Aloof, humorless Brits; dingy gray cities and streets choked with tourists – that’s what I expected to find in the UK. But by the time I had toured Edinburgh, Scotland and visited lovely Newcastle, England, it was obvious how ridiculous those stereotypes were; not only had I found warm, welcoming people, the cities were filled with handsome stone architecture and the countryside was exquisitely green.
As with my previous two destinations, I had chosen York in order to visit a friend. For more than two years I had corresponded with the legendary Mike Sowden, otherwise known as “the guy with the big-ass trowel,” a York-based travel writer who blogs at Fevered Mutterings. There was no way I could leave England without meeting Mike in the flesh, especially since I was less than two hours away by train. The morning after my arrival we rendezvoused at York Minster, a great cathedral in the center of the old city that houses the world’s largest single expanse of medieval stained glass. Big-hearted Mike brought along two other visitors from Australia and the three of us spent the entire day and part of the night following Mike around as he peeled away layers of history and exposed York as only a trained archaeologist can. Mike worked for a few seasons on various digs, got his undergraduate degree in archaeology at the University of York in 2004, and promptly left archaeology behind, but not before becoming somewhat of an expert on York.
The history of the city begins in 71 AD when Romans invaded and subdued what is today northern England. They built a fort between the rivers Ouse and Foss and within a few years ships were sailing up the Ouse with merchandise, attracting craftsmen and merchants who settled the town of Eboracum. By the 3rd century a protective stone wall had been built, wealthy people were constructing grand houses with mosaic floors, and public buildings such as a baths began to appear. One of these, a Romancaldarium (steam bath), was discovered during routine construction at the Roman Bath Pub in 1970. The resulting excavation uncovered a well-preserved semi-circular bath with steps at both ends and a nearby plunge pool. Actual footprints and an insignia of a Roman legion; believed to be that of the famous 9th legion that founded the town, are imprinted in the tiles surrounding the bath, which is preserved in a museum beneath the pub.
Roman civilization began to break down in the 4th century and York was all but abandoned. The town fell into ruins and was forgotten for more than three hundred years, until it was given a bishop who built a cathedral inside the old walls. It’s ideal location as a trading place attracted Saxons, who revived the town in the 8th century. By the mid-9th century the town, thought to be named Eofer’s wic (wic meant trading place), was once again flourishing.
The year 866 brought about another transition. Danish Vikings conquered northern England and made York the capital of their kingdom. The city (Jorvik to the Danes) grew rapidly and became a thriving industrial center for wool weaving, blacksmiths, potters, and the manufacture of items such as combs from bone and antler. By 1066 its population may have been as high as 10,000.
In 1068, two years after the Norman Conquest of England, the people of York rebelled. The revolt was put down by William the Conqueror, who immediately built two wooden fortresses on hillocks that are still visible on either side of the river Ouse. Present day Cliffords Tower was built in the mid-13th century to replace the keep of the main castle which burned in 1190. At the end of the day I gazed up at that stone monolith, outlined in sharp relief against the azure night sky by gleaming yellow spotlights, and wondered at the history encased within its ancient walls.
As if we hadn’t abused him enough with our myriad questions, Mike invited the three of us to accompany him on a circumvention of the city’s medieval walls the following day. York has more miles of intact wall than any other city in England. Though many refer to them as the Roman walls, little of the original Roman stonework remains and the course has been considerably altered since Roman times. Most of the walls that still encircle the entire old city date from the 12th to the 14th century. We trod the ramparts for hours, descending to the road in spots where the old wall no longer exists or to have a better look at the four main bars (gatehouses) that punctuate the wall.
Bootham Bar, Monk Bar, Walmgate Bar and Micklegate Bar were used in medieval times to restrict traffic and collect tolls, as well as providing stations for defense during times of war. We rested our weary feet on the second floor a coffee shop inside of the ancient Walmgate Bar, wondering at the crazy tilted staircase and not just a little worried that the cantilevered structure attached to the city wall, supported only by two flimsy pillars, could pitch to the ground at any moment. The highlight of our trek was the final segment of the wall, which had no modern guardrails and afforded us spectacular views toward York Minster, an enormous filigreed wedding cake towering over the city.
Our final descent conveniently led to a pub where we had refreshments with locals winding down after their workday. We didn’t stay long; after the serenity of our wall walk, which was largely devoid of people, the crazed energy of the pub was too much to take. As Mike walked me back to my hostel he asked what other cities I had visited in the UK and I informed him that this had been my first visit to England and I’d only come to Newcastle and York. He literally stopped in his tracks and looked at me with astonishment.
“You mean you haven’t been to London?” he asked.
“Nope. And I won’t be going there, at least not on this trip.”
After a heartbeat or two, he complimented me on my choices. “So many tourists visit only London and then think that it represents all of England.” Due to the number of tourists that the city receives, Londoners can apparently be somewhat indifferent and unfriendly.
I will definitely visit London some day soon, but there’s no way it can alter my view of England as a delightful country filled with friendly people and fascinating history. People like my friend Mike Sowden.