York by Train – A Short Break in God’s Own Country
Visitors to London often ask where else in England they should travel. Less than two hours direct from the old smoke by train and en-route to Edinburgh, York is a deservedly popular destination. It was actually the UK’s first UNESCO Creative City of Media Arts too, so there’s always plenty to do. From London, there’s an excellent regular and fast train service so you can sit back and enjoy the journey, which takes you through some stunning English countryside before you arrive for your York break.
I travelled with LNER, the organisation that has taken over from Virgin East Coast and despite a packed train (the Edinburgh Festival had just started), the service was seamless and my journey was comfortable. I’d recommend upgrading to first class if you can – that way you will be offered a meal and drinks at your seat together with free wi-fi, power sockets and tables and plenty of space to stretch out. The perfect way to start a short break to York.
Table of Contents
First Impressions of York:
The historic station, a stunning grade II* listed building, is within an easy walk of the City centre and you’ll find it is right next door to the National Railway Museum. Sadly, a packed itinerary for this trip to York meant I didn’t see this particular museum, though I did visit two others. Something not to be missed by any wannabe trainspotter or for that matter, anyone with an interest in transport history, it has over 100 vehicles on display and a collection of around 300 other items of rolling stock. There are a couple of hotels within a stone’s throw of the station, each with a connection to the railway. The original station hotel has been refurbished and is now the Principal, York.
The Grand Hotel and Spa, where I stayed was originally the Headquarters of the North Eastern Railway. Built between 1900 and 1906, it is a stunning Edwardian building. Grade II listed, it is York’s only 5-star hotel and opened in May 2010 after extensive refurbishment.
The Grand has views of the city walls and of York Minster and a lovely traditional British feel to it – the sort of place that is perfect for a short break in York.
There’s a range of room styles from traditional to more contemporary rooms in the modern extension. And there’s a luxurious spa, swimming pool and fitness centre offering ESPA treatments
It also serves some fabulous food – more of that later.
One of the best things about a short break in York for me was that everything in the City seemed to be an easy walk. The result was that I spent a lot of time doing just that. But I’d recommend walking to everyone as the perfect way to catch the detail. If I’d had more time I’d have tried the City Cruises river cruise and the hop on hop off bus. But as it was, I just wore through my shoe leather! Here’s what I’d recommend for a first trip to York.
Make your way to York Minster when you first arrive and walk around the exterior marvelling at the gothic architecture. The two-hour journey from London means that York is a realistic day trip from the capital so from around 11 am to 4 pm you can expect crowds during the summer months.
Try going back a little later in the day – or if you are staying in York, getting up early. The Minster is spectacular when it is drenched in the light at the start of the day and equally beautiful at dusk.
Unless you are visiting to worship, there’s a fee to see inside York Minster. Personally, I’ve been there to sing when the choir school were on holiday, but this time I visited as a tourist.
Of course, it is worth paying, for adults from £10 to £15 depending on whether you want access to the tower and undercroft museum (or free with a York Pass) Had I been there during term time I’d have made a second visit for evensong too. I’m biased of course, I’ve sung evensong on a regular basis at St Martin in the Fields and on an ad-hoc basis at many of the Cathedrals in England. Whatever your spiritual inclination though, it’s a venue that can’t fail to be uplifting. Outside of the services, the interior of the Minster is spectacular, the second largest gothic cathedral in Northern Europe and what you see today was begun in around 1230 and completed and consecrated in 1472.
I particularly loved the Chapter House which was built between 1260 and 1296. The spectacular windows dominated this room. And there were things I noticed for the first time on this, my first visit as a ‘tourist’. The astronomical clock for example, which looks as if it could have been there for centuries, was actually installed in 1955 as a memorial to the airmen operating from Yorkshire, Co. Durham and Northumberland who were killed during the Second World War.
I’d never noticed the tombs either, stunning effigies to the wealthy and famous of the middle ages when York was the second largest city in England and the capital of the North.
And, I hadn’t been down into the crypt of the Minster either where you find everything from the still used today baptismal font to statues and relics dating back in history.
This though was the York I knew. There’s a lot more to see in the City.
York Castle District:
I started my own journey by walking to the Castle district. Given the blazing sunshine, arriving early in the morning was a good move both to miss the tourist throngs and to avoid the climb in the heat. I walked up to the top of Clifford’s Tower where I could get a good feel for York as it would have been. The tower was originally the keep of York Castle and is all that remains of the original building, built by William the Conqueror as one of the two motte and bailey castles he built in York in 1068-69.
At one time the tower was a gaol and held some very famous people, including George Fox, the founder of the Quakers and Dick Turpin, the notorious highwayman.
It was also the site of one of the worst anti-Semitic massacres of the Middle Ages. The Jewish community of York included a number of money lenders. As a number of the local Christian gentry owed considerable sums, they egged on an angry mob, such that the entire community of some 150 people took refuge inside the tower. Many of them chose to commit suicide rather than be murdered or forcibly murdered. After killing their wives and children they set fire to the wooden keep and killed themselves.
Just across from Clifford’s Tower is the Castle Museum. It’s one of a group of three museums in York which offer a fascinating insight into the region back in time. Each has a different perspective. On my short trip, I managed to visit both the York Castle Museum and the Yorkshire Museum. The missing link, the York Art Gallery will have to be something for my next visit.
York Castle Museum still feels quite personal. Originally the collection of Dr Kirk, it’s a unique insight into the changing landscape of life in and around York. By 1918 his collection included everything from perambulators to antique weapons, potato dribblers to a Tudor barge, Victorian hypodermic needles to horse bridles, and it had outgrown his Pickering home and quickly was too large even for the display in Pickering Memorial Hall in the 1920’s.
It was agreed that The City of York would convert the former Women’s prison to house his collection. In 1935 Dr Kirk himself oversaw all elements of the museum’s building work – from the colour of the walls, the layout of the displays, to the heating system and the entrance fee. Historic shopfronts and interiors were restored and reconstructed to create the street that was named after him.
The museum opened on 23 April (St George’s Day) 1938. What you find today is a continuation of that eclectic vision. The original streets are still there but supplemented by later social history sections. And, the current special exhibition, a private collection of Vivienne Westwood shoes is a fitting tribute to Dr Kirk’s vision.
By comparison, the Yorkshire Museum is more in the traditional mould, though, thanks to the rich history of the region, no less fascinating for that. You’ll be able to discover more about life in York dating back to Roman days – when the city was founded in 71 AD as Eboracum – the Capital of what was known as Britannia Inferior. Two Roman Emperors died in York – Septimius Severus in 211 AD, and Constantius Chlorus in 306 AD who has a statue just outside the minster. There’s also a Jurassic World exhibition and a stunning exhibition covering Medieval York when the City was the second largest in Britain and Capital of the North.
The Yorkshire Museum is housed in beautiful gardens leading down to the Ouse. I loved walking around this tranquil space and exploring the picturesque medieval ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey.
The Shambles in York is now full of quirky boutiques, chocolate shops, bars and restaurants, but in Medieval times the area would have been an open-air slaughterhouse and meat market where butchers killed and dressed animals for consumption. The pavements on either side of the street are raised up, this was done to create a channel which the butchers would wash away their waste through; offal and blood would gush down the Shambles twice weekly
Today the Shambles in York is Europe’s most visited street. It is York ‘s oldest street and Europe’s best preserved Medieval street. It really is a very special place though somewhat overwhelmed by Harry Potter shops – apparently, the film designers came to visit when they were looking for inspiration for the design of Diagon Alley.
You’ll also find an assortment of artisan food shops here and throughout the back streets of the City. More of that in my next piece about food in York.
York City Walls:
Looking for a relaxing way to explore the City and avoid the crowds? Try taking a walk around the City Walls. The walls are Grade I listed but, completely different to what you’d normally think of as a ‘scheduled ancient monument’.
It’s completely free to walk roundand you’ll get a unique view of the City. Open from dawn till dusk daily, I checked out the section of wall closest to The Grand Hotel and Spa around Botham Bar on the site of one of the four main entrances to the Roman fortress. The ‘Bars’ are not, as I originally thought, somewhere to get a gin & tonic, but are actually grand medieval fortified gateways.
You get stunning views back to the Minster from the walls and there’s something quite special about looking down on the City as you meander along. You can’t actually cross the Ouse using the wall at this point. But, if you happen to be there at sunset you might just be in for a treat as the sun sets.
York has more miles of intact wall than any other city in England and although the walls were originally constructed in Roman times around 71 AD, what survives today is something of a patchwork. Around half the original Roman walls still exist in part, with the foundations and base forming part of the later Medieval walls.
The Danes occupied York in 867 and by this time the walls were in poor repair. While all the original Roman towers except the Multangular Tower (in the Yorkshire Museum Gardens) were destroyed, the walls were restored. Further building and restoration work was carried out between the 12th and 14th century to encircle the entire Medieval York.
Thinking of visiting York yourself? Why not pin this post for later
This is the first in a series of features on York. There’s a lot more to cover and I’ll be sharing more about the food and about this city’s unique relationship with chocolate in later pieces.
If you are considering visiting York yourself, it’s well worth buying a York Pass which will give you free access to most of the City’s attractions including everything I’ve mentioned in this feature, others like the JORVIK Viking Centre, York Dungeon and York’s Chocolate Story and many more beyond York such as Castle Howard, a free 1-Day City Sightseeing “Hop on Hop off” Bus Tour ticket worth £14, a guidebook and map and some exclusive special offers and discounts. An adult ‘York Pass’ costs £42 a day. You can buy your pass online, by visiting the York Visitor Information Centre, or by emailing email@example.com
I travelled to York as a guest of Visit York. You’ll find a lot more information on their website
I travelled by train direct from London King’s Cross with LNER. The journey by train takes less than 2 hours