's Tower is a quatrefoil-shaped castle built in the 13th century on the site of an earlier wooden keep built by William the Conqueror. It sits atop a large grassy hill and you can also climb to the top of its walls, so it provides some excellent views of the city, in addition to being interesting in itself. The photo at the top of this post was taken from here.

Cliffords Tower

Cliffords Tower
Clifford's Tower
Cliffords Tower
York Cityscape

Various Other Sights

River Ouse The River Ouse, which was at very high levels and even flooding in some places

York Further down the river

Lendal Tower

Lendal Tower, c. 1300

Barker Tower Barker Tower, 1300s, across the river

St. Mary's Abbey The beautiful ruins of St. Mary's Abbey, once the most powerful in northern England, are on the park-like grounds of the Yorkshire Museum. The surviving walls date from the 13th century.

York More ruins in the Museum Gardens

York A hopeful squirrel in the Museum Gardens

York The medieval walls, on which you can walk most of the way around the city

An Old Friend and a New Baby

Last but definitely not least, a major highlight of York was getting to see my old friend from my graduate school days in Edinburgh. She came down on the train with her beautiful new baby, and we had a lovely dinner at ASK (in the historic and classically beautiful Assembly Rooms), followed by lunch the next day at Pizza Express (also in a Grade-I-listed building, called the River House) before we both headed to the train station. It was wonderful to see her and her beautiful daughter.

Assembly Rooms ASK/Assembly Rooms

Assembly Rooms Porch of the Assembly Rooms, a nice place to wait out of the rain

Assembly Rooms Two big, beautiful smiles

River House Pizza Express/River House

IMG_5515r Inside Pizza Express - we had an early lunch in order to make our trains and were the only customers for awhile!

IMG_5526r What a face!

Day Trips from York

I spent two full days in York, and on the second day I took some train rides out of town to two other destinations: Selby and Castle Howard. Both were excellent, and they will be the subject of my next post!