Having lived in England for more than 2 years, I decided it was time to explore north of London and visit York.
On my way up I couldn’t stop thinking: why haven’t I done this in summer? But then I found out that York is a lovely city and possibly even better during the Christmas season. Karim and I were blessed with 2 days of sun and relatively warm weather, so we couldn’t have asked for more.
York is a small city in northern England with an old history. From Roman occupation to the Viking one to the invention of the railway, the history of the city is written in its walls and buildings, easily accessible for anyone who wants to read it. In this guide I will show you how.
Roman York and York Minster
A bunch of criminals
The Romans conquered Britannia (i.e. England) and fought with the various tribes that populated the island. In York, they defeated the Brigantes tribe and called the city Ebocarum. If you’re not Italian this probably won’t ring a bell, but I was excited when I read this, as in modern Italian a “brigante” is a criminal!
I’ve learned about the Brigantes visiting the museum of the York Minster. Minster is a honorific title for important churches in England. It’s different from a cathedral, as only the residence of an archbishop can be a cathedral. The name minster comes from Latin monasterium, and in Old English the word was actually a synonym of monastery. York’s minster is one of the most important in England, although the most famous is probably Westminster in London. Sounds familiar, right?
York minster was built on the remains of the Roman fortress, making it basically a 2,000 year old building. You can visit inside for £10. You can climb the tower for £15 and get the best view of York. If the ticket is worth paying, that depends on what you like. The cathedral itself is beautiful, and you have access to the museum that tells the story of the building. The best finding for me was learning about the Brigantes and looking at a version of the Bible written nothing less than 1,000 years ago!
Climbing the tower can be a bit claustrophobic. Karim had his backpack with him, which almost blocked him on the way up! Once on top you can see the city. Nice view but honestly not the best I’ve ever seen.
The other big Roman remain is the city walls. You can actually have a walk there, and I recommend to go as you get a very nice view of the city and the minster. This time for free!
The Viking age: discover Jorvik
Jorvik was the name of York in the Viking period, around 1,000 years ago (J pronounced as Y). In the 70s archeologists found an impressive site with many remains of this age. Analysing all these findings, they were able to understand many aspects of the everyday life in that time.
Today you can visit the Jorvik museum for £10. I really recommend it as it’s very different from most museums. They have reconstructed the ancient village of Jorvik and you can take a tour of it on a train. The audioguide is included and available in many languages.
You will see typical houses, the market with people selling various products, women dyeing textiles, children playing a popular board game (similar to modern chess), and even Viking loos! I think this is a great way to learn about microhistory. It’s very entertaining and good for both adults and children.
After the tour, you can visit the most traditional part of the museum and look some of the remains found by the archeologists. You can see ornaments, tools, musical instrument that technically could still be played, a perfectly conserved sock, and even a piece of stools!
What I liked most was the 3 human skeletons found intact. You can learn how to read a skeleton to discover who these people were and how they lived. For example, it’s possible to find out where they were born and where they lived based on their diet and how it changed from childhood to adulthood. You can also read diseases and accidents in the bones.
The Shambles is the most ancient street in York. You can still see the buildings as they used to be many centuries ago. The street is very narrow and the houses on the opposite sides seem to be pushing forward and almost touch each other! In modern English “shambles” means a state of confusion or untidiness, which I think perfectly describes the street.
It’s not sure how old it is, but I’ve read the the most ancient mention of it dates 1080. Just imagine how many people have ever walked there!
The fifth of November,
the Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
why the Gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot!
This is the start of the The Fifth of November, an English folk verse from 1870. It’s talking about the Gunpowder plot that saw 13 Catholic men trying to blow up the parliament to stop the persecution of their religion by protestant King James I. Guy Fawkes wasn’t the leader of the plot, but being an expert in fireworks he was supposed to match the fire that would blow up the parliament.
Only he didn’t.
He was caught just in time and later tortured and executed. That day was the 5th November 1605, and since the following year the British started a tradition of bonfires, today known as Guy Fawkes day.
So, why am I talking about it in this post? It turns out that Guy Fawkes was born nothing less than in York. I discovered this simply wandering around and stumbling across the Guy Fawkes inn. Initially thinking it was just a marketing exercise, I then researched and found out that this is actually Guy Fawkes’ birthplace.
Guy Fawkes also attended St Peter’s school in York – the only place in the UK that refuses to light up the bonfire on the 5th November!
National Railway museum
When Karim told me he wanted to bring me to the National Railway museum I initially tried to find all excuses not to go. The museum is a bit farther away from the city centre (it’s close to a Network Rail’s headquarter – the company that manages the railways in the UK). But he works there and seemed very excited to show me the trains, so in the end I said yes – and did the right thing!
As you probably know, the British invented the train (which BTW is also why all trains worldwide run on the left, like the cars in the UK). And since York has always been an important railway hub, it seems like the right place to visit this kind of museum.
There you can find various examples of trains and their history. I’ve learned that one of the first trains ever invented was the Rocket, designed by the father of railways, engineer George Stepehenson. I’ve also seen a model of the Flying Scotsman, the first express train connecting Edinburgh and London since 1862. And a quirky fact: in the past you had to pay a ticket to enter the platform, even if you were only accompanying someone and not actually taking a train!
Other things to do in York
If you’re visiting York during Christmas time, you should definitely visit the market in the city centre. If possible, try to go on a weekday because during the weekend it was so full of people that you could hardly walk and you had to queue to do anything – even outside of the market.
Many shops had a queue to enter, which was quite frustrating. I hate queuing, but eventually gave up as it was the only way to do anything. To take a break from the cold, we decided to have an afternoon tea. This is a typical British tradition since the 19th century. Following the example of the queen, the upper class used to have tea with some light sandwiches at around 4pm. The lower class also had a similar tradition, called high tea, which was heavier than afternoon tea and consumed a few hours later as a substitute for dinner.
Today you can experience afternoon tea in many cafes in the UK, but mind that they are not light at all, as they serve tea with a few sandwiches and tons of sweets and cakes. The food can vary from place to place, but you would normally find a scone, a typical English cake best eaten with cream and marmalade.
For our afternoon tea we went to Bettys café. This is a traditional tea room, I had received a recommendation to go there by a local and wasn’t disappointed despite the 30 minutes wait.