Wondering and Wandering in York

A Brief History:

The city of York is walled and is situated on the confluence of the two rivers, Ouse and Foss. In the past, the city has been known by various names starting from the Latin name Eboracum. Anglicans later changed the name to Eoforwic in the 7th Century. Under the Danish conquest, the city became Jórvík. Once the Normans conquered it, the name was however gradually reduced to the short and handy York.

However, you can still see the old names being used somewhere or the other. For example, an exhibition by the name of Jorvik that has been put up at the site where remains of the Viking city of Jórvík were found. The Archbishop of York still uses ‘Ebor’ as his surname in his signatures.The city has also seen various settlements starting from the Mesolithic people from 8000 to 7000 BC and since then has seen many periods of decline and rise.

Creative Writing students get more vacations than others probably to allow their creativity to flow freely. We decided to use these vacations to see more of England. Some who had already seen it did not mind re-seeing it. So, in January 2011, we took an early train out of Newcastle to York so that we could start our day well in time. The decision made sense because a lot of places in England open at 8 in the morning and close at 5 in the evening. So three writers, Kelsey, Hannah, and myself, deprived of our customary 10 hours of sleep, dragged ourselves to the station at the first hint of daylight. We were not really at our pleasant best. But the train journey through lush, green hills dotted with white and black sheep and placid ponds with swans and ducks dragged us out of our grumpiness. The weather, surprisingly, was pleasant, which in Uk terms means that it wasn’t snowing and the temperature wasn’t sub-zero.

And by the time the train eased into the tiny York station, our mood had improved considerably. But the exploration had to wait because we were all starving. So we went out in search of a good place to have a hearty breakfast in. On crossing the bridge over the river Ouse, we came across a very cute sandwich shop, which according to its own board was the “Best Sandwich Shop in York”. Something, a.k.a. the price list, told us that this wasn’t a good place to eat so we reluctantly wandered forward in search of food. And soon we came across a cheaper sandwich shop where we had our coffee and Paninis. Not the ideal breakfast, but reasonable and filling. If you are travelling in the UK, you should set aside a minimum of 5 GBP for each meal, which might sound too much if one converts it into INR but UK is not a cheap country.

Hartley’s – The Best Sandwich Shop in York

With our appetites appeased, we started with our exploration on foot. We had 4 hours before Hannah’s cousin, Charlotte, who studies in York was supposed to meet us. The first target was the famous Yorkminster. The overwhelming, towering cathedral is visible from almost the whole of York so it wasn’t difficult to spot. The street leading up to it was quaint with pretty buildings on both the sides. Up close, the astounding Gothic architecture juts out into the sky and the building overshadows everything around it. When we reached it though, the main gate was closed because the morning service was in progress. However, we didn’t realize this and assumed that we had arrived at the wrong entrance. In our defence, no board had been put up anywhere to indicate as much. So in order to find the ‘right’ entrance, we did a parikrama of the entire building. By the time we completed the round, the service was over and the main door had opened.

The York Minster Up Close

Entry to the Cathedral is free for those who come to light a candle or to offer prayers. However, for those who come for sight-seeing there’s a charge. And since we were amongst the latter, we were debating about whether to pay to go in. After a quick peek inside, we decided that it looked very much like the Durham Cathedral and since all three of us had seen Durham Cathedral, we decided to spend our money elsewhere. And here’s an observation for students who want to save money – while many of the big and famous Cathedrals charge money for admission, there are smaller, if not as famous, churches everywhere that don’t. And some of these are at least as beautiful if not more. Anyways, after taking some pictures outside the cathedral, we moved on.

St. Michael le Belfrey Church besides the York Minster

St. Wilfrid’s Church

Next we proceeded towards the Castle Museum. And on the way we came across a dilapidated tower kind of structure on a small hill. By no means short of time, we decided to explore it and climbed up the tedious stairs. The tower turned out to be the Clifford’s Tower, which was actually the keep of the original York Castle. To digress a bit, one major problem in the UK is the amount of small change you accumulate in no time. And it tends to make your wallet very heavy. It is difficult to do away with the change because of the number of people you alienate if you stand in front of a long queue counting each penny to make a payment. So when the person at the ticket counter of the Clifford’s tower kindly noticed the amount of weight I was carrying in my wallet and suggested that I pay her entirely in pennies, I felt like worshipping her for the rest of my life. I counted the change to make a payment of 3.50 GBP while Hannah and Kelsey stared at me in disbelief. I know I lost a lot of respect back then. But at least I was change-free and my wallet was lighter (which was a good thing just this once).

Clifford’s Tower

Inside the Tower

After paying the reasonable admission fees, we entered the structure and discovered that two of us had fear of heights. Here’s a hint to help you guess who those two were – I was not one of them. However, we decided to give it a shot and went all the way up to the top of the tower. While Hannah and Kelsey climbed down in a hurry, I took a walk along the wall, which was pretty run down at places. I came down with some good photographs of the view only to find Hannah and Kelsey engrossed in a plastic sword fight outside the souvenir shop. After shaking my head in disapproval at their childish antics, I joined in the sword fight. After that we moved on to trying of weird hats. The store owner was understandably annoyed by the time we left. I bought a chocolate bar from her shop to soothe her nerves a bit. But I think the only nerves it soothed were mine.

Sword Fight

We now proceeded to another part of the original York Castle that is still in use. It serves as the castle museum. And this is one entry fees that I feel is totally worth it. We weren’t disappointed. The museum was pretty amusing. In one section, a lot of old products and ad-campaigns were showcased. I was surprised to find old packaging of some of the contemporary leading brands, for example, Lux and Persil. The museum also had a creepy underground section where they had recreated an old English city with medieval fashions, shops, and buildings. The section wouldn’t have been creepy if it hadn’t looked so real. Soundtracks of footsteps on the street, men talking in pubs, and women laughing added to the spookiness mostly because there was no one around. We got out of there in a hurry only to land up in the jail.

The jail was, if possible, scarier than the fake city. It had dungeons with almost no light. I entered the first cell and almost jumped out of my skin when a rasping male voice started narrating the story of how he had ended up in prison. And when I turned to get out of cell, I was startled to see the reflection of a man on the wall. But then Hannah tickled the nose of the ghost and the situation suddenly turned funny. Still it wasn’t pleasant to be there. The most morbid section of the museum was called “Cradle to Grave” which showcased clothes and carriages used at birth and at death.

Tickling a Ghost’s nose

Reconstruction of the Old York

Old Products with familiar names

By the time we were done with the museum, it was one o’clock and we still had some time before we had to meet Charlotte. And we were hungry once again. We stuffed ourselves with pasties and immediately realized that we should have gone for something lighter. At some point during the day we crossed the Shambles, which is an old street of York which was earlier famous for its butchers. However, the butchers have vanished now. But the buildings still stand and are also in use. We also came across Ye Olde Starre Inne which is the oldest pub in York dating back to the 17th century. It is steeped in History. The building had once served as a hospital and even as a morgue. Now it is more of a regular pub and isn’t even actually a tourist attraction.

Streets in York

Charlotte met us in front of the iconic Betty’s coffee shop and we decided to go in even though we weren’t even remotely hungry. While every one else ordered coffee, tea, or cake, I ordered ice cream. Big mistake! lesson: if you go to a coffee-house, order coffee, tea, or cake or even sandwiches in some cases. But ice cream is usually not their thing. I was barely able to finish it. Or it could even be because I was eating when I really didn’t need to eat.

It was two by the time we were done with Betty’s and we were running out of ideas now. York is a very small city. It can be covered on foot thrice in one day. We remembered that we had seen some ruins near the station in the morning. We decided to head there and explore. It turned out to be the Museum Gardens, not to be confused with the Castle Museum because these two are not anywhere near each other. The gardens stretch out on the banks of the River Ouse and have evidence of Roman as well as medieval architecture. The most striking feature of the gardens is St. Mary’s Abbey, right next to which you can also find the Apse of the Norman Church. This is one place where you can clearly see the layers of time stacked on top of each other. We also discovered an old cemetery nearby and we spent a few minutes gazing at the gravestones. The sight was beautiful and peaceful.

Approaching the St. Mary’s Abbey

Sun setting behind the Abbey

Apse of Norman Church

River Ouse – Flooded in Winters

The log-like horizontal structure in the middle of the water is the top of a bench on the banks.

After paying a short visit to the City art gallery next to the garden, we said goodbye to Charlotte. One could walk on the city wall to reach the station so we decided to go for it. We covered a bit of a distance and then decided that we did not really want to fall down into the traffic below. So we got down at the nearest possible place and took the road back to the station with almost 1.5 hours to spare before our train arrived.

York at 4:30 PM

Walking on the City Wall

And then it started raining and the temperature dipped. We were now back to grumpiness with a vengeance. To make matters worse, right next to us was a little aquarium full of Goldfish, one of whom wasn’t feeling very well. We were sure that it was going to die right in front of us. Unable to tear our eyes away from the poor fish, we kept on urging it to keep swimming. Thankfully, it did not quit trying. And once it was time to board the train, we wished the fish good luck and took leave of the city. This was the first trip together for the three of us and fortunately we did not hate each other by the end of it. We are still trying to get on each other’s nerves though. One of such attempt was in Edinburgh, which will be covered in the next story.
Lessons Learnt:

1. Actual Distances in the UK are a fraction of what they appear on the map.
2. If you want to discover what is unique in each city of the UK, you have to know what you are looking for. For example, you will not be able to notice the difference in architecture if you don’t know the identifying features and the predominant architecture of the place. So if you don’t do your research, you have no rights to say that “All cities in the UK are the same.” Because they are not.
3. Go easy on food. It is better to have light food more often than heavy food twice a day. If you’re walking you’d need to eat but heavy food will make you lethargic.


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  • Aditya says:

    Hi Vibha!

    An excellent writeup with beautiful pictures…. I especially loved the compositions of ‘River Ouse – Flooded in winters’ and ‘Sun setting behind the Abbey’. Waiting for your next such attempt to Edinburgh….



  • Nandan says:

    Good one Edi. Your Profs would be happy to read this. Send them the link :-)

    I think it is time, you guys give more importance to the parikrama, its a right opp for you to leave this practice their for fellow britons to follow. Tell them that this is the way to get out of poor economic times, do 3 cicrum-ambulations of a place of worship before getting in. I think you just did something out of ignorance and it is going to become a rage in coming times. You are very close to defining a historical shift the way religion is observed.

    I have been to London, that too for just two weeks and I also gathered a lot of heavy change. Send that lady a Thank you note or at least this link :-)

    It was delightful to read and has much more humor, I liked the ‘walking on the wall’ thing a lot. :-)

    Look fwd for Edinburgh and wishes for Hannah and Kelsey.

  • jaykakarla says:

    Hi Vibha, A vey good trip report. Things are very expensive in UK. But there are many places/ galleries which are free. If you google for events in a particular city, you can get all free entrances available. Actually one can see a lot of places free, if you try.

    • Vibha says:

      Thanks Mr. Kakarla,

      Actually looking up google is the first thing we do. And the Art Gallery that we covered the last was a free one. However, most of the beauty of UK lies in its natural beauty and Architecture. I love observing that. Glad you liked the article.

  • Chandra81 says:

    Hey V
    Don’t take it otherwise but…since you are a student of creative writing …I expected more of a travelogue than a travel guide…would love to read about some flight of fantasy when you do make your trips.

    • Vibha says:

      Hey Nikhil, Thanks for reading the story. When I write a travel story, my intention is to share some information about the place as well as my personal experience of it. That may not be everyone’s piece of cake, but then everyone has their own preference. I respect your opinion though.

      Keep reading and writing. Ghumakkar appreciates variety.

  • VJ SHARMA says:

    Hey Vibha,

    Thanks for taking us to virtual tour of York with lovely photographs !!! I really enjoyed each bit of the story and looking forward to more stuff from UK :)

  • Shubhra says:

    so it’s not me alone accumulating chillar…always wonder how in these countries there is no dearth of cents/pence… (I was surprised when I first experienced the 99p shops in UK diligently returning 1 pence..) while in India getting change is always a struggle !

    Loved to visit the York city through your flowing and smile inducing post !

    I seriously hope that the goldfish survived !

  • Kelsey says:

    Awesome article, Vibs. When you’re not busy working on the d-word, WRITE ABOUT EDINBURGH! I want to see pictures of Martin, our hotel, us getting lost, etc.

    • Vibha says:

      Thanks Kels. Part of the reason that this article is awesome is because you guys are awesome. Edinburgh will come soon. Send me pictures of Martin if you have them. I don’t think I have any. But the article won’t be complete without them.

  • Hannah says:

    Lovely article as usual Vibs!

    You did a fab job of describing York and the pictures are beautiful (especially the sunset behind the Abbey). I completely forgot about the poor fish, hope he just kept swimming. I’ll be sure to pass the link to this on to Charlotte, think she’ll get a kick out of what you thought of her university city. :)

  • Vibha says:

    Thanks Han! Can’t wait to write about Edinburgh. We’ll have biscuit in it too. Send me pics of Martin if you have some. Love travelling with you guys!

  • maheh semwal says:

    Very Good !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Pictures looks like hand made painting.

  • Vibha says:

    Thanks Mahesh. By the way, you seem to have been away for some time. Saw some pictures of South Africa on your wall. How was your trip?

  • Manojkecy says:

    Vibha Ji,

    Good Day.

    Beside story pictures are really very good.



  • D.L.Narayan says:

    …at least I was change-free and my wallet was lighter (which was a good thing just this once) Priceless, Vibha… I don’t think that you really needed that PG course in creative writing, unless it was a creative excuse for a year-long vacation in Newcastle :-)

    Reminds me of a visit to the catacombs of Alexandria (Egypt) when I was at the receiving end…the clerk there burdened me with a ton of coins. When I asked for paper instead, she just threw a take-it-or-leave-it look at me. I got my revenge soon after when I unloaded all the metal on a hapless waiter at a restaurant and walked away ignoring his murderous looks; he wasn’t too sure how much he was tipped. I didn’t short-change him, I promise. ;-)

  • Vibha says:

    Thanks DL.

    I think they should figure out a solution for the change. And the solution should not be to round up all costs to the next pound. :)

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      Now I know why they call their money “Pound”; it sure does weigh a lot.

      The solution, probably is to accept plastic; they get their pence and we keep our wallets light.

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