So it was inevitable that eventually we would run out of weather luck on our late November anniversary weekend jaunt and 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.) So here is my guide to spending a wet and windy weekend in York. Ponchos are optional.
Take a guided tour
Ok, 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 educational 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, so 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”. This was fab. 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 whistlestop 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.
Walk the city walls
This is probably best done when its not wet as the walkway is carpeted with slippery leaves! We did however have a brief moment of dryness on our first morning, so we donned good sturdy footwear and clambered onto the walls through the entrance on Monk Bar We were early enough to barely encounter anyone else, and those that we did were largely taking a clockwise route rather than our chosen anti-clockwise route. This is a circular walk of around 4km, and there are plenty of opportunities to leave the walls, have a mooch 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 £4.90 per person admission. 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.
National Railway Museum
Trains. Lots of trains. Tucked behind the railway station, this museum is all indoors, free of charge (although donations are welcome) and is 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. Not so atmospheric is when rain drips down your neck from the eaves of buildings. You can’t spit in York without hitting a cute little tea shop or shop selling unique whatnots and wotchamacallits, but The Shambles is the real deal and it’s no surprise that it’s been voted Most Picturesque Street in Britain (by the prestigious Google Streetview Awards no less). 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.
Thought I’d just slot this one in here; after all, 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, having a cheery conversation with a busty barmaid or ancient landlord. And York has pubs. Lots of them. In fact, you could spend the wet and windy weekend moving from pub to pub and barely seeing any of the sights. Recommends from Mr and Mrs Fletche? 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). 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). Apparently there are also two Wetherspoons pubs, for those who are fans of the cheap beer and familiar menu.
Betty’s Tea Room
For a pricey cup of tea in a pretty cup and a selection of dainty sandwiches and patisserie, Betty’s is the place to see and be seen. All I could see was the long queue snaking well around the corner, people huddled against the windows, walls and each other, to protect from the wind and rain. Those people that had queued for hours and won a prized window seat would only be able to see denim-clad behinds and North Face jacketed bodies pressed just inches away from their vintage cakestand. Of course, you can reserve a table for afternoon tea, but this is only for the more pricey £30+ Lady Betty Afternoon Tea, and not for those that just 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.
Jorvik Viking Centre
Another way to while away an hour or so away from the wet and windy weather is to spend it in the Jorvik Viking Centre. Its small, and 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, 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 ready to talk Viking lore with you at any time. There was a disappointing lack of violence and pillaging; turns out they were just a nice, peace-loving community of red-bearded, horned helmeted Scandinavians.
After umming and ahhing about when to visit the inside of York Minster, our minds were made up for us when last admissions were been made before preparation for the Sunday afternoon service. Last admission at 2.30. We got there at…. 2:29. Impressive as it 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 particularly religious or spiritual, you just want to take a while to just soak up the atmosphere and take in the beautiful gothic architecture. After his train-building success, Mr Fletche had a go at digitally recreating a stained glass window… which went fine until I pointed out that the colour of the book was wrong. It’s a tough life being an artist! Typically, the famous Great East Window is currently undergoing restoration… we seem to have been plagued by scaffolding covering beautiful buildings this year. Still, such is the price to pay for conservation and preserving history.
Three nights and two full days was plenty of time to discover all that York had to offer. If the weather had been kinder, one of those days would have been spent driving to the Yorkshire Dales, the North Yorkshire Moors or heading to the seaside (Whitby is a favourite of ours), but as it was we were limited to 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”). We didn’t see the best of York, so it will definitely be on our return list, if only as a base for travelling a little further afield. And after all, there’s so many pubs that we didn’t try…