Guest post by Margot Willis and Tracy Ritenour.
Today we said farewell to Bristol and boarded a mid-morning train bound for York. The ride, lasting about four hours in total, gave us good views of an overcast, sheep-filled English countryside, interrupted occasionally by cities packed with row houses and motorways. Some of us slept, some listened to music, and some sampled the offerings of the refreshment trolley.
Once in York, we braved cobblestone sidewalks with our luggage and checked into our hotel rooms. Within the hour we met our fantastic walking tour guide, Ben, who took us across the river to introduce us to his favorite city.
Though Ben speaks with a southern English accent (which he claims comes courtesy of his southern English parents), he was born and raised in York, and obviously loves the city. He took us to the Museum Gardens and showed us St. Mary’s Abbey, which was once the richest Benedictine Abbey in the North before it was closed and dissolved by Henry VIII. We also admired the nearby ten-sided Roman tower built when the Romans first arrived in York, which they referred to as “Eboracum”, which means “place of the yew trees”. When we asked Ben what a yew tree looked like, he resorted to google, telling us, “I know I a lot about history, and sod all about gardening.” All gardening aside, Ben does know an astounding amount of York history, and he took us through 2000 years of it in under two hours.
We learned about York’s walls, which makes York the longest standing medieval walled city in England, and the four gates, cleverly designed to keep attackers (and Scotsmen) out.
We learned about the many English royals who’ve stayed here for political reasons (William the Conqueror, Henry VIII, Charles I, and more). We also learned that despite being a battle ground for many conflicts, the walls of York have only been breached once, and on that occasion, the men who breached the wall got a matter of yards before they decided retreat would be the better option. Finally, Ben introduced us to an important rule of York history: “just because it happens in the south doesn’t mean it happens in the north”.
Moving away from the walls, Ben led us to see a row of 13th century houses, the Guildhall of Merchant Adventurers, and of course, York Minster itself, which Ben was eager to tell us was, while not the tallest cathedral in England, undoubtedly the largest one.
Though York Minster is ultimately why we’ve come to York, we will not be touring it until Monday. In the meantime, Ben had a lot more to show us around York.
We walked to Monksgate and learned how impossibly difficult it was to attack and take a gate at York, and learned about the history of chocolate making in the city – you have York to thank for your delicious KitKat biscuits, by the way – and the unearthing of the largest hoard of Viking artifacts ever discovered. We went to the shambles and peaked in at the new Harry Potter themed shop there while Ben regaled us with the street’s gory history as a butcher’s lane, or ‘flesh street’ – “If you read enough history, sooner or later you learn that everything starts with blood”.
We ended our tour at Clifford’s Tower, a Norman tower constructed by William I set up on an Anglo-Saxon motte (a man-made hill constructed for a motte and bailey castle).
After the tour, we went our separate ways to find dinner, explore, and plan how best to spend tomorrow getting to know this historic, vibrant, colorful city.