The small northern English city of York wears its 2,000 years of history lightly. As seen in these pictures of York, the city's Roman, Viking and Medieval history, its relics, monuments and architectural treasures are woven into the fabric of everyday modern life.
Markets in the same squares and stalls they have occupied for hundreds of years sell the latest goods - everything from fruit and vegetables to snazzy hats, designer kitchen utensils and music DVDs. Surprising views of one of Europe's greatest Gothic Cathedrals crop up in the most unexpected places. Streets and lanes are scattered with exceptional black and white, half-timbered buildings, and smart jewelry boutiques fill shops on a street mentioned in the Domesday Book that has been a commercial center for 900 years.
More Pictures of York
The Shambles - A Typical Medieval Shopping Street
The Shambles, one of the most photographed streets in Britain, is considered one of the best preserved Medieval shopping streets in Europe. It is mentioned in the Domesday Book, recording its use for retail activities 900 years ago.
None of the original shop fronts have survived from medieval times, but many of the buildings have wooden shelves or wide windowsills left from the days when cuts of meat were sold from open windows.
The street is short and so narrow in places that you could probably reach out from one building and touch one on the other side. Many visitors assume the structures tilt toward each other because of their great age. In fact, the Shambles was made narrow to keep the meat sold there out of direct sunlight.
Nevertheless, it was a dangerous and unhealthy place in the Middle Ages, and probably a hot spot for the periodic outbreaks of plague.
Today the Shambles is lined with cafes, small boutiques and people with cameras.
York's City Walls
At least 2.5 million people walk along York's Medieval Walls every year, talking in fantastic views along its 3.4 km distance.
It takes about two hours to circumnavigate York along it's beautifully preserved Medieval walls. The City Walls have five main "bars" or gateways, a Victorian gateway, a "postern" or small entrance, and 45 towers. Someone has taken the trouble to estimate the total weight of the wall at 100,000 metric tonnes. After asking myself, how did they do that, I had to also ask, why would anyone bother? Nevermind. It's a great walk with terrific views.
Micklegate Bar - An Ancient Entrance to the City of York
Micklegate Bar is, by tradition, one of the most important, ceremonial entrances to York, through which Kings and Queens enter the city.
In York, "bars" are gates through the city walls and "gates" are streets. It's a bit confusing but you quickly get used to it. The terminology dates from the days when the entrances to York were barred by toll collectors.
Since 1389, in a tradition established by King Richard II, monarchs visiting York have entered through Micklegate, touching the state sword as they cross.
Traitors heads were once displayed on spikes above Micklegate Bar to discourage rebellions. The heads sometimes remained on the spikes over the Bar for years.
Medieval Carvings and Ships Figureheads in York
Throughout the streets of York, buildings are decorated with unusual gargoyles and figureheads. Some, like the ship's figurehead on a York teashop in Stonegate may have hinted at the tea trade of the owners. The carving of Minerva on Petergate was a symbol of music and drama.
The Little Devil
The fiery little horned imp on the corner of 33 Stonegate was not a sign of evil doings on the premises but was an indication of a print shop. Traditionally, the printer's apprentice and assistant, who ran around the shop carrying hot metal type, was known as "The Printer's Devil."
Because of its ancient buildings and their interesting gargoyles and details, Stonegate is one of York's most photographed streets.
The Treasurer's House - A Ghostly Hot Spot in York
York claims to be one of the most haunted cities in England, and one of York's most famous hauntings took place in the Treasurer's House.
The Treasurer's House was originally built to house the treasurers of York Minster. Between 1897 and 1930 it was owned and restored by a wealthy local industrialist, Frank Green. In it, he housed his collections, a mixture of genuine 17th and 18th-century antiques, reproductions, and fakes.
Walking through the house, now owned by the National Trust, one can admire its architectural features and its lovely walled garden, but the overall impact is a bit like walking through a theatrical set.
Maybe It's The Ghosts
In 1953, while working on repairs in the cellar, a young workman heard the sound of a trumpet. While he watched - probably frozen with fear (or maybe legless with beer) - a Roman soldier's helmet, followed by about two troupes, came through the wall. He reported them carrying round shields, lances, and short swords.
Apparently they looked tired and battle weary - but the most interesting feature of this sighting is that their lower legs weren't visible. It was as though they were walking on a surface below the cellar of the house.
It was only much later, when excavations were conducted that it was discovered the house had been built across a Roman Road. And that road was 18 inches below the cellar floor! The apparitions of the Roman soldiers, with their 4th century round shields, have been seen on several other occasions.
The Guy Fawkes Connection - St. Michel-le-Belfry Church
The infamous Guy Fawkes remembered with fireworks every November 5, was a native son of York. He was baptized here, in the shadow of York Minster.
The Mansion House, Home of York's Lord Mayor
Considered one of York's architectural masterpieces, the Mansion House contains an extensive collection of civic regalia, artifacts, silver, paintings, and furniture. Though it is now the home of the Lord Mayor, it is open for guided tours every Friday and Saturday at 11:00am and 2:00pm, from the first weekend in March to the last weekend before Christmas.
- Mansion House
- St. Helens Square, York Y01 9QL England
- Telephone: +44 (0)1904 552036
The Hospitium, York
The Hospitium is typical of the picturesque 14th Century listed buildings that are part of York's everyday fabric. Located in the middle of York's Museum Gardens, it is one of York's oldest half-timbered buildings yet it is passed, without a second thought by hundreds of locals who criss-cross the park every day.
Built as a guest house for a nearby Abbey, now in ruins, it's used today for exhibitions, conferences, wedding receptions and seminars.
Barley Hall's Brick Open Hearth
The Brick hearth was part of the original floor of the Barley Hall, uncovered by archaeologists in 1984.
The Barley Hall, built in the 14th century between Grape Lane and Stonegate, was hidden until 1984 - right in the center of York - under a jumble of derelict buildings and abandoned workshops.
Originally built for and occupied by the Priors of Nostell (canons of York Minster), from 1337 to 1372, the house was later used as a town house.
It was occupied by Alderman William Snawsell, a goldsmith and Lord Mayor of York at the end of the 15th century. It has now been restored to reflect that period, but with modern visitors in mind. Visitors can make themselves at home, sit on the chairs, handle the objects, try on some 15th century style clothes and experience what it would have been like to live in Medieval England.
The Merchant Adventurer's Hall in York
This impressive, half-timbered structure, built between 1357 and 1367, is still the guildhall for the Merchant Adventurers Guild.
A Grade 1 listed building and scheduled ancient monument, the Merchant Adventurers Hall was one of the largest buildings of its kind and date in England.
Unusually, the building retails the three rooms that would have served the functions of a medieval guild:
- The Great Hall, for business and social gatherings
- The Undercroft, for charitable activities
- The Chapel, for religious functions
Who Were the Merchant Adventurers
Primarily wool merchants, the Medieval Merchant Adventurers of York were traders of goods who ventured further than ordinary entrepreneurs, buying and selling in the Baltic States and even Iceland. After selling their textiles and fibres, they returned to York with exotic goods such as mirrors, seal meat and squirrel fur. The guild still exists today, with a membership of entrepreneurs, teachers, professional and business people.
The Merchant Adventurers' Great Hall
The Great Hall of the Company of Merchant Adventurers has been used for business and feasting for more than 650 years.
Visiting the Merchant Adventurers' Hall
The half-timbered hall is about 30 meters long by 13 meters wide. It contains some fascinating examples of early 13th century furniture, including an "evidence chest" where the company of Merchant Adventurers kept leases and documents about the property they owned.
- Where: Fossgate, York YO1 9XD, England
- Telephone:+44 (0)1904 654818
- Open from April to September
- Monday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Friday and Saturday, 9a.m. to 3:30p.m.
- Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.
- Open from October to March
- Monday to Saturday, 9a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
- Sunday, closed
There is a small admission fee that goes toward upkeep of the Hall and grounds.
Traditional Open Market in York
Traditional markets selling fruit, vegetables, cheeses, baked and household goods occupy some of Yorks most picturesque squares.
Vikings Parade by Torchlight
York remembers its Viking past during the Jorvik Viking Festival in February. Visitors can experience every day Viking life at The Jorvik Viking Centre
Pageant Wagon Procession for York's Mystery Plays
English passion plays are the oldest dramas in the English language. York's Mystery Plays are among the best-preserved examples.
The Passion plays, usually performed in the streets during Corpus Christi, were away of relating Bible stories to the masses in the Middle Ages.
The performances were suppressed during the Protestant Reformation. But in York, where the pageants had been staged by members of the city's guilds, the best records of the tradition were preserved. Each craft guild or "mysterie" would have its own play to perform, on carts and wagons drawn through York. The plays would be part of a cycle and it would take all day to see the full cycle at various points around York.
After almost 400 years, York's Mystery Plays were performed again in 1951 on a fixed stage. A young Judy Dench had a small part. Today, the mystery plays are performed, on Pageant Wagons, every four years. In between, historically minding visitors and thespians-to-be can follow the historic Mystery Plays circuit, on a walking trail that highlights the traditional stations for the plays.
"The Mallard" At the National Railway Museum in York
On July 3, 1938, the iconic and streamlined "Mallard" set the UK record - at 126mph - for the fastest steam engine - a record that remains unbroken today.
"The Mallard" can be visited at one of York's premier attractions, the National Railway Museum. And from 4:50 to 5:20 p.m. every day, the cab is opened and you can climb aboard to have a look. Other attractions at the National Railway Museum include:
- The Rocket A sectioned replica of Stephenson's 1829 masterpiece, the granddaddy of all the world's steam locomotives
- The Chinese Locomotive A giant steam engine built in Britain for the Chinese Railways.
- The Shinkansen A Japanese Bullet Train from the world's faster passenger network that you can board.
- Queen Victoria’s Carriage The carriage used by Queen Victoria between 1869 and 1901, full of luxurious Victorian detail and craftsmanship in silks, satins and gold.
On the Straightaway at the York Racecourse
In 2005, while the Ascot Racecourse was under repairs, York's beautiful Racecourse stood in for Royal Ascot. The course is within an easy walk of York center.
Clifford's Tower - A Remnant of One of York's Sorriest Episodes
Clifford's Tower, named for a nobleman executed in the 16th century, stands on the site of an earlier, wooden keep with a sadder, bloodier story.
During the reign of the Crusader king, Richard I, crusade fervor was sweeping across Europe. This fervor could quickly turn violent and their were violent incidents against Jews and other "outsider" groups scattered in towns across England.
After a particularly frightening disturbance in York, the city's Jewish community took refuge in the wooden keep where they were besieged by a violent mob. Eventually, rather than turn themselves over to the hands of the mob, many of York's Jews committed suicide and set fire to the tower. The survivors, who emerged the next day, were set upon and massacred.
Eventually, the Royal Chancellor dismissed the sheriff and constable and fined the citizens of York for their part in the tragedy.