A-Z of England: Y is for York
September has been the driest on record. Only a fifth of the expected rain has fallen, leaving the trees dry and scattering leaves to the softest breeze; and me, free to enjoy this Indian summer of travels. The sunrise promises a fine day. The sky is bluer than I can remember and I’m going to one of my favourite cities. And I’m going the way I first travelled there as a fifteen year old. I’m going by rail. In those days I went for the cheapest ticket I could get. Today I do pretty much the same and, thanks to the strange quirks of advance booking, that turns out to be a first class ticket. I’m off to York and this time I’m travelling at the front of the train.
Chesterfield station is a quiet place. Announcements are being made regarding delays and cancellations to London bound trains “due to a person hit by a train”. People are subdued by the thought that somebody has chosen to end their life that way. Many are quietly fuming at the selfishness of one depressed person causing delays to so many in such a hurry. Modern travel doesn’t bring out our most human qualities. I’m quiet because I’m enjoying a cinnamon swirl and a cup of coffee. My first class ticket even includes the bus from home and a meal on the train if I want one. My train is coming from Plymouth and is not delayed.
On board I’m poured a cup of coffee and given a stem ginger biscuit and asked if I’ll be dining with them today. I’m still full from a Wednesday night with the family, eating cheese pie and home made biscuits. I sip the coffee and slip the ginger snaps into my bag. The coach is as comfortable as you’d want a coach to be. A trolley goes past after every station with free drinks and eats and another follows to tidy up any litter. There isn’t a grumpy person in sight and I’m free to read undisturbed and very happy.
Through Sheffield, Wakefield Westgate and Leeds. York station is brighter, busier, cleaner than it was in the 1970s. There is a bar selling craft beers which seems to have a policy of only serving beautiful people. I’m tempted to go in and sit with them but fear I may stand out. Why didn’t they have bars like this when I did drink beer? Back then it was a warm pint of Youngers IPA in a glass you could scrape the crud off with your thumb nail. Not everything has got worse in the modern world. Children may not read books anymore and grannies may have tattoos on cleavage that you really wish was safely out of sight, but there are good bars and restaurants if you are prepared to look for them. And that is something that is new.
There are many buildings in the city that would stand out anywhere else but there is only one building that stands out in York. If you go to the top of Sutton Bank, 25 miles to the north, you can see York Minster. There are few places in the city that are not dominated by it. Yet it is a beneficent domination. It looks over its flock benignly and with grandeur. One of the best views is on the approach from the station. It is around this point that you realise that you need to take photographers into consideration. Everybody has a camera in their pocket and anything that captures the imagination is snapped. If it is beautiful, or in any way spectacular, it has to be snapped with your back to it, smiling graciously at your own phone held at arms length. It’s a process that focusses the mind and makes people momentarily forgetful that they are sharing the pavement with a few hundred others.
York is busy. York is always busy. It’s the reason I occasionally turn down the chance to visit. You’ve got to be in a crowd tolerant mood and that isn’t always my strongest feature. If you have a passing knowledge of the place though, you’ll find that it has its share of quiet backwaters. On this sunny Thursday lunchtime it is the locals who have sought out refuge in the Museum Gardens. The small cluster, seeking the best pose in front of the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, are from Japan. The contented couples parked on benches, and those suited and sandwiched, are from the city. Young mothers chat while children play. Children go free in the Yorkshire Museum where you can discover York’s Viking past without the Jorvik queues or explore millions of years of extinctions in an exhibition designed for enquiring young minds.
There’s plenty to do without going much further. You can take a boat out on the river, visit the observatory or have a meal in The Star Inn the City a restaurant that is gaining a following among those who like their food cheffy and Yorkshire at the same time. I’m not sure it’s a winning combination. I tend to avoid places that serve your bread rolls in a flat cap.
I exit out the back of the park and into Exhibition Square with the intention of visiting the Art Gallery, but it is undergoing renovation. There are two sorts of “renovation” of galleries. Essential structural work in order to allow the galleries to continue as they have always been; lovely rooms hung with impressive paintings; or modernisations designed to “bring the arts to a whole new audience”. This often consists of burying the true art beneath someone’s idea of accessibility to the point of destroying what made it worthwhile in the first place. Nothing dates so quickly as a modernised gallery. Be very sceptical about any exhibits that proclaim themselves, “hands on”. I’m sure they won’t ruin the York City Gallery. It would be a great pity if they did. It’s where I first took a liking to strolling among paintings.
The square is an example of the richness of York’s heritage. The art gallery may be closed but within 40 yards you have the Theatre Royal (a gem of a theatre and where I got into the habit of buying a ticket and losing myself for two hours), Bootham Gate (one of the finest of the city’s medieval gates which, as well as being quite something in itself, also gives you access to the glorious mile and a half walk around the walls). The De Grey Rooms (elegant Georgian building where the young Simon spent too much of his youth drinking Theakston’s bitter and talking to actors about Shakespeare), The King’s Manor, an ancient set of buildings which despite being part of York University still invite you in to have lunch in the refectory among the students.
A mere stride beyond this takes you up High Petergate where you come face to face with the magnificent front of the Minster. There is something rather touching at the number of tourists, who betray a previously concealed attachment to the deity as they exclaim, “Oh, My, God!” There are few more arresting sights in England.
Don’t expect to race through the doors. Many are happy to pay the £10 entry fee that gives you access to the church and the magnificent exhibitions in the undercroft (built in the seventies when structural work prevented the whole church from sinking into the marsh on which it was built). Plenty more visitors decide that “When you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” and linger around the door with their ten pounds, remaining firmly, in their pockets and a queue forming trying to get past them.
The best way to experience any church is to attend a service and I come back at five for choral evensong. You don’t have to pay to attend (though most are happy to make a donation) and you get the full glory of the cathedral doing what it does best. The choir and organ are worth it alone. I have a faith and take part in the readings and prayers. The place has a way of overwhelming you and even those who came to add it to their bucket list find themselves joining in with the responses. Several hundred attend each service and they all come out slightly different people.
Some of the best oases of calm are to be found around the Minster (correct name “The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York”). The front and side of the building are always thronging but, if you go around the back you’ll enter quiet parks and some of the handsomest buildings in the city.
I buy lunch at Bettys (there are two in York) and take this to Clifford’s Tower where I enjoy a quiet picnic on the grass. School and College parties tend to use this as a gathering ground before and after visiting the Castle Museum. They all come out impressed. The museum takes you into the past in a way that feels as though you have really been there. I love the more recent past and wonder how they managed to get our front room in there from Christmas 1962 (except we didn’t have a telly).
York is special. It would take months to uncover all of its history. This is where Constantine was declared Emperor of Rome, where Guy Fawkes was born and where Dick Turpin died. There is more medieval stained glass in the great east window of the minster than in the rest of England combined. The place is magnificent in its antiquity while remaining a twenty first century place to live and work. I prefer to take it a day at a time and am happy to allow the evening sun to lead me back to the station and a big comfortable seat on a train going south. York is a railway town. This is a very York way to travel home.