York: capital of England’s north

So far my journey through Yorkshire has been one of small towns and moorlands, yet the most popular destination in Yorkshire is the city that gives the shire its name–York. No trip to the north of England would be complete without checking out this historic city.

A brief look at York’s long history
Like many English cities, York’s origins are lost in prehistory. It’s first recorded in the late first century AD as the Roman city of Eboracum. It became an important trading center and it was here that the legions proclaimed Constantine emperor before he went on to convert the empire to Christianity. Some of the original city walls can still be seen.

After the Roman legions left around 410 AD, York remained a political and religious center under the Angles until the Vikings took it over in 866. Contrary to popular opinion, the Vikings weren’t all seafaring raiders. In England they came to settle, once they got their fill of looting and burning that is. Known as Jórvik, it became one of the biggest cities in the Viking world. In the Middle Ages its economic and religious influence continued to grow and it remains one of the biggest cities in the north of England today. The Yorkshire Museum gives a good rundown of the city’s history.

Five things to do in York
1. Visit the Minster. York’s cathedral is a masterpiece of medieval architecture. The minster is one of the most grandiose cathedrals built in the Middle Ages. Much of it dates to the 13th century but there are some older and newer bits as well. Soaring Gothic architecture, weird gargoyles, and beautiful stained glass windows make this a place you can stare at for hours.

2. Wander the streets. York’s medieval center still retains some of its historic charm. Many of the buildings are hundreds of years old, and the winding little streets give you a feel for past times, minus the Black Death and open sewers. Keep a sharp eye out for carved wooden figures that used to act as neighborhood signs in the days when most people were illiterate.

3. Vikings! The Jorvik Viking Centre is one of the most popular attractions in northern England. Set atop an archaeological excavation of the Viking city, you can see foundations of Viking buildings under a glass floor before hopping on a ride that takes you through a village of animatronic Vikings. No, I’m not kidding, and it’s as silly as it sounds. Anyone over ten will probably feel a little embarrassed by the whole show and leave knowing only slightly more about the Vikings than when they arrived. Your kids will love it, though, especially when they spot the constipated Viking groaning in the outhouse.

%Gallery-105370%4. Walk the walls. York has one of the best preserved medieval walls in England, and you can walk on all of it. The walk goes for two miles around the historic heart of York and is only interrupted in one small section. The walk takes you past some of the city’s highlights like the Minster as well as quieter residential areas.

5. Visit the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall. Medieval churches and streets are a dime a dozen here in historic Europe, but how often do you get to see a medieval guildhall? As international commerce rose in the late Middle Ages, trade guilds became more important. Eventually their power displaced rivaled even the king’s and led to the capitalist society we have today. Merchants have been meeting in this timber-framed mansion for 650 years to plan voyages and explore new trade routes. On display are some of the treasures they brought back, as well as a letter to Henry VIII complaining that one of their ships got attacked by pirates!

There’s also a beautifully preserved Norman castle with a grim history. I’ll be talking about that in my next post in the series–Castles of Yorkshire.

Shopping in York
York’s labyrinthine streets are filled with shops selling everything from local produce (I highly recommend the cheese) to toys and fashion. It’s hard to give a breakdown of all there is to buy, since pretty much everything is available. Visit York has a good online shopping guide where you can search by subject. One thing I noticed was that it has one of the biggest selections of used and antiquarian bookshops of any English town I’ve visited. There are plenty of antique shops too, but they’re only for those with a healthy bank account.

Drinking and Dining in York
There’s no shortage of good eats in Yorkshire. Once again Visit York has a good online guide. My favorite was Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms, which for almost a century has been serving up great tea, scones, and desserts in elegant Art Deco surroundings. It’s usually packed, though, so be prepared to wait in line. They have a shop too. York has a large number of restaurants for all budgets and there’s a good selection of pubs serving Yorkshire real ales. I recommend Mars Magic by Wold Top Brewery and Black Sheep Ale by Black Sheep Brewery. Both are dark, rich, full beers that make your average lager look and taste thinner than air.

Pluses and minuses
York is a great destination for shopping, dining, and sightseeing, but try to go off-season. The city center is incredibly crowded during the summer, and most weekends no matter what the time of year. This is one of the most touristy spots in England, and lacking the hugeness of London it can feel a bit cramped. It’s still well worth a visit, though.

So if you’re traveling through England’s north, don’t skip its greatest city!

Don’t miss the rest of my series on Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Coming up next: The castles of Yorkshire!

This trip was sponsored by
VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire.

Visiting the Brontë sisters in Yorkshire

People say literary genius is a rare thing, something seen only once in a thousand or a million people. Maybe so, but the Brontës had three (and maybe five) literary geniuses in the same family.

From their father’s parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire, in northern England, the three Brontë sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne produced some of the most popular books in the English language. Works like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are still read more than 150 years after they were published. They’ve survived the test of time. The ebook edition of Wuthering Heights is currently ranked number 457 at Amazon’s Kindle store, and number 5 in the fiction classics category. Their work has been made into numerous movies and another version of Jane Eyre is coming out next year.

The sisters also prompted literary tourism to Haworth. It started not long after they died and has steadily grown ever since. While everyone comes to Haworth to see the Brontë home and related sights, they also enjoy a beautiful and well-preserved nineteenth century village full of shops and fine restaurants.

Now I have to be honest here and admit that until I went on this trip I had never read a Brontë novel. They were the classics I never got assigned in school and I figured I’d get around to whenever. Before I left for Yorkshire I read Jane Eyre and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The rich prose and sedate pacing definitely belong to the nineteenth century, but the smartass, independent female protagonist belongs to the modern world.

Much of Haworth remains as the Brontës knew it. The Brontë Parsonage Museum preserves their home and tells their story. House museums are tricky to do well. Despite being a museum junkie, some historic homes bore me to death. This one, however, gripped my attention. Besides the usual stuff like the desks they wrote at and the sofas they sat on (and Emily may have died on), there are the little details that make it stick in your memory. In the nursery where they spent their childhood faint pencil drawings can be seen on the wall. While it’s impossible to say if these literary giants doodled these when they were small, it makes you wonder.

There’s also the story of Branwell Brontë. Who? Yeah, that was always his problem. He was their brother, a failed artist and struggling writer living in the shadow of his superstar sisters. He fell into a downward spiral of alcoholism and opium addiction before dying at 31. The above painting of his sisters is Branwell’s work. He originally included himself in the portrait, then unsuccessfully erased himself. He doodled constantly, illustrating letters he sent to friends. One at the museum shows himself in two images. The first is labeled “Paradise” shows him drunk off his ass and shouting, “I am the lord of the manor!” The other is labeled “Purgatory” and shows him hunched over an opium pipe.

%Gallery-104264%The museum also tells the story of their father Patrick, the local pastor who was also a published author. Many a young woman’s ambitions were crushed in those days by domineering fathers who wanted them to get married and get pregnant. Patrick Brontë was progressive enough not to feel threatened by his daughters’ talent and encouraged them in their careers.

Beyond the Brontë parsonage you can see traces of their life everywhere. Patrick Brontë’s church stands nearby and houses the family’s memorial chapel. The pub where Branwell got drunk is just a short stagger away from the apothecary where he bought his opium. The Black Bull Inn still serves up fine Yorkshire ales, but the apothecary shop stopped carrying opiates when they started requiring a prescription. Otherwise it’s a good replica of an early apothecary and still sells traditional cures.

Haworth’s main street is down a steep hill lined with little shops. You can find delicious local cheeses and preserves, a couple of fine tearooms, some excellent secondhand bookshops, and more gift shops than you can shake a copy of Wuthering Heights at. Several historic inns offer beers and beds. At the train station a traditional steam railway offers rides.

But Haworth isn’t all tea and scones and twee little shops. There’s a dark side to the town’s history, full of ghosts, death, and despair. On my second day I discovered I was all too close to the supernatural. . .

This is the first of my new series Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Coming up next: Three nights in a haunted hotel room!

This trip was sponsored by
VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire.

[Photo courtesy user Mr. Absurd via Wikimedia Commons]