Sunday, 8th July 2018 – York
Sunday morning saw us not in a tearing hurry, but with a vague plan to get a close look at the rest of the city walls, and possibly pop into a museum, before stopping off somewhere for lunch. It was a fairly flexible sort of plan, and we were only constrained by wanting to set off home by 3pm. It was still hot and sticky outside, so we would be taking our wander at an easy pace, and so we started at Walmgate again and this time headed east along the walls.
The first thing of interest we stumbled across was the Red Tower, which to my amusement had its own post box, and a bed growing tomatoes just outside. It’s the only brick section of the medieval walls, and was built around 1490. It greatly upset and angered the local stone masons at the time, with sabotage attempts, and eventually a murder of one of the tilers by two masons, though they were acquitted of the crime. Unlike the rest of the walls, the brick building frequently needed repair, and it had fallen into ruin by 1736. It was later restored for use as a gunpowder factory, when it became known as Brimstone House. It was last restored in 1858, and is now being developed as a multi-use space for local residents, visitors and businesses, incorporating “meeting and events space, café, kitchen and growing beds”.
I hope they succeed. It will make an excellent local amenity and it seems far better than having it stand empty. From there we soon found ourselves walking along the section of the city boundary that didn’t need a wall because it had the Foss instead. It’s very peaceful now, and full of very tiny fish (which I couldn’t identify), and there are some interesting bridges along the way, which is just as well as the other side of the road is a giant retail park which has no redeeming features whatsoever.
We rounded the corner onto Peasholme Green (supposedly so named because the area used to be used to grow peas), having decided to detour via the Shambles before it completely filled up with tourists buying tat from the souvenir shops that line it. On the way we stopped for a closer look at Saint Cuthbert’s Church, on the site of one of the earliest churches in York. The current building dates from the 15th century, having been restored and largely rebuilt by William de Bowes MP, the former Lord Mayor of York, between 1417 and 1428. It has two doors, one of them tiny, this latter supposedly having been left open during baptisms to enable the devil to flee. It’s no longer a church but a house of prayer, but is still well cared for. There was a gardener happily pulling up weeds around the edge of the small garden. As it was a Sunday morning, I’m assuming he was a volunteer.
Next door is the rather fine former guildhall, Saint Anthony’s, which is now Trinity Church. It was built between 1446 and 1453 on the site of a chapel of St Anthony for the Guild of St Martin. Later it was used as an arsenal, a military hospital and a prison, before becoming the York Bluecoat School from 1705 to 1947, originally as a charity school for forty poor boys, rising to sixty-four boys in 1836. for use as the school building. A Greycoat School for twenty poor girls was founded at the same time in Marygate, but both schools closed in 1947 after the Education Act 1944, which established a number of categories for state schools and neither school fitted in.
Opposite it is the Black Swan Inn, one of several places that claims to be York’s most haunted pub. Regardless of such nonsense, it’s a pretty, historic building. It also apparently has a folk club, which is no great surprise. The building dates from around 1417, and was built for the same William Bowes who restored Saint Cuthbert’s, and there was a rumour that a tunnel ran between the two buildings, something backed up when work in 2003 showed that behind a cupboard was an old style red brick floor which receded off in the direction of the church.
We continued on (it was far too early to go to the pub), and passed by the rather wonderfully named Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate, which makes claims to be York’s shortest street with the longest name. It used to be the site of the city’s pillory, but seems pretty peaceful now. There is a suggestion that he original name was “Whitnourwhatnourgate”, meaning “neither one thing, nor the other” in Anglo-Saxon, which is plausible enough. It now allows you to take a shortcut into the Shambles, and that’s what we used it as.
The Shambles tends to be listed as a must see in York, and while I wouldn’t dispute that it’s interesting enough, it is seriously over crowded with tourists, and with some pretty overpriced shops that have lost the charm they used to have back when I was a child and used to visit York regularly. It started as the butchers’ quarter, with slaughterhouses at the back of many premises, and the meat hung up outside for sale on what have become the bottom of the shop windows. The pavements are still raised on either side of the cobbled street where the channels were used to wash away the detritus of the trade twice a week. The overhanging timber-framed fronts of the buildings are deliberately close-set to provide shelter for the meat, and to keep it from direct sunshine.
We eased our way out without being lured into buying anything, and went looking for a cold drink, finding it in a coffee shop around the corner in Goodramgate. The area around there was looking particularly fine, with lots of hanging baskets and flower displays as the city celebrated Bloom, its first ever horticultural festival. There was installations everywhere, and it really brightened our morning.
Also on Goodramgate is Lady Row (or Our Lady’s Row) which dates from 1316 and consists of the earliest surviving row of houses in the city. the houses stand in what was the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church and the rental income went towards the church’s running expenses. Seven bays still exist of what was originally eleven bays of mainly two storey one up, one down houses, one home to a bay. In 1827 there was a proposal to pull down the row to open up the church, which is hidden by the row, but thankfully that did not happen.
Refreshed by coffee, we headed back to the walls by way of Monk Bar, passing by the tiny and firmly closed on Sunday morning anyway Bedern Chapel. It was originally part of the College of the Vicars Choral which occupied the area between Goodramgate, St Andrewgate and Aldwark, and was their refectory from the 1390s until it passed into private hands. Only the hall, chapel and gatehouse remain. The Vicars Choral sang in York Minster when the Canons were busy elsewhere, and the college area used to be linked to the Minster by a bridge which ran between Minster Close and the college and allowed the vicars to travel between the two sites, avoiding the general populace. It gradually fell into disuse, and was taken over as housing, being divided into tenements in the 1790s. By the 1840s, with a rise in the number of Irish immigrants following the potato famine, Bedern’s inhabitants were living in a slum that was a “sad spectacle of poverty and wretchedness”. Later it became a school, and then a bakery and finally a butcher’s. It was acquired by the council in the mid-1970s, and they demolished a series of more modern industrial buildings, leaving the Hall and chapel in tact.
And so to Monk Bar and the walls again. This is the largest and fanciest of the bars, and dated from the early 14th century. It was a self-contained fortress, complete with a barbican, and also contained the city’s only working portcullis, which was in use until 1970. It has had just as chequered a history as all the other bars, including being a private home, and a jail for rebellious Catholics in the 16th century.
From here on in you start to get views of the Minster as it gradually reveals itself to the walkers. It also reveals vistas of some of the more modern, but nonetheless interesting, buildings including this with a lovely roof garden.
However, it was the Minster that held our attention as we made our way along. It’s glorious from this angle, even when you’re having to loom over a gaggle of selfie-stick wielding Chinese tourists to see it (and to get the shot). The skies seemed to be cooperating too, providing a fabulous backdrop.
At Bootham Bar we had to descend back to street level, which gave us a good look at what had been one of the four Roman entrances to the fortress. None of what is there now is Roman, with an 11th century archway surrounded by 14th century structures. Apparently in 1501 a door knocker was installed as Scotsmen were required to knock first and seek permission from the Lord Mayor to enter the city. In fact, you might have not wanted to bother at all because right up until 2012 it was still legal to kill a Scot in York, provided that they were carrying a bow and arrow. Bootham Bar was the last gate to lose its barbican, which was demolished in 1835.
We crossed the road to the York Art Gallery where another Bloom installation was in place out front.
The building has some fine features, including a couple of impressive friezes.
The gallery was created for the second Yorkshire Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition of 1879, and was purchased, along with its collections, by York City Council in 1892. Temporary summer exhibitions ceased in 1903 but a major exhibition of the work of York artist William Etty was held in 1911, wnd at the same time his statue was erected outside. The gallery was taken over for military use at the outbreak of World War II, and was damaged in an air raid on 29th April 1942. It was refurbished in 2015 and reopened and looks very fine now.
Behind it is the King’s Manor, a Tudor and Stuart building on the site of the house of the Abbot of Saint Mary’s, the ruins of which stand in Museum Gardens. The original building went up in around 1270, but on the dissolution of the monasteries which began in 1534, the abbey was closed and the Manor became the headquarters of the Council of the North. It was enlarged and extended after Henry VIII, Charles I and James I all stayed there. A courtyard, a residential wing and a service building were all added, some of the work reusing stone from Saint Mary’s. It continued to be used as the Council of the North’s seat until 1641, when the council was abolished. In a nice twist of fate, after a spell as the Yorkshire School for the Blind, it is now part of the University of York and houses the department of Archaeology. It was leased to the university in 1963, and now houses lecture and seminar rooms, two computer suites, conservation and bone laboratories, and a darkroom, its own library, common room, and refectory. There was a highly entertaining children’s event going on on the grassy area in front with a couple of dozen small fierce children learning to fight Viking style (with wooden swords and shields I should say – though it didn’t stop one tiny little mite giving her brother one hell of a whack on the head)!
Round the corner, we found the road was bounded on one side by an eclectic mix of houses from many centuries, leading down to Saint Olave’s church.
The church itself is beautifully kept, and as you can probably guess from the name, it has quite a long history. It’s on Marygate, close to Saint Mary’s Abbey, and is dedicated to St Olave (or Olaf), the patron saint of Norway, and is the burial place of Siward, Earl of Northumbria, who supposedly lived close by. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states: ‘This year died Earl Siward at York; and his body lies in the minster at Galmanho, which he had himself ordered to be built and consecrated, in the name of God and St. Olave, to the honour of God and to all his saints”. The church was heavily rebuilt in the 15th century, and further substantial repairs were carried out in the 1720s when windows were added in the north aisle wall, which had earlier served as part of the abbey and then of the city defences. The church remains broadly 15th century in style and is rather lovely.
Round another corner and we were in the Museum Gardens, and then out the other side. It was pleasant to walk in the shade of the trees for a while.
From there we walked along the riverside a very short distance, passing yet another tower.
There is also a rather fine terrace of houses overlooking the river.
Once we got across to the other side, via the footbridge along the railway line, we were momentarily distracted by a weird effect of the sun reflecting on the river.
We were now at the Railway Museum (free to get in) but we were running out of time. We nipped instead into the railway station, which is a remarkably fine example of the Victorian station, all curves and wrought iron and archways. The first building was a wooden structure outside the city walls, with its successor opening in 1841. Apparently through trains between London and Newcastle used to have to reverse out of this station to continue their journey, but the new station outside the walls opened in 1877 and solved that problem. At the time of its opening, it was the world’s largest station with 13 platforms. The Royal Station Hotel opened a year later, and, renamed as the Principal, looks rather wonderful now.
The building was heavily bombed in World War II, with 800 passengers having to be evacuated from the building on 29th April 1942, when their train arrived during a bombing raid, and two railway workers were killed, one of them station foreman William Milner who died after returning to his burning office to collect his first aid kit.
From the station we battled our way across the main road to the walls to complete the circuit. The last stretch is lined by mostly Victorian developments, and some rather splendid arches.
It also brought us to Micklegate Bar, the most important – and the grandest – of the city’s medieval gateways. With it providing the entrance for anyone coming from the south, this was often the gate used by the reigning monarch, a half dozen or so having passed through this gate; by tradition they must stop at the gate to ask the Lord Mayor’s permission to enter the city. It’s a 12th century building, with a 14th century upper level, and again it originally had a barbican in front of it, this one having been demolished in 1826.
It was also the gate used to display the heads of rebels and traitors, including Sir Henry “Hotspur” Percy in 1403, and Richard, Duke of York in 1460, thus tying in with Saturday’s play. Apparently the last of the severed heads was removed in 1754. Moving on, the Victorian terraces are really rather wonderful in their architectural harmoniousness.
We came after that finally to the last part of the walls and the location of the first of the two Norman castles, a motte and bailey affair just to the west of the Ouse and close to Skeldergate Bridge. There’s nothing much left of it apart from a mound of earth, covered in trees, known as Baile Hill. Excavations in 1979 revealed the remains of timber buildings and a fence at the summit and a staircase up one side. The surrounding bailey was defended by a bank of earth built on top of the original Roman city wall. When the castle on the east side of the river was replaced with a stone structure, Baile Hill fell into disuse.
We were almost done, apart from finding lunch. We did stop to look at the flood heights marker on the river side buildings.
And just to complete the session, we walked round the other side of Clifford’s Tower, and around to another installation in the Bloom festival. It was looking a bit wind-blown on the last day of the festival, but was still very impressive.
And then it really was time for lunch as it was well after 1pm!