Beyond London – Old York
With a cathedral to rival Canterbury’s, old walls that beat Chester’s and a castle that competes with Colchester’s, the city of York should be an obvious choice for visitors wanting to explore beyond London, but its location in the north east of England means it tends to get forgotten about. This month, however, the annual city-wide Jorvik Viking Festival (12-18 Feb) – Europe’s largest Viking festival – attracts more than 40,000 visitors. The event, which is now in its 34th year, marks the Viking invasion and conquest of the UK in 866AD. It also commemorates the Jolablot celebrations the Vikings held each February to herald the coming of spring and the survival of winter.
As well as candlelit talks, mock battles and guided walks, festival highlights include stories read by warriors in a Viking encampment, a competition to find the strongest Viking, and
a parade from Dean’s Park between the rival armies of the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. Even if you miss the festival, you can still learn about the city’s past at the Jorvik Viking Centre, which is built on the site of Viking buildings discovered in archaeological digs in the 1970s and 1980s. See a reconstruction of Viking Age streets, experience life in 10th-century York and look at ancient artefacts such as decorative combs made from bone and rings crafted from antlers.
The centre is next to St Mary’s Church, and on the other side of the church you’ll find Fairfax House, a restored Georgian townhouse. The house is overlooked by Clifford’s Tower, which was built in the 12th century on the site of a grass mound and castle created by William the Conqueror 100 years earlier. Take a self-guided tour and you’ll learn how the fort once housed the treasury and was used as a prison during the 1600s. From the top there are panoramic views of the city and you can walk along the old city walls – the longest town walls in England.
York Castle Museum, a Grade I-listed building that was once a jail, is next to the tower. Learn about its most notorious prisoner, highwayman Dick Turpin, and Elizabeth Boardingham, who was the last woman to be burnt at the stake.
On a lighter note, you can also see a traditional sweet shop and take part in tasting sessions. Why confectionery? Those with a sweet tooth can delve deeper into the city’s relationship with cocoa at York’s Chocolate Story. A guided tour teaches you about the origins of chocolate and how this led to the establishment of Terry’s of York in 1767 – without which, we wouldn’t have Terry’s Chocolate Orange!
The 1920s home of the Terry family, Goddards House and Garden, is now a National Trust property on the outskirts of the city. Visitors can learn more about the family and the confectionery Noel Terry made in the Terry factory. Children will also enjoy York Dungeon. Actors, special effects, storytelling and 360-degree sets bring the past alive while you have a check-up by a plague doctor, get lost in a labyrinth and, if you’re unlucky, experience execution by axe.For a break from the sights, stroll around The Shambles, a cobbled street lined with shops, cafés and restaurants. It is York’s oldest street, and it’s so narrow, the roofs of its crooked 15th-century buildings almost touch.
Bettys tea rooms is nearby, on St Helen’s Square; it’s run by the third generation of the family that established it in 1919. It makes its own bread, cakes and chocolates in its bakery and serves afternoon tea, as does the Countess of York, which is a former train carriage. The sharing boards at Mannion & Co Kitchen opposite the Visit York Information Centre are also delicious. For something more substantial, try unusual dishes such as pig’s head fritter with quince ketchup or curried mussels and pickled lime at Skosh by the train station; classic Italian plates in fairy-lit surroundings at Gusto, by Bettys, or La Vecchia Scuola, near York Chocolate Story, which is in a 300-year-old former girls’ college.
There’s plenty to see at the north end of the city, too. Yorkshire Museum in Museum Gardens, which opened in 1830, showcases the history of York from the prehistoric era through to the arrival of the Romans and beyond. Look out for a real dinosaur footprint, an 11,000-year-old engraved pendant and a Roman mosaic floor.
On the other side of the River Ouse, you’ll find the National Railway Museum. As well as working steam locomotives, there is a Japanese ‘bullet train’ which travels at up to 130mph. Last but not least, you can’t visit York without seeing York Minster, which was built between 1220 and 1472. You can catch an event, attend a service, take a guided tour or climb 275 steps to the top of its 70m tower for amazing views of the city and countryside beyond.
Where To Stay:
For a treat, splash out on Grays Court Hotel, a smart, historical house with a newly renovated restaurant,The Bar Room. For a mid-range alternative, book The Parisi Hotel, a converted rectory near the Jorvik Viking Centre. A great budget option is Judges Lodging opposite Visit York Information Centre.
How To Get There:
Direct trains depart from King’s Cross for York and take around 2 hours. A weekend return costs around £106.