There are always two walks scheduled to start at the same time by Yorkwalk. I arrive on site to join the Graveyard,Coffin, and Plague Tour but being the only one who has shown that tour cannot go so instead I join a merry group of about 10 led by our very erudite guide, John. We start off through the lovely Museum Gates, where all of the tours commence. This is a wonderfully personal tour for although John was not born and raised in York, he has lived most of his active adult life here. His main quality is understanding what is interesting for the general public who are not themselves mostly historians but merely curious.
At the ruins of St.Mary’s Abbey (constructed 1270-1294) John shares with us how in the 1940s England requested cities to have performance festivals as part of the renewal of lives after the war. During this time the Edinburgh Fringe started as did many others including York’s Mystery Plays. Dame Judy Dench was one of the first actors to entertain audiences in front of this Abbey ruin, which has been repurposed as a backdrop ever since.
In another area of the gardens John points out the sone work use to contain flower beds. He pulls out a photo from the treasure trove he carries with him and shows us a drawing of the Abbey ruins perhaps over a century ago. As we can see, much of the rocks used in the gardens were pilfered from the ruins. But they don’t do that anymore, now they are more valuable as they are.
Look at me with my healthy breakfast! It is, look carefully, my egg is poached and I had them hold the fried bread, baked beans, potatoes, and toast. I may need my cholesterol meds again after this trip with all the included English Breakfasts. At least my clothes still fit. Mostly.
I stay just outside the back gate to these lovely Museum Gardens where all the Yorkwalk tours commence. Here you can see our guide, John, walking backwards as he narrates the history of the Roman wall ruin to our right.
You don’t have to look too closely at the flowerbeds to notice that many of the rocks used have been very much altered after being quarried. Ah ha. Pilfered from ruins. Ancient ruins had not been as cherished in the recent past as they are today.
There is simply so much to look at everywhere, I had not even noticed this until John pointed it out. I had passed through this park nearly ten times up to this point. Remarkable. And that is why I am so pleased to enjoy these walking tours with a variety of interesting and unique guides. No, I do not work for them. Also, when travelling alone taking walking tours is a great way to meet locals and other travellers. It’s good to have the social interaction.
Along the city walls he tells us how the walls impeded the development of York throughout time, when other cities were becoming major trading places the walls of York hindered the coming and going of goods and inhibited growth. In the 1800s parts of the walls were disassembled to build roadways and to give the city new life. Like taking a tourniquet off a limb and allowing blood to flow.
We stop at the location of one of the main city gates where John shows us a photo of what it used to look like, quite a sizable tunnel-structure has been removed that would have disallowed a street to run along the wall. The photo is not of this gate, it is of another gate where the tunnel has been left in tact and he points out where there is evidence of the removal of this one.
Inside the gate, he points out some architecture that was redone in the 1900s. When the railways connected York in the 1830s, with it came tourists to enjoy England’s most complete Medieval city. They wanted to see the York Minster and the city walls. They expected to see gothic architecture here on the gate, so sometime in the 1900s they removed lovely windows from this space where a guard keeper would have lived and changed it with more harsh gothic defence-looking walls that visitors expected to see. But these arrow slits are pointing inwards, it would have been very unusual for the gate to have defences like these pointing towards it’s own. As for changes at York Minster, a group of homes were removed to have a clearing, opening the view to the Minster from much further. I had noticed myself that I had to go more than half a block away to be able to capture the Minster in my camera’s viewfinder. Before the clearing, I wouldn’t have been able to fully capture the front of the structure.
John went to University in Brighton, in the South of England. I don’t know how he ended-up in York, but I do know that for some time he worked in the accounts department of a bookshop under a Polish woman who was born during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. The offices of the bookshop overlooked the toilet shop that was later discovered to have some medieval innards and today is a type of small museum. He finished his career at the York Minster Library from 1994 to 2010. He shares a few fun stories from his years there as we stand behind the great York Minster from where we can see the building where he worked on the same grounds. A couple donated their “Wicked Bible”, a book that was printed in the 1600s and nearly immediately destroyed intentionally by fire due to it’s heresy. A printers error that could not be overlooked, the missing of one short word made so much difference. “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Oops. Obviously the missing word was “not”.
Throughout the tour I also enjoy sharing comments with an interesting woman from the West Coast. She is visiting York for her 50th University Class Reunion. She joined the tour a few minutes in having stumbled into us by the Abbey Ruins where John was showing us photos from the year he joined the Mystery Plays. Photos of the stage work set-up in front of the ruins. John played a demon.
I’m going to call her Judith, but I didn’t catch her name. Judith studied at what was the 3rd year of this young university. She has not visited York since her school days so she was in that blur of struggling to remember days so long past they nearly seem like they were from someone else’s life. We walk through an interesting compound where she actually had classes. I think she’s a bit stunned by it all, surprised by the unfamiliarity. I share with her that it took me some days to better remember my life in Edinburgh. It took some time and effort for memories to sift through the deep sand residue that has since accumulated. Such a different time, such a different life. I hope she is able to visit for long enough for the memories to flood back, she has much more sand to sift than I had. Although I have a lot of sand from having had a lot of variety in my experiences over the past 16 years. If I had lived in one city and had one main career I would have had much less to sort through myself. I have had very distinct shorter chapters whereas many people have one or two longer chapters.
I always think of Universities as being old, so I am quite surprised by the age of this one. But my first university was oddly old for being in Canada. Originally named Kings College, the University of New Brunswick is tied with Georgia State as being the oldest university in North America, both founded in 1789. Those were the very early days of formal education on that continent. (It was still Kings College during the era of the book series, “Anne of Green Gables” and was the setting for her studies.)
We end the tour with some overlap of my other tours and again visit the lovely owls. I really don’t mind having overlap, I only capture half or less of what is presented to me anyway. With ADHD I have a natural filter that automatically only captures the most interesting bits while my mind wanders during the presentation of minute details that might fascinate me were I a historian.
“Judith” was excited when we rounded the corner to this building. Most of York University is located outside the city walls in newish buildings but she happened to have attended some classes here when she was a student during the University’s early days.
During the poring rain last night whilst I was enjoying Verdi in the comfort of York Mister a university group was doing an outdoor play about Anne Boleyn. They have tarps for over the audience but the actors were soaked. We meet the director who lets us lift the incredibly heavy costumes to feel their weight.
A little ornamental devil in the middle of the colourful medieval streets of York’s centre.
After walking past lots of crowded lunch spots, I settle on having lunch at the library. I have chosen this because of it’s quiet setting and being located directly beside where my next tour will commence in just over an hour. Lunch is simple and good and has the benefit of being cheaper than in the tourist restaurants. Sadly the fluorescent tube lights are too bright for me and I have forgotten those glasses, but I leave soon enough not to have gotten a headache.
In the afternoon I join a tour called, “Guildhalls & Hidden Places” which has a largely English crowd in attendance. When I say “largely”, I mean 5 Brits and me. This is a well travelled group, three of them have been to Canada and are happy to share about their travels. In our conversations about England I have now added Chester to my list of places to visit, and it may even happen on this trip after Liverpool.
The other solo walker is a local nun, she lives a 2-minute walk away from the York Minster in a Maisonette. She too has visited Toronto, she stayed for a month there with some sisters in Willowdale. She enjoyed her stay.
We walk past a pub that once was the city dwelling of country folks who were the parents of General Wolfe. The Wolfe who defeated the French and took Canada for the British Empire.
Our first stop is to visit St.Cuthberts, a church that has been made redundant three times. The first time was during the reformation when nearly half of all Yorks churches were made redundant. The last time was more recently, the priest in charge decided he didn’t like the groups that were making use of the church and made them find another home. Now, empty and unused, it has less chances of survival from things like moisture damage and vandalism. It’s much better for a building like this to have people coming and going.
Our guide, Warwick, removes some carpet floor tiles, then wood, then support beams, to unveil a secret entrance to under the floor. Two of us climb down the fixed ladder to see the marked grave below. There are many, many unmarked burials below us and outside surrounding the church.
St. Cuthburts has had been a church long in disuse and has been made redundant again recently because the person in charge did not like it’s uses. But any use is better than no use when it comes to preserving an old structure. It was being used by Christian groups, just not ones the person in control approved of apparently.
We visit part of the York City walls where we come to understand that most of what we see today are Victorian recreations of the walls. In this location we can see some of the original Roman walls, from the 200s. They seem very short but this is because the ground level has risen by a few meters.
Lastly we visit a Guild Hall that was once part of a priest’s commune. It was another case of the priests misbehaving and then being housed together under a watchful eye. Even then, it was known for the occasional priest to sneak in male tradesmen to do work who were in fact women in disguise. Naughty priests.
Today this is a modern guildhall, serving as the meeting place for several different guilds and being rented out for functions.
When I return to the hotel I am introduced to my new room. I had originally only booked to stay 3 nights. To increase my stay to 6 nights I need to move twice taking what accommodation they have available. The feeling at the Coach House Hotel is fantastic, very homey and welcoming so I didn’t want to move anywhere else. This is a wonderful home away from home and in a great location too.
The walls high above are the Victorian reconstructions. The darkest part are the most modern ones, they are retaining walls holding the earth away from the unburied Roman walls, which our guide has trekked down into.