Historians run around the English city of York like kids in a candy shop. And with a knowledgeable guide bringing things to life, even non-historians find themselves exploring the past with a childlike wonder.
Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. I just published a collection of my favorite stories from a lifetime of European travels. My new book is called “For the Love of Europe” — and this story is just one of its 100 travel tales.
I’m in York, following Edwin, a wry and spry retired schoolteacher, into an overgrown turret in the city’s ancient wall. Edwin stays active leading town walks and giving private tours. Today, he’s taking me to his favorite places.
Fingering a red brick, Edwin explains that just as a scout counts the rings in a tree, we can count the ages of York by the layers of bricks in the city wall: Roman on the bottom, then Danish and Norman, and finally topped off with the “new” addition — from the 14th century.
Strolling into the half-timbered town center, we stop at the medieval butchers’ street called The Shambles. As if sharing a secret, Edwin nudges me under an eave and points out the rusty old hooks and says, “Six hundred years ago, bloody hunks of meat hung here, dripping and then draining into the gutter that still marks the middle of the lane. This slaughterhouse of commercial activity gave our language a new word. This was the original ‘shambles.’”
I find English guides likeably chatty and opinionated. As Edwin and I explore York, I learn several ghost stories, what architectural “monstrosity” the “insensitive” city planners are about to inflict on the townsfolk, a bit of the local politics, and the latest gossip.
York is the most interesting town between London and Edinburgh. Edwin is ready with an explanation: In the Victorian Age, most big cities embraced the Industrial Revolution, tearing down their walls and inviting the train tracks to run right through their center. But the people of York kept their walls and required the train station to be built just outside the center. While less efficient at the time, this left the city a historic treasure cradled entirely within the surviving walls. Those York Victorians not only saved their wall, but they amped up its historic charm with a remodel, giving it fanciful crenellations and arrow slits.
Edwin and I head over to the York Castle Museum, where English memorabilia from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries is cleverly displayed in a huge collection of craft shops, old stores, and bygone living rooms. Charles Dickens would feel right at home here. As towns were being modernized in the 1930s, the museum’s founder, Dr. Kirk, recognized a threat to their heritage and collected entire shops and reassembled them here. In Kirkgate, the museum’s most popular section, we wander down a century-old Lincolnshire street, popping in to see the butcher, baker, coppersmith, and barber.
The shops are actually stocked with the merchandise of the day. In the confectionery, we eavesdrop on English grannies giggling and reminiscing their way through the mouthwatering world of “spice pigs,” “togo bullets,” “hum bugs,” and “conversation lozenges.” The general store is loaded with groceries, the toy shop has old-time games, and the sports shop has everything you’d need for a game of 19th-century archery, cricket, or skittles. Anyone for ping-pong? Those Victorians loved their “whiff-whaff.”
In the period rooms, three centuries of Yorkshire living rooms and clothing fashions paint a cozy picture of life centered around the hearth. A peat fire warms a huge brass kettle while the aroma of freshly baked bread fills a room under heavy, open-beamed ceilings. After walking through the evolution of romantic valentines and unromantic billy clubs, we trace the development of early home lighting from simple waxy sticks to the age of electricity. An early electric heater has a small plaque that explains, “How to light an electric fire: Switch it on!”
Dr. Kirk’s “memorable collection of bygones” is the closest thing in Britain to a time-tunnel experience, except perhaps for our next destination, the Jorvik Viking Centre just down the street.
A thousand years ago, York was a thriving Viking settlement called Jorvik (YOR-vik). While only traces are left of most Viking settlements, Jorvik is an archaeologist’s bonanza, the best-preserved Viking city ever excavated. Sail Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” north a thousand miles and back a thousand years, and you get Jorvik. More a ride than a museum, this exhibit drapes the abundant harvest of this dig in theme park cleverness. We ride a kid-pleasing people-mover for 12 minutes through the re-created Viking street of Coppergate. It’s the year 975 and we’re in the village of Jorvik. Everything — sights, sounds, even smells — has been carefully re-created. Next, our time-traveling train rolls through the actual excavation site, past the remains that inspired the reconstructed village. Stubs of buildings, piles of charred wood, and broken pottery are the time-crushed remains of a once-bustling town. Everything is true to the original dig. Even the face of one of the mannequins was computer-modeled from a skull dug up right here.
Our next stop is the thunderous National Railway Museum, which showcases 200 illustrious years of British railroad history. Fanning out from a grand roundhouse is an array of historic cars and engines, including Queen Victoria’s lavish royal car and the very first “stage-coaches on rails.” Exhibits on dining cars, post cars, Pullman cars, and vintage train posters creatively humanize the dawn of an exciting new age.
Edwin and I walk over the river toward the towering York Minster, stopping first at the romantic ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey. A fragile arcade of pointed Gothic arches seems to hang from the branches of the trees that tower above. I remark to Edwin that it’s striking how magnificently the Minster survives while only a single wall of this abbey church still stands. Edwin explains that Henry VIII, so threatened by the power of the pope, destroyed nearly everything that was Catholic — except the great York Minster. Thankfully, Henry needed a northern capital for his Anglican Church. Edwin then explains the Dissolution of the Monasteries. “Henry wanted more than a divorce. He wanted to be free from the power of the abbots and the monasteries and the pope in Rome. It was our first Brexit — and we got it in 1534.”
Then, playfully describing three bombastic leaders at the same time, he says, “It was spearheaded by a much-married, arrogant, overweight egomaniac.” Edwin is playing with me, alluding to my president, but he is also describing the pompous, pro-Brexit prime minister, Boris Johnson, along with Henry VIII. While 500 years apart, they both wanted to “be free” from Europe (from the pope and from the EU), which also meant sending no more money to Europe (in tithes to the Roman Catholic Church back then or taxes to Brussels today). And they both wanted no more intrusions from Europe into their realm. In the 16th century under Henry and in the 21st century under Boris, for Britain, “leaving means leaving.”
With that, we step into York’s Minster, the pride of the city. It’s one of the most magnificent churches in Britain and the largest Gothic church north of the Alps. Splashed with stained glass and graced with soaring ceilings, this dazzling church brilliantly shows that the High Middle Ages may have been dank, but they were far from dark.
The Minster is famous for its 15th-century stained glass, especially its Great East Window, which is the size of a tennis court. The window’s fine details — far too tiny to see from the floor — were originally in-tended “for God’s eyes only.”
But Edwin has opera glasses. He pulls them from his satchel so I can study the window as he guides me: A sweeping story is told in more than 300 panels of painted and stained glass, climaxing with the Apocalypse. It’s a medieval disaster movie — a blockbuster back in 1408 — showing the end of world in fire and flood and pestilence…vivid scenes from the Book of Revelations. Angels trumpet disaster against blood-red skies. And there it is, the fifth panel up on the far left side…the devil giving power to the “Beast of the Apocalypse,” a seven-headed, ten-crowned lion, just as it was written in the Bible. This must have terrified worshippers. This British masterpiece was unprecedented in its epic scale, created a hundred years before Michelangelo frescoed the story of the beginning and end of time at the Sistine Chapel in Rome. One of the great art treasures of the Middle Ages, it’s the work of one man: John Thornton of Coventry (who, I think, deserves a little of Michelangelo’s fame).
The church also holds a full carillon of 35 bells, so church-bell enthusiasts can enjoy a little ding-dong ecstasy during the weekly bell concerts. Edwin has another guiding appointment. But before leaving, he introduces me to a deacon, who delights in showing off this pride of the Minster. He leads me upstairs a few flights and into the bell tower to show off the biggest bell. We come to a stony room — vacant except for a fat, lifeless rope dangling from the ceiling. With childlike enthusiasm, the suddenly animated deacon begins pulling the rope. He reaches and reaches, pulling ever higher and ever lower, and I ready my ears for a thunderous sound. Suddenly the deacon clenches the rope and becomes airborne, soaring high above me as ear-shattering clanging rings throughout the town. Eventually landing back on the medieval wooden floor, he winks at me and says, “In York, our bell is so big it rings the ringer.”
He invites me to attend the evensong service, reminding me that it’s a good way to fully experience the York Minster. Later that evening I return, arriving early to get a prime seat. It’s a spiritual Oz, with 40 boys singing psalms: a red-and-white-robed pillow of praise, raised up by the powerful pipe organ.
As the boys sing and the organ plays, I ponder the towering Gothic arches — stone stacked by locals 700 years ago, still soaring like hands folded in prayer. I whisper, “Thank God for York. Amen.”
This story appears in my newest book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can purchase it at my online Travel Store. You can also find a clip related to this story at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for York.