The medieval walls of York enclose a city that contains Roman, Viking and Georgian architecture and one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Britain. With traffic exiled to a ring road outside the walls, this is a perfect city in which to stroll.
York is a remarkable city whose dukes once held the English throne. It has also been a major Roman garrison and the capital of Viking Britain which is why, still today, its streets are named ‘gates’ and its city gates are named ‘bars’.
Start your day at York’s railway station, a splendid and highly practical curving structure in yellow brick. When it opened in 1877 this station had 13 platforms, making it the largest in the world. Dainty, painted pedestrian bridges that wouldn’t be out of place in a Victorian municipal park link all those platforms.
Outside the terminus, take Station Road north towards the River Ouse. As soon as you can, climb onto York’s white medieval limestone walls. From here there is a wonderful view of the city, with its Georgian townhouses dominated by the soaring, solid majesty of York Minster, a huge cathedral dedicated to St Peter that is the seat of the second-most important bishop in Britain.
The city walls lead down to Lendal Bridge, which crosses the River Ouse. The conical building you pass on your left once controlled a huge chain that lay on the riverbed and that could – with the assistance of the turreted building on the opposite shore – be raised to prevent any invaders sailing into the centre of York.
Once on the far side of the bridge, turn left to walk through Museum Gardens as far as the Greek-Revival style Yorkshire Museum, which was opened in 1830. The architect was William Wilkins, the architect of London’s British Museum. The site, chosen by York’s Philosophical Society was in the grounds of St Mary’s Abbey, destroyed during the Reformation. Its ruins can still be seen as you walk through the park.
Emerging at the north end of the gardens, King’s Manor is on your left and the York Art Gallery ahead of you. King’s Manor was once the residence of the abbots of St Mary’s Abbey but it was taken over by the Tudors after the dissolution of the monasteries. The building is now part of the University of York. In 1603 King’s Manor housed James VI of Scotland on his way to London to receive the English throne following the death of his cousin, Elizabeth I. Over the main entrance it sports the coat of arms of the King. James was the monarch who introduced the Scots unicorn to English heraldry, demoting the Welsh dragon. Ever since, the white unicorn has helped the English lion hold up the monarch’s shield, but this shield is notably different from that of Elizabeth I, James’ predecessor, because James also introduced the harp of Ireland and the lion of Scotland to its four quarters.
In front of the art gallery stands a statue of the painter William Etty (1787–1849) who was born in York and who painted historical, mythological and biblical scenes. He was considered scandalous in the 19th century because so many of his paintings featured ladies who had lost their clothes. York’s Art Gallery contains the world’s largest collection of Ettys.
Crossing to Bootham Bar where the medieval wall was demolished so that Henry VIII’s daughter Princess Mary could enter in a huge procession, you climb back on to the medieval walls for wonderful views of the freestanding minster across Dean’s Park. In medieval cities like York great buildings would accumulate lean-to houses and workshops around them, like bits of coral adding to a reef.
The Minster, like so many cathedrals and churches, was cleansed of such accretions in the Victorian era. It is today a powerful, stunning white limestone edifice, two huge towers at its western end and an even bigger central tower over the transept that rises up 235 feet without a spire, like some great white cliff face. This is the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe and a masterpiece in stone and stained glass.
The narrow parapet of these preserved walls runs around three quarters of York. Walking it, you encounter four major and two minor fortified gates (known, from the Viking era as bars). The Richard III Experience, a museum dedicated to the last Yorkist king of England is housed within Monk Bar. This fortified gate – York’s largest – still has its own working portcullis.
From here take the narrow steps down into Goodramgate (gate meaning street) and head towards the centre of the old city. Walk past The Cat’s Whiskers ( a cafe where you can take tea with resident cats awaiting adoption) as far as King’s Square where there are often buskers and street entertainers – as well as lots of independent bakeries. Heading south out of the square, past York’s Chocolate Story visitor centre we come to The Shambles, one of the most charming medieval vistas in York. Some of its timber framed houses date back to the 14th century.
The cobbled street is so narrow that some of the overhanging upper storeys of houses almost touch in the middle of the street. It’s generally believed that The Shambles got its name from the Anglo-Saxon word, Flesh/ ammels which referred to the shelves on which butchers used to display their meat. The butchers are long gone and The Shambles is now home to Harry Potter memorabilia shops and general necromancy.
Be careful not to mention the name of The Shop That Must Not Be Named, which is full of magic wands. It is no surprise that many believe The Shambles inspired the design of Diagon Alley in the Potter films.
Coming out into Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate (surely the strangest and least explicable of many strange street names in York) turn right and walk through the marketplace and north towards the Roman Bath near Swinegate. This pub with rooms is built over a Roman caldarium (hot baths), which is still down there in its cellar. From here there is a cut through (a passageway under houses) that is called Nether Hornpot Lane that leads via Grape Lane and Mad Alice Lane into Low Petergate. Here there are some great places to eat or snack as you continue your way north back to the Minster. At the small statue of Minerva (goddess of wisdom), turn right down Minster Gates, which used to be known as Bookbinder’s Alley. Here was where books were leather-bound in medieval times – and later printed. Today its small premises are given over to bookshops and jewellers. This alleyway ends opposite the Minster.
There is no better way to end a walk round York than by visiting the Minster. Do not miss the screen that features 15 life-sized carved kings of England, from William the Conqueror to Henry VI below gilded canopies, nor the painted ceiling bosses above the South Transept. When the transept’s roof was destroyed in a fire of 1984 the Blue Peter TV programme invited children to design new carved bosses for York, relevant to the 1980s. If you look closely (or have brought a pair of binoculars) you’ll see up there bosses that commemorate the first moon landing, saving the whales and the raising of Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose.
Ideally you’ll have prebooked a ticket for the tower as well. It’s 275 steps to the top, but at rooftop level you are at the highest point in York and can see everywhere you have just walked – and so much more of what this majestic city has to offer.
Where to stay and eat
York’s finest hotel, an august Queen Anne house near the racecourse. It was built by the Barlow family, Sheffield cutlers who had made a fortune in the 17th century and wanted to relocate to York. The house was built on the main road leading south out of York rather than in a park, to be sure that no-one would miss it. Today the hotel is famed for its Champagne Afternoon Tea. There is also a lovely spa with a swimming pool in a cottage on the estate.
Guy Fawkes Inn
This Georgian townhouse stands close to York Minster and claims to have been built on the site of the medieval inn where the Gunpowder plotter, Guido Fawkes was born. Inside, the hotel offers diners a ‘Conspirators Menu’ and a free two-hour walking tour of York’s historic sights.
A unique 12-bedroom boutique hotel has been formed out of two Georgian townhouses in the centre of York. Its location in Low Petergate is ideal for both sightseeing and shopping.
The Refectory Kitchen & Terrace is part of York’s old 19th-century railway hotel, now known as The Principal, York. Its bar – known as the Chapter House – and its dining room – known as the Refectory – take their names from York’s monastic origins. While you’re there check out the hotel’s gorgeous main staircase.
Pearly Cow York
Pearly Cow is the first in a mini-chain of new British restaurants opening in heritage buildings. Fire and Ice are the themes of the menu so whether you want steak cooked in a Mibrasa Grill or oysters served on a plate of ice, book in from the end of March.
Sisters Kelly and Kate opened Pairings Wine Bar in 2015. Their mission is to offer a relaxing space for drinking good wine but with the opportunity to order the food the two women suggest as an ideal pairing with each bottle. Hence the name.
Text by Adrian Mourby | Illustrations by Sophie Minto