Unmasking Four Historic Faces of York on a Trip to England

People & Culture

Cityscape View of York with York Minster in the background, England, UK

One of the UK’s most historic cities, York, will be a highlight of any trip to England that takes in the country’s north. Long the seat of England’s royal family in the region, York has a history going back thousands of years. Traces of Roman and Viking occupation remain today, along with medieval architecture, some of England’s best museums, and looming over it all, York Minster, one of the largest cathedrals of its kind in Europe. Here are four sides of York’s long history that you can explore on your England vacation.

York Minster – England’s Most Majestic Cathedral

Christian Baines - York Minster's stain glass window, York, England, UK (United Kingdom)
Stain glass window at York Minster Cathedral | Photo credit: Christian Baines

A first time visit to York that doesn’t take in York Minster really isn’t a first time visit to York at all. The site of York Minster has been the centre of the city’s spiritual life since Roman times. Since the 7th century, it’s been an anchor for Christianity in England’s north. Of course, you don’t need to be religious at all to appreciate its magnificence, nor the layers upon layers of history on which the modern minster now stands.

York Minster’s history as a religious site begins with the ancient Romans, who established a temple here during their settlement in York around 71 AD. The first Christian presence dates back to the 4th century, but the earliest Christian church on the site was destroyed by fire in 741 AD. It would be the first of many, and each was more impressive than the last, particularly that commissioned by Archbishop Thomas of Bayeux in 1080 AD. This was the first iteration of York Minster built after the Norman invasion, and it was the version that saw the most expansion, until the Minster began to take its current shape.

Several fires have damaged the building since, but York Minster has also enjoyed constant restoration work over the past 200 years, preserving the beautiful building that overlooks York today. This includes the gargantuan task of restoring the Minster’s incredible stained glass windows, many of which have been darkened by years of lead based restoration techniques. The eastern window is also the largest surviving collection of medieval glass in the world, just in case you thought your job was high pressure!

Perhaps the most dramatic restoration came in the late 1960s to early 70s, shoring up the failing foundations beneath the Minster’s central tower. You can learn more about this massive project – and the historic treasures it unearthed – in an underground exhibition beneath the Minster. You’ll even find traces of the original Norman cathedral.

While York Minster charges admission to sightseers, plus an additional cost if you wish to climb the tower, free tours are conducted throughout the day, usually on the hour. These are an excellent way to see the highlights of the Minster on your trip to England, and get the benefit of expert insight into its history in limited time.

York Minster Cathedral in York, England, UK (United Kingdom)
York Minster Cathedral

Wandering the Shambles – The Medieval Legacy of York

While York is a living, constantly evolving British city, some of its streets feel frozen in medieval times. By far the most famous of these is The Shambles, a curious and extremely narrow pedestrian street of buildings that seem to overhang the street below. As a result, The Shambles is probably the single most picturesque street in all of York. It wasn’t always so, as this was once the home of York’s local butchers, where animals were slaughtered and dressed. Look closely for the few meat hooks that remain.

Once you’ve snapped The Shambles, York is a city that was made for endless random exploring. Simply dart down one of the alleys or “Snickelways” to discover more of the city’s well preserved medieval veneer. Keep your mind open to new discoveries and don’t be in too much of a hurry to get anywhere. If your exploration should just happen to take you by York’s Chocolate Story on Kings Square, we won’t judge!

Still very much in use today, though not for their original purpose, are the city’s medieval walls. A walk along these ancient stones offers up a superb view of both the old and new city, all dominated of course by the towers of the Minster. You’ll probably be passed by locals who now enjoy the walls as a picturesque walking or jogging route.

If you’re looking for York Castle, you might be a bit disappointed. Clifford’s Tower is the largest piece of the original structure, though it is worth a visit, on your trip to England, if you’re particularly interested in the town’s medieval period. You might also want to visit the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, an 11th century church behind the Yorkshire Museum.

Christian Baines - The Shambles medieval street, York, England, UK (United Kingdom)
The Shambles medieval street | Photo credit: Christian Baines

Ancient Jorvik – the York of the Vikings

You don’t have to dig too deep to find the remains of York’s rich Viking history. Though the Vikings were far from the first people in the York region – archaeological evidence suggests settlements as far back as 8000 BC – their impact on York remains to this day. Even their language lives on in the street names of York, many of which end in “gate,” the Viking word for street.

For a vivid look at Viking life in York, you can visit the Jorvik Viking Centre, a small museum built over a dig site that has unearthed numerous important finds from this era. Central to the museum is a dark ride featuring animatronic puppets (and the occasional live actor) which takes visitors from the “dig” room to the museum showcasing the area’s Viking treasures. While that might sound a bit too “Disney” for a serious historic attraction, it does help put the museum’s artefacts in context, and livens up what could otherwise be a bit of a dry attraction for young visitors on an England vacation. Don’t worry. There’s no cheesy “theme park ride” dialogue… except for maybe a bit in ancient Norse. Experts on this period in York’s history are on hand throughout the museum to answer any questions, and give informative talks about the artefacts throughout the day.

Christian Baines - Display at Jorvik Viking Centre, York, England, UK (United Kingdom)
Viking display at Jorvik Viking Centre | Photo credit: Christian Baines

A Rich Rail Heritage – Connecting England’s North in Style

If you’ve arrived in York by train, you already know how impressive its railway station is. When it was built in 1877, it was the largest station in the world, serving as the key link between London, the industrial Northeast, and Scotland. The opulence of the neighbouring Grand Hotel almost makes it feel like York is showing off, and for a period of time, it probably was.

If you want to dig deeper into Britain’s rail history however, exit the station on the western side, away from the city, and visit the National Railway Museum. It’s free, and houses a vast display of around 100 rail vehicles from the national collection at any one time. These comes from all over the world, and all but one of them (a 0 Series Shinkansen leading carriage from Japan) is linked to British rail history in some form. You can step inside many of the trains, and in some cases, beneath them to get an eyeful of what makes these beauties tick.

Those with a casual interest can see the whole thing in an hour or two, but train buffs should allow a good half day to at least see most of the exhibits. It goes without saying that this is a fantastic family attraction as well.

Christian Baines - British Rail Museum, York, England, UK (United Kingdom)
British Rail Museum | Photo credit: Christian Baines

Though its days as England’s northern capital may be long behind it, York remains a standout addition to any trip to England, and for history buffs, it’s simply an unmissable piece of England’s puzzle.

For more travel ideas on a trip to England, please visit us at www.goway.com.