In the magnetic North

11th August 1995 at 01:00
Arnold Evans finds himself surrounded by superlatives in York, on this week's leg of his Britannic odyssey.

They don't shy away from superlatives in York. It has the the largest gothic cathedral "north of the Alps"; the long-est town wall in Britain; a Merchant Adventurers' Hall that's "the finest in Europe"; the country's best-preserved medieval street and more Norman churches than any town other than London and Norwich. It's home to the largest railway museum in the world, a spectacular model railway ("York's biggest smallest attraction"), the country's biggest folk museum of everyday life and the Jorvik Centre which promises visitors "the most exciting journey in a thousand years".

But leave them all for later, and make a bee-line for Betty's. Although of no great interest to antiquarians (except for those with a penchant for Welsh rarebit and brimming cake-stands), Betty's has rightly become a legend in its own lunch time. It is precisely what a tea-room ought to be: smiling waitresses in starched pinnies and a menu that's more riveting than a John Grisham novel.

If you have an article to write, however, avoid sitting next to a Thora Hird intent on giving an unsolicited demonstration of northern bluntness. "Go to places and write them up for newspaper? That's a proper job?" I'm suddenly racked by self-doubt. Scribbling superlatives in a reporters' notebook is hardly man's work, not by Yorkshire standards it's not like hewing coal, or farming the dales or bowling googlies. "I don't see what brings all of you up this way, myself, personally. We're Alicante, us. But, I suppose, if what you've got to do for your job is just look, York's the place."

She's right. Being looked at is indeed what York is for. It has enough historic sites, cobbled courtyards, and impeccably preserved ruins to fill a postcard rack and a population that is increasingly dependent (too dependent) on the tourist trade for its daily crust. In some towns, the visitor can feel in the way. In York, you suspect that if you weren't there, the town which was once the most important in England, would have scarcely any reason to exist.

It's not surprising then that such effort has gone into exposing every nook and corner to public gaze. There's a myriad ways of seeing around on a guided walk, atop an open decked bus, aboard a river cruiser, astride a hired bicycle or self-consciously perched in a horse-drawn trap. And if you hear things going bump in the night it will more than likely be the various crocodiles of visitors on guided ghost hunts colliding down dark alleys. There are half a dozen or more competing ghostbusters plying for trade. You can try anything from Dr Doom's Terror Tour ("chillarious and terrorific") to The Haunted Walk ("no masks, no gimmicks"). It seems that even the dead, in "the most haunted city in Britain" are cashing in on tourism.

Who can blame them? This is, after all, the second most-visited city in England and you won't doubt it as you try to elbow your way down the narrow Shambles, or see the queue lengthening outside the Jorvik Centre. Keep an eye out for the school parties being frog-marched from one major site of historical interest to the next: Clifford's Tower, Fairfax House ("one of the finest 18th century townhouses in England"), Dick Turpin's tombstone or the obligatory walk around the walls. ("Can we run, sir? Please, sir") The city also buzzes with the Americans who have included York in one of those eyeball-numbing tours that has already raced them through London, Stratford and Oxford. They'll be at Loch Ness by tomorrow, and so have to tackle York at a trot. I saw them rushing through the 700 years of history in the awesome Minster like challenged Annekas. "You do the south transept, honey, I'll cover the crypt."

If I seem more entranced by the tourists than the city itself, it is because they are as much a part of the experience of being here as the history or the architectural splendours. York is a marvellous compendium of photo opportunities and perfect for a good day out. It's no holiday for me, I've got 1,500 words to find, and am now bedevilled by a guilt complex about not having a proper job. I feel I somehow don't measure up to those earlier visitors to York the fearless Roman Ninth Legion, the Viking war lords, the ruthless Normans. Would Ragnar Hairybreeks, Ivor the Boneless or Eric Bloodaxe I'm not making these names up have stopped off for a pot of tea and eclair at Betty's?

"You're not writing me down in that book, are you?". Arnold the Arty-Farty explains that his is a journalistic foray set to reduce Yorkshire to a rubble of words. "Well, you've come to wrong place, haven't you, love. For starters, York is not Yorkshire." She's right. In these busy streets the open spaces of the dales and moors Herriot Country, Heartbeat Country can seem a long way away. So, too, does that other grimy industrial Yorkshire of factories and pitheads.

York's its own place. Dignified. La-di-da. After all, Constantine was declared Emperor of Rome here. Leeds or Sheffield, might be very fine cities but they can't claim to be in that league. Nor, for that matter, does "Richard of Barnsley" quite have the ring that could resonate down the centuries. From the time of the Roman conquest to the terrors of the Civil War, the city was in the thick of things. At one time or another, it has offered shelter to virtually every royal personage from King Canute to Fergie. "The history of York", George VI said, "is the history of England".

Indeed its streets are nothing less than a history book. Not one with fine print and foot notes but the pop-up variety: every corner opens onto a new page, and another surprise. Because York missed out on the industrial revolution it has never been disfigured by heavy industry. An amazing number of old buildings have remained standing simply because there was never any reason to take them down. The incongruous uses to which some are now put adds to the charm: an old prison cell is now a sandwich bar; the Yorkshire Club, once the exclusive domain of paunch-bellied aldermen and other worthies has been taken over by Pizza Express.There are remains of Roman Baths in other cities, but where else will you find them conveniently placed in the cellars of a public house? What's more, "The pub with a tub" the landlord's cheerfully philistine phrase offers genuine "Roman fayre" obviously authentic since the menu is in Latin.

More exciting than the Roman excavations especially for the tourist trade were those of the Viking settlement. Many of the artefacts uncovered are now housed in the Jorvik Centre, one of those museums that can justly claim to be "an experience". You board a car, and drive, as if back in time, through a painstakingly reconstructed Viking village before being disgorged in the gift shop that contains enough booty to satisfy even the most avaricious of marauding school parties.

In comparison, the Richard III Museum is a decidely modest enterprise. Housed in the Monkgate Bar, one of the town's four imposing gateways, it sets out to undo the damage Shakespeare inflicted on Richard's reputation. It's all done with a mischievous good humour. For instance, the year 1483 Richard's annus horribilis is encapsulated in a series of cheeky tabloid front pages. Did he kill the princes in the Tower? You decide and record your verdict with zany comments in the book provided.

It's an odd experience having a bit of fun, courtesy of two murdered little boys and a war-mongering king. But then that's how those who peddle heritage have to package the past: everything has to be conveniently reduced to a series of enjoyable activities "suitable for all the family". In the peculiar atmosphere of bonhomie and well-being generated by tourists united by a common desire to have a good time, it's easy to forget that the great events that shaped York's history were anything but a good time. The souvenir shops of York are only a short bus ride away from Marston Moor, scene of one of the bloodiest battles fought on English soil. The town's picturesque walls have witnessed untold horror and mayhem. Down the centuries, the towers and gateways have been adorned with the rotting heads of the vanquished foe. When twilight falls over the city and it becomes preternaturally silent, you don't need to be on a chillarious ghost hunt to feel the presence of the lives that were squandered by Richard, Hairybreeks, and the rest of that unsavoury list of butchers in the course of proving just how important they were.

I know it's not as manly as hacking limbs, but, on reflection, I'm quite content to sit here in Betty's hacking 1,500 word essays or at least trying to. "When you're through looking at York, love, where you off to look at next?" "Brighton. Sea breezes. Less history". "We tried it down there once. Not a patch on Alicante."

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