The city where Guy Fawkes was born, Dick Turpin was hung and Constantine the Great was proclaimed Emperor has certainly got plenty of stories to tell – and plenty of great pubs to tell them in. Sasha Arms reports.
York has a rich cultural history that strikes the visitor the moment they first lay eyes on one of its imposing stone gatehouses (known as ‘bars’) that punctuate the remaining sections of the old City Walls – the longest intact city walls of any city in England by the way. The town, together with its fortifications, was founded in 71 AD by the Romans, who later made the settlement the capital of the Britannia Inferior Province. The city has attracted history buffs and culture vultures every since (indeed it dubs itself ‘The Original City Adventure‘), and in more recent times was voted Britain’s Favourite Small City by the Rough Guide to Britain (2011), and the third of Britain’s 20 Best Cities by the Telegraph Travel Awards 2016. York has also seen a swathe of foodie fans start to arrive too, since being voted the Best Gastro Destination in the UK by TripAdvisor.
The floods at the end of 2015 put a real dent in the number of people visiting the city, and misconceptions about the extent of the flooding were rife. The majority of businesses and attractions weren’t affected, yet tourists stayed away. But that’s all changing now. Visitors are back, and there’s more to get stuck into than ever…
Best of the Beaten Track
The York Minster is the city’s most famous and iconic attraction. Visiting the centuries-old cathedral will thrill urban explorers, who can discover the crypt and undercroft, listen to the exalted sounds of choir practice, and climb 275 steps up the Central Tower for a bird’s eye view of the city. Other spots worth a visit include Clifford’s Tower, built by William the Conqueror and one of the last remnants of York Castle. The York Castle Museum next door gives a real sense of York’s history, with recreated scenes from time past as well as the opportunity to visit Dick Turpin’s cell. After committing many serious crimes and repeatedly slipping through the fingers of the authorities, the notorious Essex highwayman was eventually arrested for shooting a rooster (and then hung for horse theft).
Other popular places worth calling by on include the Roman Baths, which were discovered below a pub in 1930 while digging a new cellar, the Richard III Experience, inside one of the city gatehouses at Monk Bar, and the York Army Museum, showcasing the region’s proud military history.
Taking a trip along the river on the York Boat is worth it too for a different perspective on the city. All these attractions are available via the York Pass, which is well worth buying if you’re planning on visiting all the main spots.
For a tea and cake pit stop, Betty’s is a local institution. The interior is an Art Deco affair, while the food is all about elegant afternoon teas. Those who fancy ale or a heartier meal should stop off at the Guy Fawkes Inn, found in the shadow of the Minster, and is the very location where the notorious Mr. Fawkes was born in 1590.
For less mainstream experiences in York, there are plenty of corners of the city to explore. Out in a nondescript suburban area of the city, surrounded by modern apartments, is the York Cold War Bunker. Built in 1961, it was a place where volunteers would monitor nuclear explosions in Yorkshire in the event of a nuclear war. There were enough supplies to survive for just 30 days if such an event had ever happened. It’s a chilling sight and a modern-day reminder of the perpetual fear that gripped society during the height of the Cold War.
York is home to plenty of tours, from York City Sightseeing and Ghost Bus Tours, to ghost walks on foot and cycling tours. Far quirkier is a tour by York Tuktuks: a zero emission whizz around town in ‘limousine versions’ of tuk-tuks that have come directly from Thailand. There are just two tuk-tuks in the city, and knowledgeable local guides have plenty to say. Fans of ‘dark tourism’ will particularly enjoy the ride past Dick Turpin’s grave. People who only know the romanticised version of Dick Turpin’s story still leave flowers on his grave to this day.
To hang out with York’s hipsters, there’s Your Bike Shed for coffee and bike chat, or the award-winning Spring Espresso for coffee and ad hoc art exhibitions. A little outside of the city centre, trendsetters love ‘Bishy Road’ (Bishopsthorpe Road) for its quirky shops and café culture; try Stanley & Ramona or Pig & Pastry.
Experience & Events
York plays host to an impressive array of events throughout the year. Most notable is the Aesthetica Short Film Festival (ASFF) which is a BAFTA qualifying film festival that takes place every November. Venues across the city open up for screenings crossing genres from animation to documentary. It’s a time when film buffs wander the city with all-weekend ASFF passes hanging proudly around their necks, and it’s actually amazing to be a part of it.
On the August Bank Holiday every year, the Mickelgate Run Soap Box Challenge takes place, which is a quirky go-carting race along the street.
A classy but affordable hotel option in York is Hotel du Vin, found inside a Grade II listed 19th century mansion house in The Mount area of town. Rooms are super comfortable (especially if you end up in the luxury suite, complete with an eight foot bed and a pair of roll top baths in front of the TV) and breakfasts are inventive, with the likes of an ‘Omelette Arnold Bennett’ served in a frying pan. Young travellers might want to check out Safestay Hostel which finds itself in a wonderful Georgian mansion, and has three social spaces for mingling at the end of the day.
Cuts from the grill at the Hotel du Vin are popular and delicious, such as the chateaubriand to share. Wine buffs will enjoy the extensive wine list and an offer to view the wine cellar, while the cigar shack is popular for a post-dinner puff. A short walk down the road past Micklegate Bar is The Rattle Owl, one of the restaurants reinforcing York’s newfound foodie credentials. Seasonal Yorkshire produce is served in the modern restaurant in a restored building, with flavours ranging from Whitby crab to pressed rabbit, and seared ling to Yorkshire lamb. Those looking for a traditional pub dinner, there are plenty of drinking and eating holes with suitably weird and wonderful names, such as the House of Trembling Madness.
There’s no shortage of places to stop by for a drink in York. Many pubs claim to be haunted, such as the Golden Fleece, where numerous visitors have reported seeing the ghost of the late Lady Alice Peckett, whose husband John previously owned the premises. Those who prefer a less spooky experience should head over to the York Brewery. They offer brewery tours, but it’s perhaps easier to simply track down The Tap Room, squirrelled away inside, and work your way through the range of lagers and cask ales brewed on-site. Those looking for a large one tend to embark on the Mickelegate Run pub crawl, stopping off at the many pubs and bars along this medieval street.
Getting There & Around
Virgin Trains East Coast runs from London to Aberdeen, stopping off at major destinations including York along the way. This makes it easy to get to York from plenty of places across the UK, and it’s fast too, at just two hours from London and 4.5 hours from Edinburgh. For those flying into the UK, Leeds Bradford Airport is the closest to York (just over 30 miles away). Given the great rail links York has, flying into the UK’s other major airports is also do-able. If you’re broadly sticking to the city centre, everywhere in York is walking distance. Otherwise, travelling by bus is your next best option; routes are available on the Travel York website.
The Visit York website offers a wealth of information, with up-to-date listings on events and downloadable maps. Also check out York Mix and the leisure section of the York Press. Otherwise search for #OriginalCityAdventure, #YorkAdventure and #Yorkie on social media to find out what other visitors have been up to.
Visit York produces visitor guides every year, which is your best bet for up-to-date information. Otherwise, the guide to York by Insight Guides is a good source of information. Modern fictional novels set in York include Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson MBE and The Dress by Sophie Nicholls. Alternatively, Sovereign by C.J. Sansom is a 16th century mystery novel surrounding Henry VIII’s reign.
The city of York deserves to be memorable for far more than the brazen highwayman Dick Turpin, but naturally films about the criminal include depictions of York. Dick Turpin’s Ride to York (1922) and Dick Turpin (1933) give an idea of his story. In recent decades, Yorkshire more generally has been the location of some critically acclaimed films; try A Month in the Country (1987), The Selfish Giant, Brassed Off and The Full Monty for starters.