I had hoped to go further away this last bank holiday weekend (I’ve been thinking about Lisbon or Porto ever since sampling the delicious pasteis de nata from the Portuguese bakery in Leicester) but due to a combination of exam marking (novio) and baulking at the price of last minute flights for the bank holiday weekend anywhere (me), we ended up spending the weekend at home.
We decided late on Sunday night that we should make a trip, and bought train tickets to York. We’ve both been before- in fact, my dad is a York native, as were his parents and their parents before them. My parents met as teenagers in the 70s in a bar in York (now Yeats’ Wine Lodge), and I have lots of happy childhood memories of the city. You don’t really appreciate architecture when you’re young, though, and York has plenty of historic buildings to impress even the most jaded visitor, such as the 13th century Gothic cathedral, known as York Minster, above.
Mystery Plays (medieval plays with a religious theme and set characters/conventions) have entertained crowds in York since the 1300s, and the tradition is still going strong, although you have to be lucky or plan carefully to catch them (they’re not performed every year, and when they are on, it’s for a limited period of around a month. They are currently being performed in the Minster this May/June, 2016, and I really recommend going to see them if you can).
Essentially, York is a walled Roman city – Constantine was proclaimed Emperor here- with a medieval heart. The Vikings followed, and consequently York opened an interactive, multi-sensory Viking museum, the Jorvik, in 1984. Although it was sadly damaged in the flooding over Christmas 2015, there are plans to reopen in 2017, and the museum is to be found over the site of the Viking settlement in the Coppergate area of the city.
With winding medieval lanes, walkable Roman walls (and even a pub with a Roman bath in its basement), what this mixed heritage means for the visitor is more cultural and historical landmarks than in any city I can think of of a comparable size.
Defying the trend elsewhere, York still boasts traditional bookshops throughout the city. York is a university town, and due to a combination of its tradition of sweet and chocolate-making, as well as its wealthy population in the 18th and 19th centuries, it largely escaped the mills, factories, and other large-scale industrial buildings which you can still see today in cities such as Leeds, Manchester, and Leicester.
York also has lots of tiny ancient churches. You step from the busy modern street into one of these Lilliputian, darkened buildings, and are suddenly forced back in time. Often lit only by the open doorway and the wine-coloured light filtering through the stained glass windows, even if you’re not a believer, these places are atmospheric and compelling. I loved spending a few minutes inside and snapping a couple of photos before returning to the din of the outside world. The I took the photo above in All Saints, Pavement, which is one of 12 medieval/early modern churches in York.
I’d be lying if I said food isn’t an important part of any trip for me, and when in York, the classic place to eat is Betty’s. It’s a beautiful, 1920s tearoom in St Helen’s Square in the city centre. Spread over several floors, and with original art deco features, this place is cavernous – and that’s a good thing, because there’s always a queue outside at any time of day. A couple of years ago I went there with my mum and we had afternoon tea upstairs accompanied by a live pianist and glasses of champagne. The waiting staff dress in traditional uniforms, but it’s not stuffy- you can also turn up in jeans or with your toddler and order a cup of tea and a plate of fish and chips. This time, I had a mini open sandwich followed by a homemade raspberry macaroon filled with buttercream and fresh raspberries (!) while novio had kedgeree (a first for him, and it was delicious).
Insider tip: when I was little, my grandma didn’t take us to Betty’s in St Helen’s Square because of the waiting times. Instead, she took us to Little Betty’s on Stonegate. As the name suggests, it’s a much smaller place, and it’s crammed into a wonky medieval building with uneven floors. The food, drinks, and service are exactly the same, and it’s where the locals go.
Before we left to catch our train home, we had another bite to eat – tapas! We ate in Ambiente Tapas, the Goodramgate branch. It was pretty reasonable- we took advantage of the before 5pm 3-tapas-for-£10 offer, and accompanied the meal with a sherry taster: 3 different types for £6, which was perfect for a novice like me. The food was judged as “reasonably authentic” by novio, although he took issue with the way the patatas bravas were served – apparently in Spain they’d never come with mayo and a little tomato on top. I don’t know. I thought it was all pretty good.