It was inevitable that we would run out of weather luck on our annual late November anniversary weekend jaunt. Instead of blazing sunshine (wedding day in 2008, Tenby in 2014) or beautiful snow (Edinburgh, 2010) we would be rained on once more (memories of London, 2009). We made the best of what was quite grim weather at times, in and out of coffee shops, cosy pubs. museums and churches. And shops to purchase additional warm clothing. Ponchos seem to be in vogue in York this season. Just so you know. Here’s my guide to spending a wet and windy weekend in York. Ponchos are optional.
If you’re going to be wandering around the streets of York on a cold, dark and wet evening, you might as well learn something at the same time. York has a history of questionable characters, many of whom met sticky ends at the hands of the executioner or hangman. If you like your history with a smattering of blood, guts and gore then look no further than Mad Alice’s “Bloody Tour of York“.
For a fiver, you get a (fake) candle, a wonderfully charismatic guide who relishes the opportunity to tell tales to make you squirm and a 90 minute whistle stop tour around some of York’s iconic sights. Despite the inclement weather, there were about a dozen of us on the tour, and “Mad Alice” took the time to get to know each of us, engage us in conversation and (in my case) demonstrate methods of viking torture on us. Highly recommended. The tour, not the torture. Unless you’re into that kind of thing.
We had a brief moment of dryness on our first morning, so we donned good sturdy footwear and clambered onto the city walls at Monk Bar. We were early enough to barely encounter anyone else; those that we did meet were largely taking a clockwise route rather than our chosen anti-clockwise route. This is a circular walk of around four kilometres, and there are plenty of opportunities to leave the walls, have a wander around the city streets, and then pop back up to continue your elevated walk. Admittedly we did lose our way slightly after coming off the walls somewhere near Clifford’s Tower, so we didn’t complete the entire circuit. One of those map things may have been useful…
We’d heard bloody tales from Mad Alice about the horrific massacre that took place at Clifford’s Tower, and how the wooden castle kept on being burnt down, so we decided to visit the ruined fortress that remains. Honest opinion? This English Heritage site probably wasn’t worth the admission fee. However this may be due to the fact that it was blowing a gale and we really couldn’t enjoy the views from the top for fear of being blown overboard. Sorry Clifford, your tower was more impressive from the outside than from inside.
Trains. Lots of trains. Tucked behind the railway station, the National Railway Museum is all indoors, free of charge (donations are welcome) and interesting enough to keep even the most unenthusiastic trainspotter interested. We sat on a Japanese bullet train, saw a replica of George Stephenson’s Rocket, and nosed through the windows of luxurious royal carriages with sofas, beds and full-size baths. Mr Fletche attempted to build a wooden train, and we mused over the purpose of the obscure looking tools in the restoration area. It’s a great way to pass an hour or two on a grey day even if you’re not loco about locomotives or ecstatic for engines.
There’s something about shiny cobbles and reflections in puddles that make this famous little street look atmospheric. It’s not so atmospheric when rain drips down your neck from the eaves of buildings. York has more than its fair share of cute little tea shops and stores selling unique whatnots, but The Shambles is worth a special visit. It’s no surprise that it’s been voted Most Picturesque Street in Britain. Just try not to think about all the blood, guts and other animal innards swilling over those ancient cobbles for too long. Particularly if you’ve just had lunch. Oh, and if you’re into historical accuracy, don’t take the sign outside No 35 commemorating Margaret Clitherow’s gruesome and torturous death in the name of religion too seriously. She actually lived at number 10.
After a hard day’s sightseeing, you’ll want to settle down with a nice pint or a glass of wine in front of a roaring fire. And York has pubs. Lots of them. In fact, you could easily spend a wet and windy weekend in York moving from pub to pub and barely seeing any of the sights. Our recommendations? York Tap (handy for the railway station and museum). House of The Trembling Madness (quirky, medieval, in an attic above a specialist beer shop, huge portions of stew). Pivni (Belgian beers aplenty and a great jukebox). And The Golden Fleece (the copper-topped tables are like gold-dust in this place, grab one and spend the night people-watching. Apparently haunted by not one, not two, but five ghosts).
For a cup of tea in a pretty cup and a selection of dainty sandwiches and patisserie, Betty’s is the place be seen. All I could see was the long queue snaking well around the corner. You can reserve a table for afternoon tea, but you’ll have to queue if you only want a cuppa and a macaron. It did look very elegant inside, but we decided to slum it in one of the hundreds of other independent coffee shops scattered around the city.
A fun place to visit – regardless of the weather – is the Jorvik Viking Centre. Although admittedly the best part is the amusement park style “ghost train” which takes you through a typical Viking village, complete with sounds, smells and Viking couples arguing about whose turn it is to do the washing up (or something similar). The animatronics are excellent, and several times I was convinced that they were real people ready to jump out at me any minute (yep, I definitely confused this with a ghost train…). The staff are in character (apart from the one I caught checking her mobile phone in the loo) and are happy to chat Viking lore with you at any time. There was a disappointing lack of violence and pillaging; turns out they were a nice, peace-loving community of misunderstood red-bearded, horned helmeted Scandinavians.
Impressive as York Minster is from the outside, it doesn’t prepare you for the calm and serenity that sweeps over you when you enter this magnificent cathedral. Even if you’re not religious you’ll want to take a while to just soak up the atmosphere and take in the beautiful gothic architecture. At the time of our visit, the famous Great East Window was undergoing restoration. Still, such is the price to pay for conservation and preserving history.
Due to the terrible weather, we didn’t see the best of York. We had planned to spend one day sightseeing, and the second day headed out to the Yorkshire Dales but instead we spent both days in the city, pounding the cobbled streets, soaking up the festive atmosphere of the Christmas market and trying (and failing) not to pop into too many pubs (“just to warm up for a while”). For those that love atmospheric pubs, independent shopping and lots of history, York is an excellent option for a UK city break.
*All photos are taken by myself or by CPF Photography (reproduced with permission) unless otherwise stated*