It is one of those rare early Spring afternoons of pristine skies and eye-dazzling sunshine. The ancient stone of York Minster is shining white on the skyline. The city wall snakes away into the distance, and the white roses of Yorkshire, which decorate the elegant span of Lendal Bridge, are gleaming. York is a pearl among cities: old and rare, beautiful and intimate, and, beyond all other English cities, keeper of the nation’s past. King George VI remarked that the history of York, not London, is the history of England.
Each great age is etched into the stone of York, visibly so: from Early Britons to Romans to Vikings, Conquest to Mediaeval, Tudors to Elizabethan to Stuart, Georgian to Victorian, Edwardian to Modern. The limestone walls and narrow arched gates, the cobbled streets and snickelways, the churches and castles, town houses and gild halls, the rivers and their bridges, together create an atmosphere—antiquity and pomp, certainly, but on an intimate, human scale. York was, and still is, a city for people who travel on foot.
The joy lies in the detail: the walls on which you can walk for miles, with superb views over the city; the scant remains of a Norman house in Stonegate; the narrow cobbled streets of Shambles; the King’s Manor, where Charles I held court. And, of course, towering over all else, there is the Minster, one of the world’s famous cathedrals, a showpiece of architectural styles and ecclesiastical grandeur. Begun in 1220, finished in 1472, multiple human generations laboured at the task of building it. The Early English craftsmen who raised the 13th-century transepts worked as youths, matured as craftsmen, lived and died, giving way to their descendants, father to son, all down the years. The history lives on—today’s craftsmen in stone and stained glass are still at work on the Minster, the stonemasons’ yard just across the road is busy; the work will never end.
The Minster is the heart and soul of York, whatever the season. The services are a living part of the ongoing tradition—and our recommended hotel for members, the Grand Hotel (see full details in our hotels section), stands in its shadow, putting you in the perfect place to begin and end any exploration of the city. The route is rich in famous churches, among them St Michael-le-Belfry (where one of York’s famous sons, Guy Fawkes, was christened), St Wilfrid’s, St Olave’s and All Saints, with its world-famous stained glass. There are many museums, of course, all within easy walking distance: the National Railway Museum, its location a tribute to the ‘railway king’, George Hudson, another son of York, and home to The Flying Scotsman; the Yorkshire Museum with its Roman antiquities; the Castle Museum and Clifford’s Tower, the most celebrated folk museum in England. But there can be no more spectacular an historic exhibition than the Jorvik Centre. In 950, Coppergate was one of the busiest streets of the Viking age. Market stalls sold leather goods and jewellery, hens scuttled in and out of the low timbered houses, the people wore brightly coloured woollen clothes and from time to time they played a kind of board game similar to nine men’s morris. Underneath modern York, visitors actually enter this Viking world, with all its noise, bustle, smells and colour, and experience just what life was like for a Viking in Jorvik.
Despite being seeped in history, York is not a museum. Boutiques and department stores, restaurants, cafés and bars, craft and farmers’ markets, live music and street performers, orchestral concerts and theatres are all part of the present. In summer, and at weekends, tourists flock here, so the time to visit York is in the quiet season. In spring, when daffodils growing on the banks beneath the city walls burst into glorious yellow blooms. Or in winter, particularly when it snows, for then the city is at peace, noise muffled, the pace unhurried, and in the narrow streets after dark the lamplight glows on the cobbles, as it has done all down the years.
¶ Click here to see our partner hotel, The Grand, Yorkshire’s only five-star hotel.