Meander round the Minster

25th July 1997 at 01:00
Anyone planning a tour of their home town will find themselves looking at the place through fresh eyes. A focus on the places you pass through every day can make the town and its history come alive.

Living in York, as my family did before moving to the North Yorkshire Moors, I had always taken the city's medieval streets, Roman and Viking remains and Victorian splendour in my stride. I was appreciative but absorbed it into the everyday.

Only when you start to plan the simplest tour as a visitor do you realise how truly wonderful it is - a beautiful and compact city enfolding layer upon layer of history, alive with stories and ghosts of the past and encircled by a near-complete medieval wall with towers and ramparts.

Children demand you start with the walls. Whenever I return to York, that's where my children want to be, climbing up the uneven steps, looking through the ramparts, imagining themselves ancient soldiers, kings and queens, fugitives, Robin Hood - or simply enjoying the panorama and the bird's eye view of street life.

So this walk, which uses up a good afternoon, follows about half of the wall and some of the more fairytale medieval streets. It also takes in a respectable number of ruins from the time of Christ to the Middle Ages.

We start at Baile Hill on Skeldergate, only a short distance from St George's Field car park on the other side of the River Ouse, or a 10-minute walk from the railway station. The hill, which in 1068 was the site of a motte and bailey, affords views of Clifford's Tower, its sister fortification and symbolic reminder of the Normans' harrowing of the north.

It is also a grim relic of the city's darker history - incarcerated and under siege, the Jews of York committed suicide here in the 12th century. You also have a direct view of the Castle Museum, once the debtors' prison, where Dick Turpin was an inmate before his execution.

Turning away from such turbulent history, follow the wall north-west around Bishophill, a Victorian village built for railway workers, towards Micklegate Bar (in York, bars are gates and gates are streets - a confusion left by the Vikings).

Children love to look at the little cottages and can enjoy wonderful views of the Minster and other spires and towers that have dominated the skyline since the Middle Ages. From the vantage of the wall it is fun to imagine the lantern tower of All Saints, lighting the way for travellers coming to the city through the forested vale of York. Or picture the church of St Mary's Bishophill, with its Anglo-Saxon tower built out of Roman ruins, standing amid fields.

Passing through Micklegate Bar, the royal gateway where heads of traitors were once exposed, the Victorian splendour of York railway station, with its dramatically curving platforms and decorative iron frame, comes into view just outside the walls.

The wall breaks at Lendal Bridge, the site of a ferry across the River Ouse. Children walking across the bridge can conjure a vision of the Viking longships that would have come up this river, once directly navigable from the sea.

Past the medieval Lendal water tower, turn into the Museum Gardens, a treasure trove of historical sites. There is always something to explore, whether it be the tombs of medieval St Leonard's hospital, the 11th-century ruins of St Mary's Abbey, or the remaining tower of the Roman legionary fortress of Eboracum. Behind this runs a labyrinth of ancient remnants of tower, wall and embankment - layer upon layer of fortification from the 1st century AD, through the Dark Ages, Viking York and onwards.

From here, take a path to the right, past the side of the Yorkshire Museum through to the front of the King's Manor where Charles I stayed during the Civil War. Walking past the City Art Gallery and across the road, pick up the wall again at Bootham Bar, to start one of the most glorious and dramatic stretches - round the back of the Minster, taking in its maze of gardens, its library, deanery and Treasurer's House.

We leave the wall at Monk Bar and go down the narrow, dark, steep steps to Goodramgate. This leads back towards the Minster, and we turn right into College Street and Minster Yard to rest in the large, reasonably-priced and airy cafe of St William's College (1461).

Leaving the gardens at the front of the Minster, we meander through the medieval streets of Petergate and the higgledy-piggledy Shambles. Turning right along Coppergate we take a left into Coppergate Walk past the Jorvik Viking Centre, and cut through to Castlegate, and back full circle to Clifford's Tower, the Castle Museum and the view across the Ouse to Baile Hill.

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