I love York. It’s probably my favourite city in England. It comprises a quirky myriad of cobbled streets, riverside bars and leafy parks, and the most beautiful historic buildings at every turn. It was for these reasons that I treated two friends to a three-mile historical tour of York last Sunday, all the better for a leisurely lunch and a sunny afternoon!
We started out at Micklegate (meaning ‘Great Street’) and made our way westward, where the street turns from being typically commercial and relatively non-discript to being reminiscent of a quiet, provincial market town.
The first stop was the church of St Martin-cum-Gregory, which dates back to the eleventh century. It’s now home to The Stained Glass Centre.
After some debate, we ‘Googled’ the church on Kim’s mobile to confirm that the brick tower was indeed a later addition (I was wrong).
Just across the road was this grand-looking building – formerly the location of St Margaret’s School for Girls (which remained open until the 1960s).
Continuing up the street, we were attracted by the lane to the left of Holy Trinity church, and to the impenetrable entrance to the rectory.
Adjacent to this is a lovely medieval building called Jacob’s Well, used initially as a house and later as an inn. Having paused a moment to examine the extravagant canopy above the doorway, we made our way back to Micklegate.
Holy Trinity itself is hidden by trees, so regrettably there’s no photograph. It was originally part of a priory, until it was closed as a result of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Greater Monasteries in 1539. Now a parish church, it houses an interactive exhibition which celebrates the lives of the Benedictine monks who were such an integral part of the church’s history.
Opposite is a fine example of a Georgian town house, Micklegate House. It is now a hotel but was built as a residence by the Bourchier family, who were descendents of the John Bourchier who had signed the warrant for the execution of King Charles I in 1649.
On the other side of the church is a three-storied timber-framed row of shops. It is not known from when they originate, though based on their style they can be dated back to the late fifteenth or early sixteeth century (the rendering, roof tiles and chimneys were later modifications). They were restored in the 1960s, without which they wouldn’t be here to admire today!
Micklegate Bar itself dominates this part of the street, with the city wall stretching out on either side. ‘Bar’ means gatehouse, and Micklegate was the main entrance into the city from the South. As such, it has been involved in welcoming ceremonies for visiting British monarchs over the centuries, including Edward IV, Richard III, Henry VII, James I, Charles I, James II and Elizabeth II. This is also where the severed heads of criminals would be displayed, as a deterrent to others and a visible sign of the monarch’s control.
We passed under the Bar and turned left along Nunnery Lane, walking alongside the city walls until we reached a gateway at the end of this section. This is the location of Baile Hill.
Baile Hill is a mound of earth on which a wooden castle would have been located (a ‘motte and bailey’). This was built on the orders of William the Conqueror in 1069, as one of two castles erected in the city to establish Norman control over the region.
We crossed over the River Ouse via Bishopsgate Bridge.
Veering left, the second Norman Castle became visible, atop a mound which had been constructed in 1068. Clifford’s Tower is a two-storied stone castle which replaced the earlier wooden structure. The original motte and bailey had burned down in 1190 following the massacre of 150 Jews on the site. There is a memorial plaque at the foot of the mound to commemorate them.
A climb up the steps is necessary to find out about admission prices; me and Sarah sent Kim up whilst we waited at the bottom. We decided not to visit the castle on this occasion, but to continue on our walk.
From Tower Street we turned onto Castlegate, which is the location of two eighteenth-century houses – Fairfax House and Castlegate House.
Fairfax House claims to be the ‘finest Georgian town house in England’. It was commissioned by Viscount Fairfax as a place where he and his family could enjoy the winter social season in York. It ceased to be a residence at the end of the nineteenth century, when it was used as a gentleman’s club, then as offices and later as a cinema. It was restored in the 1980s and is now a museum.
Castlegate House, opposite, was completed in 1763 as a residence for Peter Johnson, the Recorder of York (the leading judge in the city). It is now a Masonic Lodge.
We stopped briefly to admire the stained-glass windows in Rustique, a French restaurant.
Just beyond is the Church of St Mary’s, which is used as a centre for contemporary art. On venturing in, however, we discovered a display of archaeological artefacts that have been excavated in the city (including some Egyptian items) in an exhibition which focuses on the theme of the rituals surrounding death, selected by the artist Julian Stair.
Further along the road is the Blue Boar, reputedly haunted by highwayman Dick Turpin, who was laid to rest there after he was hanged in 1739 (thanks to Sarah and Kim for this history ‘fact’!).
We turned onto Coppergate and then took a right onto Piccadilly, on which is located (the rear of) the beautiful fourteenth-century Merchant Adventurers’ Hall. It was used as a guild for local merchants and as a hospital, and is now a museum and function venue.
We made our way round to the front entrance, and under an archway, emerging on Fossgate.
At the top of Fossgate, we turned left onto Pavement, and then onwards to the most iconic street in York – The Shambles.
The upper-storeys of the medieval houses overhang so much on either side of the narrow road that they almost meet in the middle. Most of the properties were constructed around 1400 (though the street had existed for at least three centuries by then) and were used as butchers’ shops.
It is also the site of Margaret Clitherow’s house, a Catholic martyr of Elizabeth I’s reign. However, a tour group had gathered outside the ‘shrine’, so I was unable to take a photograph.
At the top of the street, we glimpsed our first view of York Minister, its towers looming above the city (though one appears to be having some restoration work undertaken).
For now, though, it was lunch time.
To be continued …
* * * * *
Click on the links to find out more about: Holy Trinity Church, The Stained Glass Centre at St Martin-cum-Gregory, Jacob’s Well, Ace Hotel at Micklegate House, Micklegate Shops, Clifford’s Tower, Fairfax House, Rustique Restaurant, St Mary’s Church, Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, The Shambles, Margaret Clitherow