York: Dragons and Permafrost

As we left the train in York, or detrained as our transatlantic cousins would have it, I realised that this was the furthest north I had ever been in England.

Growing up in the south, we all believed that anywhere much north of Oxford was covered in year-round permafrost and patrolled by fire-breathing dragons. Older maps always had the inscription “Here be Dragons” in that Old-English script that was hard to dispute. Any suggestions to our elders that maybe we should explore to the north of London were met with a sharp intake of breath and a shake of the head.

Somehow life, and the lack of a crossbow to deal with the dragons, got in the way of exploring much of the country. Now was the time to start rectifying that insular existence with a few days in a city that had often been recommended to me. Besides, the National Railway Museum was here and who can resist a steam train or two?

Being directionally challenged, I generally just follow the crowds leaving the train on the assumption that they are mostly heading to the exit. Oddly, for a busy city, only a few other people left the train and by the time I had gathered my bags, searched through several pockets for my ticket, checked I still had my spectacles and re-tied my shoelaces, the platform was deserted. The exit sign was a diagonal upward facing arrow. Did that mean we went simultaneously right and forward? Up and sideways? After much confusion and wandering around the platform looking lost, we realised that we needed to take a lift down to a subway, along a dark and dank corridor, which doubled up as a latrine judging by the pungent aroma, then up in another lift to reach the exit. I am not entirely convinced that a diagonal arrow is quite the appropriate symbol for that procedure.

We checked into our hotel just outside the city walls, conveniently close to the railway museum. Madam likes to completely unpack, test the shower, check under the bed for dust, closely examine the little bottles of shampoo, search, often in vain, for an iron and trouser press, and see how many TV channels are available. She will then count the towels and pillows, invariably calling reception, demanding more of each. I prefer to just drop my bags in the nearest corner and go out exploring. As a result, I am invariably standing by the door hopping impatiently from one foot to the other by the time she is ready.

Finally, we set off to explore York. After a few wrong turns we managed to find The Shambles. This is one of the city’s major tourist attractions with some buildings dating from the fourteenth century. A narrow cobbled street with many beautifully preserved overhanging timber-framed Elizabethan buildings. The name Shambles is derived from an old term for a slaughterhouse and meat market. As recently as the 1870’s, there were twenty-five butcher’s shops lining the street but it now consists mostly of gift shops and hundreds of Japanese tourists carrying their mobile phones on long sticks.

The Shambles was said to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley in J. K Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Entrepreneurial shop owners were eager to cash in on this connection and there are several shops at one end selling magic wands and other paraphernalia. Most of them were full of excited chattering teenagers trying on Gryffindor scarves or Quidditch sweaters.

York also has a historic connection to the Vikings following an invasion by Ivar the Boneless in 866 or thereabouts. There are a number of explanations as to his odd moniker. One is that he may have had a genetic condition which resulted in recurrent joint dislocations. Another is that it was simply a euphemism for impotence. None of this seems to have slowed down some serious burning and pillaging, although the raping may have suffered. Needless to say, there are shops selling Viking souvenirs and t-shirts. I was rather hoping to get myself a proper Viking hat with horns, but without success.

The Viking legacy has led to many unusual street names in York. We have High and Low Petergate, Swinegate and Stonegate. Even a Whip-ma-Whop-ma-Gate. These are derived from a Scandinavian word gate, simply meaning street. Just to confuse everybody, the historic gateways to the city are called ‘Bars’. Walmgate Bar, Monk Bar, Micklegate Bar and Bootham Bar guard the city walls. A number of street names were changed in Victorian time to avoid upsetting those of delicate sensibilities. Grope Lane was once the heart of York’s red-light district but became Grape Lane. Mucky Peg Lane, which led to the red-light district in now Finkle Street. Even Beggergate became Nunnery Lane.

The shops were starting to close and, it being a reasonable hour to start drinking, we popped into a pub in the main square, fortuitously just as it decided to start raining. Not just a shower but a gulley-washing downpour. The packed square emptied within seconds. A river formed down the centre of the road. Lakes formed in the gutters. The drains gurgled and bubbled and overflowed. I watched the rain cascade from the rooftops and said to myself ‘That will melt the permafrost.’

Finally, the rain stopped and the sun came out. We happily wandered the now far less crowded centre, dodging puddles, eventually finding a sushi restaurant called Sushi Waka which was excellent. I won’t bore you with details of everything we ate, but it was all amazingly good. Even the “100% Secret Recipe Tempura Ice Cream” was wonderful. If you are anywhere near York you should go there immediately. Go on. What are you waiting for?

Day 2.

A few weeks ago I managed to simultaneously embarrass my wife and achieve a certain amount of respect in our pub quiz. The question concerned the locomotive number for the Flying Scotsman steam locomotive in the 1930’s. It’s 4472 if you are interested. The pub was impressed that I had such obscure knowledge and my wife embarrassed to be married to somebody who secretly knew about steam trains.

I should hasten to add that I am not one of those people that stand on the end of the platform with a notebook collecting train numbers. Nor do I stand on railway bridges jumping up and down with excitement when an 800 hp Class 16 D8409 locomotive with a Paxman 16YHXL engine passes underneath. Not that I would recognise one if I saw it of course. Not at all.

I just point this out to show that I have a rudimentary knowledge and passing interest in trains. I was therefore pleased that the National Railway Museum was today’s planned outing. I had developed a certain amount of anticipation since I have wanted to visit the museum for a long time. Several people had told me how great it was and that we should allow a full day. It was also free entry which I always find hard to resist.

So how was it? Honestly, a bit disappointing. It may have been that I had built up too high an expectation. Maybe I had a subconscious view that I would be soon donning a driver’s hat and piloting a puffing steam train around the track, or at least pulling some signalling levers. In the event, it was like somebody had driven a few trains into a shed and left them. Put a few rail related items in cabinets in random order and closed the door. Just to pick one example at random, the Mallard, which holds the steam locomotive speed record (126 mph in 1938) was there but without any label or description. How was anybody supposed to know the significance of this amazing locomotive? Maybe there was a guidebook somewhere, but I never saw one for sale. The young lady on the front desk was mostly interested in telling us that although entry was free, we really should make a £5 donation each. A few more labels with descriptions or an audio guide could have turned it from average into great. Still, there were a few interesting items. Queen Victoria’s carriages, a mail sorting wagon and a reconstructed signal box spring to mind. To be fair, we did spent a couple of passably enjoyable hours there and Madam certainly enjoyed her flapjack in the cafe.

Much more interesting was our second attraction of the day which was the Treasurer’s House situated in a small close near the Minster. This has something of a chequered history, architecturally speaking. Parts of it, or at least a few stones, date from the 12th century. It was then rebuilt, and generally messed about with, during the 16th and 17th centuries. Frank Green,the son of a successful industrialist, purchased the house in 1897. He then spent several years doing some serious mucking about, moving walls hither and thither until it reached the current, slightly uneven, structure, which he then promptly gave it to the National Trust, complete with contents. During one of the structural changes, four Roman column bases were uncovered, one of which remains in the cellar. Several ghosts reportedly haunt the house including a group of Roman soldiers. We spent a couple of hours happily wandering from room to room. Enthusiastic volunteers in each room were knowledgeable about the somewhat eclectic collection of antiques, art and textiles, many of them of dubious taste and quality. There was a guided tour of the haunted cellars but we managed to miss this by five minutes. I was tempted to revisit the next day, just for the tour, but we never made it back.

According to an app on my phone we had walked over seven miles, so we were, to say the least, a bit knackered. You have to remember that OAP miles are like dog years. You multiply them by eight to get normal miles, so we really walked over fifty-six miles. No wonder my knees were aching.

We were too tired to explore further, so we just spent the evening in the hotel bar listening to that well known album “Most Annoying Songs Ever Recorded (Volume 3)”. It was the sort of album you give to the relative or friend that you really do not like but you feel you have to give them something at Christmas. The sort that give you an absolutely hideous jumper or scarf one year and then make comments when you aren’t wearing it the next. I did a quick search on Spotify for the album using the terms “annoying”, “irritating” and “my head hurts” but could not find anything listed. Mind you, the WiFi was a bit crap, so it kept timing out. I may have been a little grumpy on account of my sore feet.

Day 3.

We got to the Jorvik Viking Museum at 9:45 and the queue was already fifty yards long. The museum opened at 10:00 and we all shuffled in slowly two-by-two. It was a bit like standing in line at Disney World. You just hope the ride is worth the wait.

On Coppergate, the site of the current museum, there stood a confectioner’s factory from 1803. This was demolished prior to redevelopment of the site as a shopping center. The York Archaeological Trust managed to get access to the site and conducted extensive excavations in the area over a five year period. Well-preserved remains of timber buildings were discovered, along with workshops animal pens, privies and water wells, together with many artefacts, including pottery, metalwork and bones.. Unusually, wood, leather and textiles remains were preserved in oxygen-deprived wet soil. In all, over 40,000 objects were recovered. This was a major discovery and added to our knowledge of Viking history. The trust recreated part of Jorvik on the site with a view to bringing the Viking city fully to life.

After buying tickets (£9 OAP rate) we shuffled slowly further forward and were eventually loaded onto a carriage suspended from rails that did look remarkably like a Disney ride. We then traveled at a sedate pace past animatronic displays that depicted Viking life in York in the 10th century. It was sort of interesting but it wasn’t long before we were disgorged into an area with a few displays of Viking artifacts and a couple of skeletons. I’m not sure it was really worth the cost and the wait. I understand that they were trying to make history accessible and enjoyable to the general public but I would prefer a regular museum with time to poke around and have a good look at the exhibits. As is compulsory with all tourist attractions we found ourselves in short-order in the gift shop. I was still hoping for a proper Viking hat with horns but alas, none were on sale. Madam did point out that I would just look foolish on the OAP bus into town and that I should probably stick to my flat cap. On reflection, she was probably right. She often is.

Our afternoon excursion was York Castle Museum which, I have to say, was the highlight of the trip so far. It was all amazing and wonderful. It was how all museums should be run. Interesting and informative, we spent four hours there totally absorbed. This one would have been worth queuing for, but there were no queues and no crowds. It has a number of rooms throughout the ages but the highlight is Kirkgate. This is the re-creation of an entire Victorian street complete with cobbles and waiting Hansom cab. Each shop and business is named after a real business that operated in York between 1870 and 1901. Just about every type of shop is there. Milliners, Saddlers, Confectioners, Cutlets, Printers, Tobacconists, Pharmacy, and many more, even a Hot Cocoa Room. All filled with genuine items from the Victorian period. Volunteers are in period dress in many of the shops and are happy to chat about their particular shop, or just about anything else.

A second wing of the museum is currently “1914: When the World Changed Forever”. The fascinating and often moving stories of those that lived and died in what was supposed to be the war that ended wars. The museum is housed in the 18th century prison buildings and down in the basement you can seen the cell that held Dick Turpin before he went off to have his neck stretched on the local gallows. Definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in York.

We stayed in the city centre for a couple of drinks and dinner then walked back to the hotel on the mostly pedestrianised streets. The weather was pleasant. Couples were strolling hand in hand. Buskers were playing, occasionally in tune, and I thought ‘I quite like York’.

Day 4.

We had planned to visit York Minster, or technically the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York, the seat of the archbishop of York. The forecast was for wet and windy weather and we thought this would at least keep us out of the rain. By the time we had breakfast the forecast had changed to just very windy and we spent several minutes trying to decide what to do. Although we normally visit the cathedral in any new city, we are fast coming to the conclusion that they must have all used the same architectural plans. Kind of if you have seen one, you have seen them all. Maybe they download the plans from the internet. The admission to the cathedral and tower was an eye-watering £16 each which also persuaded us to give it a miss. It will still be there should we come again, lightning strikes permitting.

So our final day in York found us walking part of the city walls to the Museum Gardens which house the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, one of the many victims of Henry VIII’s take on the Reformation and his penchant to change wives every year or two. It was a lovely walk, in spite of Henry VIII, and almost deserted. The gardens contain the ruins of a Roman tower as well as part of the original Roman wall. There was also a Hospitium. When I saw the sign pointing towards the Hospitium I assumed it was a hospital spitoon of some historical importance. Maybe still harbouring the odd plague bacterium or some dried up smallpox virus. It turned out to be a building used for housing abbey guests and now in use as a wedding venue. Far less interesting.

We rejoined the wall as it passed behind the Minster with fantastic views over some impressive gardens towards the Minster. It was also free which I always find hard to resist. We had picked a spectacularly windy day which added to the frisson as we hung on to the more exposed sections with a vertiginous drop to the side.

After a morning happily exploring the area around the Minster, we had lunch from a street food stall in the Shambles market. A falafel wrap from Los Moros, which was excellent and full of interesting flavours and textures. Certainly many things have improved in this country with food near the top of the list. When I was a boy, any hint of flavour was frowned upon in respectable circles. Vegetables were boiled to within an inch of their lives, often long after any nutritional value had been leached into the water, which was then discarded. Cookery experts insisted that children could only digest bland food. It was considered that the addition of spice in food would inflame unhealthy passions and lead to a downward spiral of depravity and crime. Throw herbs into the mix and you would end up in the gutter injecting heroin into your eyeballs. My grandmother once saw my uncle being a little too liberal with the pepper at dinner. She frowned and said ‘He’ll come to no good that one’. Being young and impressionable it was many years before I would go near condiments of any description. Needless to say my uncle went on to lead a life of temperance and respectability.

In the afternoon we took a tour of a small chocolate factory. It was interesting as I had no idea how chocolate was made. I somehow assumed it involved saucepans and jugs of measured ingredients. A bit like baking a large cake but with extra cocoa. It turned out that it is an industrial process that involves lots of different, impressively large, stainless-steel machines with numerous spouts and handles. Depending on which handle you turn, or which spout goes where, you get different flavour chocolate. I think that is right. I’m a little hazy on the details. I was focused on the chocolate tasting at the end, which is why I was really there in the first place.

I liked York. It is compact and walkable. It has decent pubs and decent bookshops. Some good restaurants and street food. The young people rarely elbow OAPs into the gutter. It has good, well run museums. Interesting architecture and odd street names. Even a Harry Potter shop or two. What else could you ask from a city? It isn’t perfect, many streets are choked with buses and lorries belching diesel fumes and traffic seems to have priority over pedestrians, but it’s a living, working city and has to cater to its residents. I would even consider living here if it wasn’t for the permafrost and fire-breathing dragons.