There are few more evocatively historical cities than York, but it has a very modern pulse, discovers Daniel Neilson
The Jorvik Viking Centre
It’s the smell I remember more than anything. Marcel Proust was famously taken back to his childhood by the sweet aroma of madeleines. For me, here in York, it’s the frankly foul scent of a Viking cesspit and the sight of a Viking, well, doing his business. Three days after the Jorvik Viking Centre opened in 1984, my Nana had waited in a queue for three hours while my Granddad had attempted to entertain an excitable eight-year-old in York Minster. Thirty-one years later, I sidle into one of the carts that whisk you around an animatronic reconstruction of Jorvik, the name the Vikings gave to the city now known as York. And although I try not to show it to my fellow passengers, I’m giddy, memories returning back to me like a flutter of postcards.
Leaving the Jorvik Viking Centre, I call my grandparents explaining where I’ve just been, describing the smells, the scenes, the coin I struck. “Three hours in the rain is all I remember,” my Nana retorts. The place clearly made more of an impression on me. The queues are smaller these days, but its popularity hasn’t waned – and quite rightly. It’s an evocative attraction that takes education and the past just as seriously as a modern sense of fun. Much like York itself, in fact.
On a late-autumn afternoon I walk the 15 minutes from YHA York to the city centre on a riverside path. The slap of oars hitting the River Ouse can be heard over the encouraging cries of a schoolmaster cycling along the towpath while directing his rowing pupils. In the darkening afternoon, I pick up a coffee and head to Yorkshire Museum for context to the city I’ll be spending a few days exploring.
Now I know York has quite a history, but blimey… Is this one of the country’s most important cities? Historically, yes. The museum tells the story of the city: how the Roman garrison town of Eboracum became first the Saxon settlement of Eoforwick then the Viking city of Jorvik, before establishing itself as a northern outpost of the Normans. It was the Normans who built the vast York Minster, a structure that still impresses today. 250 years in the making, it was consecrated in 1472 and remains home to the largest area of stained glass in the world.
Outside, in the foggy evening, I wander around The Shambles (once rather wonderfully known as The Great Flesh Shambles in a nod to the butchers that once dominated the area) and the city’s narrow ‘Snickelways’, lined with overhanging timber-framed buildings. The earliest of these lanes date back to the 14th century.
The best beer collection in the country
Winding around the labyrinthine streets, I go to meet a York-based friend at the pub with the best name ever: The House of the Trembling Madness on Stonegate. From the outside it looks like an unassuming off-licence, but walking into the second room I’m confronted with hundreds of bottles and cans of beer from around the world, including plenty brewed close by. It has one of the best beer collections in the country. We climb the stairs (under the gaze of a stuffed stag) to the pub area and enjoy a pint from local brewery Bad Seed. The place is busy with locals and discerning drinkers.
We move on to The Habit on Goodramgate. A talented young songwriter plays his own compositions before passing the mic to another musician. York may be one of the world’s best preserved historical cities, but in the evening it becomes clear this is not a place preserved in aspic. It’s well known for its abundant pubs, many of them ancient, but York is also a city that loves a show, whether it’s at one of the theatres or on the streets themselves. Every February, the Jorvik Viking Festival – the largest such festival in Europe – hosts dozens of events, lectures, guided walks and battle re-enactments. In March, meanwhile, there’s the York Literature Festival, and the rest of the year holds everything from the York Chocolate Festival and the Early Music Festival to the Festival of Ideas and, in August, the famous Ebor Festival at York Races. And on, and on.
York Art Gallery
The next day I visit one of the city’s cultural jewels, the newly reopened York Art Gallery, incorporating the Centre of Ceramic Art. For me at least, it throws out all the preconceptions of ceramics – this is a place designed to be enjoyed by all ages. Particularly memorable is an exhibition called The Lumber Room: Unimagined Treasures by York-based artist Mark Hearld. It’s a bizarre collection of his own vibrant works alongside textiles and taxidermy, oil paintings and furniture curated from York Museum’s Trust.
From the gallery I climb onto the medieval city walls, the longest in England, and spend a couple of hours walking around them. As well as providing an unbeatable perspective to the city, it’s a constant reminder of the battering York has endured over the two millennia of the city’s life. Over the few days in York, I visit the huge National Railway Museum, contemplate York Minster, take a guided ghost walk, eat great food and visit a couple more pubs.
I’ve since booked again to stay at YHA York, this time with my young family. Our first port of call will be, of course, the Jorvik Viking Centre. If it makes half as much impression on my daughter as it did on me, I’ll be happy.
YORK FLOODING UPDATE: IT’S OPEN FOR BUSINESS!
The city suffered badly in the December floods, but has recovered well. “There’s absolutely no reason to cancel your trip,” says the tourist board’s Kate McMullen. “York is ready to welcome you.” An exception is Jorvik, which is closed until further notice – although its Viking festival in February is going ahead. Support Jorvik here: jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk/flood
THREE GREAT YORK BREWERIES
This brewery is within the city walls on Toft Green. The brewery owns a few pubs in the town, but the best place to try the beers is at the tap room at the premises on Toft Green. Tours can also be taken. Our pick is the crisp and golden Guzzler. york-brewery.co.uk
Bad Seed Brewery
We found Bad Seed beers available at The House of the Trembling Madness and Pivini York. There’s a wide range, but it’s well know for its German wheat beer style Hefeweizen. The brewery is based in nearby Malton. york-brewery.co.uk
Brass Castle Brewery
This is another respected brewery, also based in Malton. There’s an inventive range of beers, including a coconut/pineapple wheat beer and the much-loved Bad Kitty porter. brasscastle.co.uk