Dodging traffic in London, chests heaving, burdened by still unfamiliar and uncomfortable backpacks, Claire and I started our ambitious trip, on a tight budget, through places where English is never heard.
We’d reported for our ridiculously cheap Megabus to Leeds, from where we planned to make our way to York, relaxed and on time. The driver asked for the obscure combination of letters and numbers that serve as a ticket, which I confidently presented. He looked and them, shrugged, and told me I had somehow got them wrong. I had presented him with the code for a bus from Glasgow to Aberdeen. A bus we would take, later on, which I couldn’t remember booking.
Retiring to the nearest internet café, to scratch heads and book another bus, I found the right number, emailed to me shortly before the ticket to Aberdeen. I slammed my laptop shut and we sprinted back to the platform, only to find it empty. We were forced to book a more expensive ticket, on a National Express bus, leaving later that morning. It did conveniently go all the way to York.
York’s bus station sits just outside the old city walls, overlooked by a London Eye replica. The walls, well maintained relics of York’s medieval past, conveniently enclose the centre, making it easy to navigate. Our time in the city was limited, we only hoped to get a flavour of England’s north, after spending so much time in the south. After checking into York Backpackers, we headed straight to the city’s major tourist draw, the York Minster. The Minster is so called because it was once the home of a mission, established to spread Christianity into neighbouring areas.
A sympathetic woman at the ticket desk, where you are charged £5 to access northern Europe’s largest gothic cathedral, suggested we go to evensong, happening a little later on, as entrance to the Minster would be free, and recommended that we instead pay to go through the Undercroft.
The Undercroft, directly below the Minster, was excavated between 1967 and 1972 because engineers needed to bolster the foundations of the tower, which would otherwise collapse. Roman and Norman ruins were discovered and carefully preserved. We were given an audio guide that carefully takes you through the buried remains of civilisations past.
Standing at an old drain, built by the Romans, now filled with coins and long forgotten wishes, we were directed to a nearby model of the original Roman fortress, showing exactly where the drain would have been. I watched Claire’s eyes light up, reflecting my own, as history was made vital, dredged up and forced into contemporary relevance. The Romans settled here because of the convenient junction of two rivers, the Ouse and the Floss.
The evensong I disliked. The Anglican service, formulaic and often difficult to comprehend, was obscure. The faithful were few. I watched through prayers in which I’d have been a hypocrite to participate and glimpsed mostly other tourists, there to participate in something optimistically thought of as authentic, and choir boys, who seemed unhappy and out of place.
Finally released from this most irrelevant devotion, we looked around the Minster briefly and started the walk back to our hostel, along the city walls. I remembered England were playing football, against Trinidad and Tobago, when the cheer of the first goal floated up to us, above the city.
After a cheap and acceptable meal at York’s Wetherspoons, watching drunk and strangely dressed students, we made our way back past the Ouse and happened upon Ye Olde Starre Inn, purporting to be York’s oldest licensed establishment.
York has an abundance of young people, we saw them walking through the streets, queuing outside a nightclub, once a church, and being asked for ID at Ye Olde Starre Inn, before being granted pints of a popular and very drinkable local stout.
Back at the hostel, I sat at the small cellar bar, trying to write, but quickly found myself chatting to the hostel manager, the only other person still drinking. He, in the course of a conversation about the hostel, explained the gaggle of 14 year old girls I had noticed earlier, shrilly repeating “da”, “da”, as if quacking. Norwegian schools apparently bring students to York to illustrate their Viking heritage and the hostel generated most of its income through these more costly group bookings.
The Vikings conquered York in 866 AD and made it the capital of their new territory in northern England. They changed the name from Eoforwic to the more recognisable Jorvic. Many of the streets owe their names to this period, such as Michaelgate, Davygate and Petergate.Gate comes from the Viking word “gata”, meaning simply street.
In the morning we went on a walking tour, guided, as ever, by a dapper pensioner. Walking tours, usually organised from the local Tourist Information Centre, reliably facilitate some quick understanding of place. Claire and I joined a mixture of nationalities on a ramble through parts of York we might never have otherwise discovered. The tour, apart from the expected accounts of historically significant buildings, placed a peculiar emphasis on tax evasion.
Bricked up windows in buildings of a certain age resulted from the introduction of a window tax. The postcard image of houses narrower on the ground than on the second floor and above can be explained by a tax levied according to the area occupied at ground level. And the word forestall is derived from markets placed outside of city walls, again to avoid tax.
The walk concluded at The Shambles, York’s most famous street. It was once occupied solely by butchers, who once slaughtered their animals in the narrow, cobbled road. Meat hooks are still evident on the walls of every building. A market stands just behind the street, under old fashioned, striped awnings. Meat and fish, kept on ice, are still sold here, in the open air, managing to compete in the age of Tesco and Asda, Walmart clones.
After the two hour walk, we climbed 275 stairs up the Minster’s tower, to gain an aerial view of the city. The stairs are a narrow, claustrophobic spiral, looping up in a dizzy, seemingly endless procession. York stretches past the city walls, beyond view. I felt a sensation similar to my disappointment when leaving Oxford, through its suburbs. So much was inevitably left unseen in this skim though the tourist frequented, theme park centre.
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