Standing on the Medieval walls, the sun began to set over this captivating city. In the distance, rising above headlights, was York Minster. After just a day we had been spoilt. The Jorvik Viking centre had brought us the sights, sounds and even smells of 10th century York. While a walking tour of the city had dazzled us with history around every corner. One thing was for sure … with Sunday yet to come, we still had a lot to see.
York has been on my list of historic places to visit for a long time. I’ve watched countless documentaries about the Viking capture of the city during Anglo-Saxon times. I’ve heard accounts of its vast-stretching Medieval walls, and seen many grandiose images of York Minster – a stunning gothic-style cathedral. So with Christmas and New Year out of the way, my yellow-coated companion and I made the trip up north to spend a weekend in one of England’s most famous cities. Here is our story, and my Archaeology Travel itinerary guide to a weekend break in York.
How to get here?
Although five hours in the car wasn’t the most exhilarating experience (excluding my companion of course), the M5 was kind to us on our Friday afternoon journey to York. The city itself though is conveniently located in the beating heart of our fair country. It is just a mere two hours train ride from London, Manchester, and Edinburgh. Really, you have no excuse not to visit.
Where to Stay?
In terms of accommodation, there is no shortage of B&BS and hotels of varying style and price range to stay at. As we had booked out of season in early January, we found a great deal and stayed at Elmbank Hotel and Lodge. Less than a mile from York’s historic sites, it made for a comfortable stay and an ideal base for a weekend break exploring the city.
Morning – What to see?
It was Saturday morning. First place on our visiting list was the Jorvik Viking Centre which is located at Coppergate in the city centre. It was here that archaeological remains of York’s Viking past were discovered in the 1970s. The finds were spectacular, the foundations of streets and houses, clothes, and other domestic materials had been beautifully-preserved in the moist soil conditions below. These were the remnants of 10th century York rebuilt by its Vikings invaders. Known then as Jorvik, it became an important regional capital within Norse-occupied Northumbria.
The Jorvik Viking Centre is now an exciting interactive museum built upon the excavated Coppergate site. My yellow-coated-companion and I arrived at opening time (10am) on Saturday morning. There was already a small queue, though I could imagine it to be much busier during peak season. Inside we were about to be taken on a remarkable journey of 10th century York. Though before our adventure, I was able to see the preserved foundations of Viking houses beneath my feet through a specially designed glass floor. We could almost touch the archaeology. This area also incorporates video displays telling the Coppergate excavation story and other forms of ‘hands on’ technology to immerse one’s self with (great for both adults and children).
Good to know: book online to get ‘fast track’ entry to the Jorvik Viking Centre.
Next (half expecting to wander into another display room) we were beckoned by an attendant to get into a theme-park-style cable car. With child-like excitement I climbed aboard, selected English on the display screen (there was a whole range of languages to choose from), and sat back in eager anticipation. Speakers are cleverly integrated either side of the head rest, and a fascinating narration accompanies the ride (don’t worry it’s neither fast nor scary).
Throughout our journey of Viking-Age York, we were introduced to scenes of life-like animatronic people, artefacts, and buildings based on the archaeological findings from the Coppergate dig. The appearance of some characters had even been recreated based on the excavated remains of Jorvik residents found here! This provided information about things such as diet and health at the time. Not only is this a visual experience, but at every turn are the sounds and (occasionally unpleasant) smells of a 10th century settlement. It really felt as if we were had been transported back to the Middle Ages!
The last part of the centre is a museum which houses a large collection of artefacts excavated at Coppergate. Astonishingly, around 40,000 objects were recovered here during the 1970s (obviously not all on display). These include anything from glimmering jewellery and coins to exquisitely preserved examples of finely decorated combs and wooden items. As well as other domestic items, such as games and cooking pots, are the century skeletal remains of people dated to the 900s AD (introduced during the ride). As we strolled around the various displays, I spotted museum staff in period-style dress giving talks and answering questions from children and their families. Another person was demonstrating the minting of coins using a hammer! I could have stayed longer but our tummies were beginning to rumble, and it was clear that lunch was an imminent event. Other amenities include toilets, and a gift shop with enough Viking-themed stuff to kit out your very own Norse hut.
Inside the Jorvik Viking Centre.
Afternoon – What to see?
Blessed with a clear blue sky, we opted for an afternoon wander around the city. Now there are guided sightseeing walks available, including a free two hour tour which runs at weekends click here. For the free-spirited (such as ourselves), York is an easy city to navigate. There are plenty of handy signposts and historical information boards dotted around.
Top on our list was the stunning architecture of Northern Europe’s Largest Medieval cathedral, York Minster. Though before setting our eyes on the prize, we passed many other historical delights. Never too far from view were the impressive Medieval walls and battlements (more on these later). There are also a great number of Victorian buildings to be found. Many of these are now famous institutions such as the Yorkshire Museum and the York Art Gallery. I should mention that we did not enter inside. It was starting to dawn on us that we may not be able to cover everything in just a weekend. We did manage to visit the museum’s picturesque botanical gardens (free entry). Within the grounds are the remains of St Mary’s Abbey – a once grandiose Benedictine monastery. First built in 1088 AD under the instructions of William the Conqueror, the abbey’s defensive stone walls were a later addition from the 1260s. If time is of the essence, just bear in mind that the gardens cover an area of around ten acres … so factor them in accordingly!
On our approach to York Minster we walked along an atmospheric cobbled street known as The Shambles. What a delight. Jettied Medieval timber houses line the ancient road. Their facades lean across as if to greet one another, while the buzz of activity among the shops, cafes and restaurants carries on below. Mentioned in the Domesday Book, the Shambles is one of Britain’s most famous streets. We also discovered other attractions such as the renowned York Shambles Penny Press machine. Here visitors can purchase a newly pressed York coin made from a flattened penny – a nice change from generic souvenir-tat! As we continued, our much anticipated cathedral loomed ever closer.
The moment could not have been more perfect. The lowering sun had cast an illuminating light across the Gothic exterior of York Minster. The details of its beautifully designed features bathed in a shimmering glow of orange. It’s not possible to comprehend just how large this structure is until you are stood staring up at it (I have the neck-ache to prove it). Mighty and magnificent, the current cathedral with its elaborately decorated nave is around 800 years old. The first documented building on the site was a wooden church from the 7th century. Over the next few hundred years (as invaders came and went) various phases of destruction and rebuilding occurred here.
The south façade of York Minster.
The building we see today is cruciform in plan with an added octagonal chapter house, three towers, and two large transepts (north and south). Visiting this wondrous cathedral is breath-taking. In the crypt below we witnessed Roman columns, while the recently refurbished Great East Window no-doubt deserves the title of ‘masterpiece’. The stunning stained glass window was originally completed by a chap called John Thornton in 1408 AD. Its size is unparalleled in Britain, and is one of the largest examples in the world! The chapter house is also worth a peek. Geometric-inspired windows encircle, while Gothic-style sculptured heads peer down from above the canopies. It is linked to the rest of the cathedral via a vestibule. We left as the daylight began to fade. Make sure not to disappear off without admiring the Roman Column at Minster Yard. It was originally part of York’s Roman headquarters building and was built sometime around 100 AD. It has been reassembled on two more occasions since then. The latter being in 1971 following its excavation from beneath the cathedral.
This Roman column, recovered in 1969 from beneath York Minster, was given to the City of York and erected in York Minster Square
in 1971 to mark the anniversary of the founding of the city in c71 AD.
Satisfyingly exhausted, it was time to head to our hotel and freshen up before dinner. Choosing to walk a section of the Medieval city walls on our journey back was a perfect decision as we were able to catch a memorable sunset over this awe-inspiring city. We would be back to see more of the city walls tomorrow.
Where to eat?
If, like me, you are just as tantalised by a city’s eateries as its historic sites, then York is definitely for you. Our morning walk into York centre saw us entering the city walls via the Micklegate Bar. The approach is along Blossom Street. Cafes a plenty are found on either side of the road which offer a range of breakfast options before you set off exploring (we opted for pastries). It was at lunchtime though that we found our little culinary gem and hideaway. Café Concerto. This shabby chic treat is located near York Minster at High Petergate (an area renowned for food and drink). The décor comprises mismatching furniture and old wooden floorboards. While decorating the walls are a combination of random musical instruments and sepia music sheets. The atmosphere was friendly, inviting and low key. We ordered warm flatbread with olives and balsamic on the side. Tasty indeed. The café also serves continental style breakfasts, and evening bistro meals. I was particularly impressed with their selection of local Yorkshire ales (sightseeing is thirsty work!). Quirky, comfortable and affordable.
When it comes to eating out at night, York’s restaurants seem to cater to most tastes. Some describe the city as the foodie capital of England. Wandering around earlier we had noticed plenty of dining options within the city walls. We had read some glowing reviews of an Indian restaurant about a 15 minute walk from the city centre (taxi also an option). Its name, Coconut Lagoon. It was the kind of gamble that pays off (and then some). Specialising in South Indian cuisine, I’ve rarely seen food look so vibrant and stylish. Quality-wise, the dishes were cooked to perfection. They tasted fresh and offered big flavours. The atmosphere was relaxed (even during busy spells) and the staff had personalities as warming as their food! It was also very fairly priced. Do not let the slightly off-city centre location put you off (or the generic décor). Plenty of time for pie and mash another day.
Morning – What to see?
The next morning we were treated to yet more blue skies. The main event for Sunday was to visit the wonderfully historic Clifford’s Tower, and immerse ourselves in York’s Castle Museum. Before reaching our prized destinations there were two more important tasks on the itinerary … walk a decent portion of the treasured city walls, and locate breakfast!
With a cup of coffee and pastry ticked off the list, we aimed to walk a section of the walls from Mickelgate Bar until crossing the River Ouse, where we would arrive at Clifford’s Tower and the museum.
There are four main Medieval gateways at York (Bootham Bar, Monk Bar, Walmgate Bar, and Mickelgate Bar). The Mickelgate bar dates back to the 12th century and was the main southern entrance to the city. On arrival we were greeted with a notice informing that the walls were closed for the day due to icy conditions. York’s City Walls are usually open daily from 8am until around dusk (free entry) but are sometimes closed for maintenance or in bad cases of snow and ice (for safety reasons).
Instead we decided to walk around the exterior, giving us an entirely different perspective of the city’s perimeters. The best way to describe these wondrous walls is ‘multi-period’. The original defences were built by the Romans, which survived until large sections were buried under earthen ramparts by the Vikings in the 9th century (typical). The main standing Medieval gateways and walls were constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries – though further additions were built as late as Victorian times! These impressive city fortifications stretch for just over two miles the longest Medieval city walls in England), and a whopping 2.5 million people walk along them every year. They also incorporate 45 small towers.
It was 10:30am, and navigating south-east along the steep grass ramparts, I imagined myself as an invader looking for an opportunity to scale the imposing defences. It was clear that these walls were incredibly special and well preserved. Visiting them had been a dream for much of my life. Now I could touch them. The stone battlements were in full view, lined with rectangular parapets above and cross-shaped arrow loops below – a fine example of Medieval defences.
We continued our way along, beckoned by a continuing stretch of Norman architecture framed by a deep blue sky. Up ahead we came across a modern addition named Victoria Bar (the clue is in the name). The gateway was opened in 1838 AD in an attempt to relieve the heavy flow of traffic from Micklegate Bar. Despite being younger, the bar’s trio of arches did not look too out of place among its Medieval neighbours. Following the defences around a corner, we headed north-east towards Skeldergate Bridge which crosses over the River Ouse. From the bridge, we saw the spectacular sight of Clifford’s Tower, standing commandingly on top of a large grass mound. We had reached our destination. Although we left the walls at this point, there was plenty more to cover.
As we drew closer, Clifford’s Tower seemed to rise in front of us, touching the sky. Although it was magnificent to observe, the tower was once the scene of a horrific massacre. In 1190 AD, York’s Jewish population had been forced to take refuge inside it by an angry mob. They were unable to escape and many chose to commit mass suicide. The tower (originally made of timber) was then ruthlessly burned to the ground, and the remaining survivors were brutally murdered. The stone keep that we now see today was constructed in the 13th century, and is the largest surviving part of York Castle.
What was the keep of York Castle is today Clifford’s Tower.
As we gazed up dumbstruck, the series of stone steps leading up to the tower were tempting us. It seemed like something out of a Tolkien novel (as if reaching the top was part of a quest). Also alluring was the promise of spectacular views encompassing much of the city’s landmarks. We weren’t disappointed. They were stunning. I’m unsure whether it was knowing something of the tower’s turbulent past, but I definitely connected with it emotionally. Everything was so peaceful at its summit, and it was hard to imagine the atrocities that had once taken place here. My advice is do not leave York without visiting this iconic monument.
Afternoon – What to see?
Next door to dear old Clifford’s Tower was our final stop – the York Castle Museum. It was Midday, so the plan was to spend a couple of hours inside exploring, grab some lunch, and then drive back home to Devon (prematurely to say the least). The museum is housed in a stately-looking 18th century debtors’ prison. It was founded in 1938 by Dr John Kirk to display his remarkable collection of York’s social history. He also revolutionised the way we think about museums by creating period-style rooms and a reconstructed Victorian Street known as Kirkgate. This interactive element was a new approach which has certainly caught on! The York Castle Museum was expanded in the 1950s and its collection has been growing ever since.
I am going to say it. This is one of the best museums I have ever visited. The diversity in exhibitions constantly kept us on our toes – excited for the next adventure into the region’s social history. One moment, we would be learning about York’s famous chocolate and sweet industry (take a Chocolate History and Tasting Tour) and … the next instant, an exhibition celebrating the swinging 1960s! The museum has thousands of items and collections from past decades. There was a fascinating exhibition celebrating a history of fashion over the last 400 years. Another was an incredibly though-provoking experience in commemorating the centenarian of WW1 (some exhibitions will change). The absolute highlight for me though was Kirkgate.
The setting is John Kirk’s atmospheric recreation of a Victorian street lit by night. We wandered along the cobbled road entering shops and buildings – a chemist, police cell, and a schoolroom (to name a few). Even more exciting was the knowledge that every single shop on the street had been modelled on local businesses which were active in York between 1870 and 1901. There was a horse and cart, alleyways, while the sounds and smells just added that final touch … I was in Victorian York! Realising that we were pushed for time, we moved to the York Castle Prison for our final section of the museum.
Upon entering, we found ourselves experiencing the prison cells as they would have been over 200 years ago. The focus of the exhibition is on eight former inmates including the infamous Dick Turpin. These characters came to life as they were projected onto the prison walls, and they told us of their gruelling experiences. It was chilling, and a stark contrast to some of the other displays and collections we had seen. It was easy to forget that the entire museum lay within old prison buildings. Hearing these tales was a brutal reminder. Dictated by our ever-pressing travel schedule, we left the museum (reluctantly) and went in search of some final grub. For those who need immediate feeding, there is a café onsite, as well as toilets and a gift shop.
Experience a 200 year-old prison cell in the York Castle Museum.
Where to eat?
For our final bite to eat, we found a café/bistro called Lucky Days. Situated on trendy Parliament Street, the eatery was set over four floors. Their ethos focuses on fresh homemade food (not to mention delicious). Also good news for busy periods – Lucky Days own two cafes and a delicatessen, all dotted around York’s town centre At lunchtime, it was a perfect place to enjoy a freshly prepared sandwich and a tasty salad served in a plant pot – why not? Advertising themselves on ‘Breakfast – Lunch – Afternoon tea’, Lucky Days is also a great spot for anyone with a weakness for cakes (that would be me). What about the name you ask? Well if you roll a number six on the dice at the shop counter, you will get your food for £1! Unfortunately for us, it was not our ‘lucky day’. Never mind.
What to see next time?
As we left York, I reminisced over our brief but jam-packed visit: experiencing the Jorvik Viking Centre, exploring sites around the city such as the shambles and York Minster, navigating the Medieval walls, climbing the steps up to Clifford’s Tower, and wandering through York’s history at the Castle Museum. It dawned on me that my suspicions had been confirmed … there simply was not enough time in a weekend to see everything. So what hadn’t we seen? The Yorkshire Museum, York Art Gallery, the Richard III Experience at Monk Bar, the York Dungeon… the list goes on. I then started to think about all the wonderful cafes and restaurants I had walked past without even glancing at a menu (my tummy rumbled). It was then that I realised – we would have to come back! There was simply no choice.
Come and see the amazing history and archaeology within this captivating city for yourself. Stay for a weekend break, or even a longer weekend (as there is plenty to see and do). Explore a place with traces of Roman, Viking, and Norman occupation in its past. Visit the magnificent city of York, which celebrates its historic heritage every single day.