York was the first city I fell in love with; my cubit, my measurement for other cities, my template. ‘Where is my York?’ I ask as I move around Britain. It is an equivalent I need wherever I live.
York is perhaps the most quintessential of English cities. And in that comes not only the narrow timber jettied snickelways, nor National Trust mansions, nor the curvilinear tracery of a certain church as large as its bell is deep, nor its walkable city walls.
From the top of the castle keep, you can see the other York – the one with chimneys and a navigable river for trade. Famous chocolate making needs factories, and like other northern cities, there’s a prominent mill and railway station – the Victorians have been as busy here as anywhere else in the region.
The pictures on the postcards might be of the Shambles and Stonegate and Petergate, but there are many other streets of interest that you’ll find and perhaps linger in more – Foss/Walmgate, the Swinegate quarter, Gillygate, Micklegate. Here the unusual, the native is found – institutions as old as chocolateries come in bar and restaurant form, but quirkier.
York’s Georgian is as much about pinky brown terraces just outside the walls as red one off mansions within them. Clifford’s Tower is not the only castle – the students have their own now, a new residential block in a warehouse.
It’s a city of churches – 19 medieval parish churches within the walls, who run from Celtic to modern charismatic to ancient constables, and who don’t all worship on a Sunday. Of the non worshipping two thirds, older people, early music, clubbers, stained glass centres, archaeology and art fill the near white limestone walls. There are interesting nonconformists and the decidedly ebullient plain clothes free range Catholic nuns at Bar Covent. Mind the relics hidden in the chapel.
The 2010 film Crimefighters made York into a black and white Gotham, subverting the familiar Shambles, snickleways and Minster into a critique of CCTV. You’d think a place which was voted the world’s most photogenic city would lend itself to cinematic backdrop, yet this claims to be the only York set feature film.
Along with Norwich, York is the biggest of England’s true cathedral cities, which means more to see and more to do – and not just in terms of heritage attractions, of which York is superlative. I think that after London, only Edinburgh and perhaps Liverpool have as many museums. York has a national museum and its castle one keeps you quiet as long as London’s big ones. You can ride on cars into Saxon sewers, watch chocolate being made, see what got dug up, climb up towers to learn of the deeds of kings… for York truly does get entangled with important national history in away that few non capitals do.
“The history of York is the history of England”
But the history of York is also mine.
I don’t think that York’s nightlife is quite as broad as its day attractions: brilliant shops (some chains have shrunk), lots of places to eat and drink, from traditional tearooms to long established bistros, veggie cafes and a Spanish run vegan restaurant; even some of the chains employ interesting buildings such as Italian restaurant Ask in the columned Assembly Rooms. Some establishments can look back a century of teamaking, some to the 60s and a certain band – whose visit they still ride off. But there’s only two main theatres (both Victorian) and two with a smaller programme, one of which is out of the centre. There’s only 8 cinema screens in central York, with another 9 at the designer shopping village. The central ones are more interesting and they get their own mention on my cinema blog. I couldn’t find a music venue save the Early Music centre in St Margaret’s Church, and obviously what the Minster puts on – the only pop music was emanating from the church next door, outdoing a pub. Not a huge amount of clubs, not that I miss them, and most are around Micklegate or Coney Street – including one in a church.
It’s not just the discovery of an ever wider range of buildings, the grit alongside the gloss, the essence of England that makes me drawn to York. It is not just this country’s history, it is the place it has in my own, and I feel at the cusp of a new eon.
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